The Campaign Spot

Haley Barbour Faces an All-Too Familiar, All-Too Exhausted Accusation

Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi, is increasingly mentioned as a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2012.

The Weekly Standard profiles him this week, and liberal bloggers are spotlighting one section where Barbour discusses segregation and racism in Mississippi in his childhood days. You can sense where this is going, right?

The segment that triggered the brouhaha:

Both Mr. Mott and Mr. Kelly had told me that Yazoo City was perhaps the only municipality in Mississippi that managed to integrate the schools without violence. I asked Haley Barbour why he thought that was so. 

“Because the business community wouldn’t stand for it,” he said. “You heard of the Citizens Councils? Up north they think it was like the KKK. Where I come from it was an organization of town leaders. In Yazoo City they passed a resolution that said anybody who started a chapter of the Klan would get their ass run out of town. If you had a job, you’d lose it. If you had a store, they’d see nobody shopped there. We didn’t have a problem with the Klan in Yazoo City.”

In interviews Barbour doesn’t have much to say about growing up in the midst of the civil rights revolution. “I just don’t remember it as being that bad,” he said. “I remember Martin Luther King came to town, in ’62. He spoke out at the old fairground and it was full of people, black and white.”

Did you go? I asked.

“Sure, I was there with some of my friends.”

I asked him why he went out.

“We wanted to hear him speak.”

I asked what King had said that day. 

“I don’t really remember. The truth is, we couldn’t hear very well. We were sort of out there on the periphery. We just sat on our cars, watching the girls, talking, doing what boys do. We paid more attention to the girls than to King.”

Over at Ace of Spades, Drew M. details how liberal bloggers are pointing out that the Citizens Councils weren’t as benign as Barbour remembers; the story angle and accusation is gradually migrating from the most highly-strung of liberal blogs to the most likely MSM outlets. “It’s as if JournoList is back in action,” he tweets.

Any white Republican who grew up in the South is going to be accused of racism. In fact, there’s quite a bit of evidence to suggest that any Republican running against Barack Obama will be accused of racism, period. Hell, any Republican, running for office, anywhere, at any time, will be accused of racism eventually.

A few factors are working in Barbour’s favor at this moment. First, this is Christmas week, and thus public attention to these sorts of mini-controversies is probably near its annual low. Second, it is easy to grasp the inanity of trying to somehow hold Barbour accountable for the actions of his hometown leaders while he was in his boyhood years. His sin is that, decades later, he remembers his hometown through rose-colored glasses? Don’t most people do that?

Working against Barbour is that he is a distinctly Southern in his drawl and mannerisms, and Southern politicians have a higher bar to clear when it comes to accusations of racism. Because of the experience of slavery and segregation, the South is associated with racism in the minds of a significant chunk of the electorate. The perception may be outdated, false, unfair, and hypocritical, but it is out there. Still, we’ve hit a new low when an interview in which the subject recalls attending a Martin Luther King Jr. speech is the trigger for the accusation of racial animosity.

I’m still not quite sure how the argument against Barbour gets summarized quickly; I think it will be something like, “he fondly remembers the racist Citizens Councils” or something. Of course, all Barbour said was that the Citizens Councils kept the Klan out of the town, and that the business community didn’t want to see violence in response to the integration of schools. Members of the Citizens Councils undoubtedly held reprehensible views, but is anything Barbour said untrue? Is Haley Barbour to be smeared as a racist, once the single most damaging accusation in our society, over this? This comment outweighs everything else he’s done with his life?

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