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Earl Ofari Hutchinson Headshot

GOP Presidents Egged On Race Trash Talk

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The reaction was swift and angry from those appalled at the racial smut-peddling ad that depicted a white blond cooing about Democratic Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford Jr. Ford is locked in a tight race for the U.S. Senate with Republican Bob Corker. The ad was pulled, and even a few heads rolled for it. But the fall guys were relatively low men on the GOP totem pole.
That's always been the pattern. When a Republican politician, party hack, or media pundit pops off on race, they get a mild wrist slap and their gaffe is shrugged off as an isolated loose-mouthed rant. The finger never gets pointed at the men at the GOP top.

But that's where it should. Over the past half-century, GOP presidents have carefully crafted racial barbs, code-speak, and race tinged off color remarks into a winning political strategy. Whenever they are called on the carpet, they dummy up, duck, dodge or feign shock that their words are considered verbal race bashing. But the bashing has been vicious and relentless.
President Eisenhower never got out of the Old South habit of calling blacks "nigras." In an infamous and well-documented outburst at a White House dinner party in 1954, Ike winked, nodded and whispered to Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren that he understood why white Southerners wouldn't want to "see their sweet little girls required to sit in school alongside some big black buck."

President Nixon routinely peppered his talks with his confidants with derogatory quips about blacks. He enshrined in popular language racially tinged code words such as, "law and order, "permissive society," "welfare cheats," "crime in the streets," "subculture of violence," "subculture of poverty," "culturally deprived" and "lack of family values." And President Reagan once told a black reporter how he would treat black leaders said, "I said to hell with 'em."

In 1988, President Bush, Sr. made black convict Willie Horton the poster boy for black crime and violence. Horton was charged with rape and murder while on a furlough. At the Illinois Republican convention that summer, Bush Sr. nakedly stoked the racial fear factor when he sternly warned that his Democrat opponent, Michael Dukakis, who backed the furlough program, had let Horton loose to "terrorize innocent people." The charge helped turn the presidential campaign into a rout. Bush Sr. later branded a bill by Senator Ted Kennedy to make it easier to bring employment discrimination suits a "quotas bill" and vetoed it. In his autobiography, My American Journey, Colin Powell called Reagan "insensitive" on racial issues, and tagged Bush's Horton stunt, "a cheap shot."

A few years back, President Bush Jr. gave a classic demonstration of how Republican's tap dance around a GOP racially stoked controversy when then Senate Majority leader designate Trent Lott touted segregation. It took nearly a week for Bush to make a stumbling, kind-of, sort of disavowal of Lott.

The sentiment that underlay the casual, and sometimes blatant, racist trash talk of top Republicans, even Republican presidents, inevitably filtered down to the troops. The message is that it's OK to bash, slander and vilify blacks and minorities with little or no risk of a consequence.

The Ford ad was a near textbook case of the GOP sleazing away from responsibility for a racist slur. GOP national chair Ken Mehlman seemed genuinely perplexed over the storm that the ad ignited. In interview after interview, he was given every chance to distance the Republican National Committee from it. Instead, he went in reverse gear, and claimed that the RNC had nothing to do with it, and chalked the flap up to much ado about nothing.

But Bush press secretary Tony Snow inadvertently implicated the RNC in the ad's airing and flatly said that if Mehlman had wanted the ad off the air it would have been instantly pulled. Snow didn't say that the ad should never have been on the air in the first place. A week after the ad hit the airwaves, and despite loud calls for it to be removed even by Ford's opponent Corker, there was not a peep of protest or rebuke from Bush.

That's also typical. Apart from Lott, Bush has never publicly rebuked the legion of Republicans that have been called on the carpet for racially insensitive cracks. In fact, he stirred the pot himself with his mute silence on the fight over the Confederate flag, and his own see-no-evil cheerlead of Bob Jones University despite disclosure that it banned interracial dating. It's hard to believe that the RNC would authorize and bankroll political ads, even racially hit ads, without first casting an eye toward the White House.

But we shouldn't be to hard on Mehlman for his racial pandering. He, like so many other Republicans that are publicly upbraided for endorsing or keeping silent on racist ads or cracks, have only taken their cue from the men at the top.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of The Emerging Black GOP Majority (Middle Passage Press, September 2006), a hard-hitting look at Bush and The GOP's court of black voters.