The Campaign Spot

Haley Barbour, Take Two

Ben Smith of Politico finds an old comment from Haley Barbour that will, I suspect, come to define him:

The context is a 1982 New York Times article on Barbour’s challenge that year to the octogenarian incumbent Democratic Senator, John Stennis. The piece’s tone is almost sneering about Barbour — ” Mr. Barbour, now 34 years old, won renown as a high school linebacker and as a dedicated attender of parties at the state university” — but this is the passage that he’ll get asked about on the campaign trail:

This being Mississippi, race is a factor in the campaign, but mainly because neither candidate has offered much to black voters. The Republicans have tried to remind them that in 1964 Mr. Stennis sponsored legislation to export Mississippi blacks to states that wanted to practice integration.

But the racial sensitivity at Barbour headquarters was suggested by an exchange between the candidate and an aide who complained that there would be ‘’coons’’ at a campaign stop at the state fair. Embarrassed that a reporter heard this, Mr. Barbour warned that if the aide persisted in racist remarks, he would be reincarnated as a watermelon and placed at the mercy of blacks.

A pattern of remarks is a different matter than one off-the-cuff anecdote that suggests a man remembers the elders of his youth through rose-colored glasses. Watermelon jokes are appalling. Perhaps in that time and place the comment was common, but to modern ears, across the country today, it’s an unthinkably obnoxious and racially provocative remark.

I asked earlier, in reference to Barbour remembering his local Citizens Council as anti-Klan, “This comment outweighs everything else he’s done with his life?” Presuming the anecdote of Barbour’s watermelon joke is accurate, it will outweigh everything else he’s done in the eyes of millions upon millions of voters. There’s too much baggage to that remark to dismiss as a momentary stupid slip of the tongue. Even if a racially insensitive remark is said to rebuke another’s racially insensitive remark, with enough examples, the benefit of the doubt is eviscerated.

I stand by my earlier point that the bar for accusations of racism has gotten dangerously low, and that Monday afternoon we saw a disturbing conveyor belt in which Barbour was compared to the worst villains of American history over a lone comment that suggests historical inaccuracy and gauzy hometown sentimentalism, not a deep-rooted hatred or a belief in one group of Americans’ inferiority. Neither inaccuracy nor obliviousness is hate, and neither deserves the same response.

In his comment in the Weekly Standard article, Barbour recalls his town elders as benevolent authority figures, keeping the Klan out and playing a key role in the non-violent integration of the local schools; the historical record paints a much more malevolent picture of the Citizens Council, who opposed the Klan’s methods but not their basic views on racial superiority and the value of segregation.

Couple this with other Barbour comments:

  • Barbour fondly remembering a black classmate at the University of Mississippi in 1965 and recalling his time there as “a very pleasant experience.” The classmate, Verna Bailey, recalls the time quite differently: “I don’t remember him at all, no, because during that time that certainly wasn’t a pleasant experience for me,” she said. “My interactions with white people were very, very limited. Very, very few reached out at all.”

  • His comment that the controversy about commemorating Confederate History Month in Virginia “doesn’t amount to diddly.”

  • His statement that he attended “integrated” schools  — he attended during the 50s and early 60s –  when Mississippi schools were not effectively integrated until 1970.

You can see a pattern emerging: where others in Mississippi experienced a painful, frightening, scarring struggle to recognize and assure the rights guaranteed all Americans, Barbour experienced a pleasant upbringing and was largely unaware of and unaffected by Civil Rights era conflicts as a child and a young man.

It is possible to put this together and make a legitimate argument against Barbour: He is governor of a state that played a central role in the Civil Rights Movement, and yet today sees a long, difficult, sometimes violent, struggle for equal rights as all too easy and driven by consensus. Having seemed oblivious to the hardship and pain of Americans who were denied their God-given rights in the past, a voter might wonder if he would, as president, be properly vigilant against modern examples of Americans unjustly denied their rights.

Of course, Barbour critics skipped all that; his comment was seized upon as ipso facto evidence of racism, and it was open season to denounce him as a racist.

Mississippi was denounced as “the state where politicians actually run ON racism.” The Washington Monthly declared he was “well positioned to wrap up the racist vote.” Wonkette declares he “wants a piece of that 2012 Segregationist Money” and the American Prospect call him “The Good King of White Supremacy.” The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson calls him “beyond appalling.” (Really? “Appalling” is too kind an adjective for him?)

The Monday campaign against Barbour ran on two tracks; outspoken liberals called him racist; more mainstream sources simply emphasized that he’s associated with a racial controversy, which in time will turn into the modifier, “Barbour, who has been accused of racism by critics because of some comments about the South during the segregation era,” and so on. The description becomes the inverse of a Good-Housekeeping Seal of Approval, warding off anyone who might give a Southern Republican the benefit of the doubt. Everyone with good sense, not wanting to be associated with a dreaded racial controversy,  keeps their distance.

By Monday evening, it was done:

Barbour’s Comments Focus Attention on Race

Discussing Civil Rights Era, a Governor Is Criticized

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour Criticized for Downplaying ‘60 Racial Tensions

Before emphasizing that no one can really know, The Economist asks, “IS HALEY BARBOUR a racist?” Of course, if you want to be president, you don’t want major publications asking if you’re racist and then giving any answer other than “absolutely not.”

Does Barbour’s kind interpretation of the Citizens Council make him unelectable? Alone, perhaps not, but coupled with the watermelon joke and other factors, almost certainly, and deservedly so if Barbour had a habit of using stereotypical caricatures.

But if Barbour’s future career is derailed by these comments, it will further reflect the epic double standard reflecting race and partisan politics. Harry Reid can marvel at Barack Obama’s lack of a “negro accent” with no real consequence. Bill Clinton can describe Obama to Ted Kennedy as a “guy [who] would have been getting us coffee” not long ago with no real consequence.  Hillary Clinton faced accusations of racism for appearing to diminish the accomplishments of Martin Luther King in comparison to Lyndon Johnson – until the Democratic primary ended, and then no liberal had much reason to stir the controversy further. Joe Biden can utter awful stereotypical jokes about Indians running 7-11s and Dunkin’ Doughnuts with no major repercussion. The President’s mentor trafficked in explicit racial insults – referring to Italians as “garlic noses” – and the topic was deemed irrelevant by many. And of course, there is the former recruiter of the Ku Klux Klan who used the n-word on national television with little major repercussion.

Every major Democrat in public life has made controversial comments about race; it’s probably a natural consequence of speaking extemporaneously about the topic in front of television cameras. But that benefit of the doubt is rarely if ever extended to a Republican official.


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