The Campaign Spot

Is Membership in the Forest Lake Country Club Inherently ‘Sensationalist’?

Allies of Katon Dawson, the South Carolina Republican Party state chair, have an objection to this post, suggesting that it ends with a “sensationalist question,” namely, “could the media resist harping on an RNC chair who once belonged to a club that wouldn’t admit the 44th President of the United States?”

They’re spotlighting a letter from RNC committeeman Glenn McCall, an African-American, at the blog the HinzSight Report:

The article [in the South Carolina newspaper The State] pointed out that the club did not have any minority members. There was some confusion about whether or not it was club policy or a longstanding deed that prohibited minority members — none of that really matters. What matters is this: Katon Dawson tried to change the club’s practices to allow minority members. When he realized that things were not likely to change, Katon resigned his membership.
Sadly, Katon’s opponents are trying to use the fact that he was a member of this country club to disqualify him from serving as RNC Chair.
It shouldn’t. I believe it won’t.
I see what Katon did as evidence of his commitment to including and involving people from all walks of life and all races. Katon took a stand for what was right. He stood up in front of his friends at the club and told them what they were doing was wrong, and when they refused to change, he decided to leave. I’m not saying that Katon deserves a medal for the courage he showed that day, but I do think this one incident revealed the depths of Katon’s personal commitment to inclusion.

The question of whether the country club membership is disqualifying will ultimately be resolved by RNC members, not me. I do find it interesting that Dawson allies think the short item was unfair to him, since at the time, some readers thought it was giving him too much benefit of the doubt. One GOP consultant objected to my point that “The full measure of a man requires more than his country club membership”, saying at the time, “Oh really? I think membership in a whites-only country club is a pretty clear measure of a man.”

The media will ask, not unreasonably, how it took Dawson eleven years to notice the club had no African-American members. It is good to object to discriminatory policies, but those less inclined to give Dawson the benefit of the doubt than I will note that his objection came in August and his resignation came in late September of this year, a very short time before he began his campaign for RNC chair.

Finally, note that what is at the center of the controversy – membership in a private country club – is not something the average American experiences, and conveys an image of wealth and privilege at the exact moment the country is going through a tough recession. If Dawson genuinely was unaware that his club had a whites-only for a decade or so, the average American is unlikely to relate to that kind of obliviousness.

We’ve seen these kinds of storms before – Trent Lott, George Allen, Don Imus, the Duke Lacrosse players. The media loves to go after villains, and membership in a country club with no black members is sufficient to make one a villain in many eyes.

If Dawson is the nominee, it is extremely likely you will see CNN and MSNBC camera crews outside the country club, recording B-roll footage. If there’s any footage of Dawson ever participating in a charity golf tournament, you’ll see it. The question of whether the Forest Lake Country Club is all-white because of a deed, or an official policy, or an unofficial policy will be sorted out and analyzed in depth. At the height of the storm, Dawson could discover the cure for cancer and the news would run on page A3.

The media’s coverage of a Dawson victory in the RNC chair race would, in all likelihood, not be fair to him or the party. But it doesn’t mean the potential fallout should be ignored, either.

UPDATE: Phil Klein, over at the American Spectator: “The proper method to change the ways of these exclusive clubs is not through the legal system, but by showing its members that there are consequences to excluding minorities. The Republican Party would be making a clear statement along these lines if they were to deny him the chairmanship. At the very minimum, Republicans should be seriously considering whether, after America elected its first black president, the party wants to be led by somebody who spent more than a decade as a member of a whites-only club.”

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