November 6, 2003

Racism in the Republican Party

Leave it to President Bush to draw attention to the issue that scares his GOP handlers the most: good ol' fashioned racist Republicans. You know who I'm talking about—the old schoolers that just won't go away: Strom, Trent, Orrin. For some reason, the Republican establishment doesn't like too much public attention cast on these guys—preferring it to go instead to the supposedly mainstream "New Republicans" like Rick "Man-on-Dog" Santorum.

But the President's appearances at GOP fundraisers for Mississippi gubernatorial candidate Haley Barbour have refocused attention on a classic pickle of Southern politics: how far can Southern Republicans go in courting the racist vote without provoking censure from the Republican National Committee and the Karl Rove Leviathan Center (a.k.a. White House)?

The recent tribulations of Mississippi Senator Trent Lott raised similar issues. Back in 1948, Strom Thurmond, then the governor of South Carolina, ran for president on a segregationist platform. As Ann Coulter explained in her www.townhall.com column, Thurmond was caught up in this "race nonsense" only because he was running as a Democrat. Coulter reminds us that once Thurmond became a Republican with all the other Dixiecrats, he dropped the "race nonsense." Yes, indeed, Ms. Coulter, Strom Thurmond's Senate career was pursued with a new-found love of black people (so long as they didn't vote or go to school—see Thurmond's "Southern Manifesto," a critique of the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. The Board of Education decision). Last winter, at Thurmond's birthday party, Trent Lott reminisced about Thurmond's 1948 campaign, mentioning how American society would have avoided "all these problems" had they only voted for Strom. Well, this crossed the line and, as we know, Lott was asked to step down from his "majority" leader post. This is why the race issue scares the GOP.

Haley Barbour is the George W. Bush type of people's candidate, everyman's man: he talks the down-home talk about loving Mississippi, while running a lobbyist empire from his D.C. firm, Barbour Griffith & Rogers. But the fact that Barbour has made a career as a spin doctor for big tobacco, New Bridge Strategies (an Iraq War-profiteering company run by former Bush aid Joe Allbaugh), and Microsoft is not nearly as important as the fact that a photo of Barbour appears on the front page of the anti-black, anti-Jewish, anti-immigrant, anti-women, anti-whatever Council of Conservative Citizens' (CCC) website.

The Council calls itself the "true voice of the American right," and, rather humorously, shops a video that purports to explain how the Frankfurt School "gradually introduced political correctness into American culture…" Less benign are columns in support of Holocaust deniers, a feature against Martin Luther King, and an article entitled "in defense of racism." That's right; these are a bunch of proud racists. And they boast a picture of the GOP candidate for governor, Haley Barbour, at their fundraiser barbecue from July 19, 2003.

Seems like a political mess, right? After all, back in 1999, when the media revealed connections between Lott (in addition to a number of other GOPers) and the CCC, the Republican National Committee said: "it appears that [the CCC] does hold racist views. The Republican Party rejects and condemns such views forcefully and without hesitation or equivocation." Yet a few months ago, when the a local paper asked Barbour if he would request the CCC to remove the photo, all Barbour could muster was that racism was "indefensible." Then he let us know what he really thought. "Once you start down the slippery slope of saying ‘That person can't be for me,' then where do you stop?" Barbour said. "Old segregationists? Former Ku Klux Klan like [Senator] Robert Byrd [Democrat-West Virginia]? You know?"

Actually I do: Haley Barbour is afraid of publicly telling a bunch of racists that he doesn't want their support because he fears the "political" ramifications. I guess some people will do anything to win an election. Granted, this isn't as bad as spreading rumors about John McCain's love child, or morphing photos of a disabled veteran into Saddam Hussein (both masterpieces of Rove), but it's pretty bad.

And indeed Barbour does need those racist votes. Despite his professional PR skills and his vast fundraising connections stemming from time served as chair of the Republican National Committee, Barbour has trailed and continues to lag in the polls to the incumbent Democrat Ernie Musgrove. The situation has gotten so dire that the big guns have been called in from D.C. But surely under the glare of the cameras and microphones President Bush and his boss Dick Cheney would have to at least rebuke Barbour…right?

Visits from President Bush on September 12 and October 31 have drawn statements about how Barbour "believes in high standards and raising that bar." And just in case you were wondering, the President tells us that "This isn't just your typical hot air," because he and Barbour have been "friends for a long time." Barbour, the President concludes, "believes in personal responsibility, I know he believes that way." Supreme Commander Cheney clarified things further, saying "We need more people like Haley in public life because he's the kind of man who tells it like it is. He sets the right priorities, and he sticks to them. When it's time for action, you can always count on him to do the right thing."

So I guess Barbour's little tango with the CCC is consistent with the present Republican establishment's notion of "high standards," "personal responsibility," and "the right priorities." This doesn't mean that Republicans are racists, but it does mean that their leaders don't seem very interested in strongly renouncing connections to racists. Just something to keep in mind the next time we hear about how integrity and accountability have returned to the White House.