The instant Democratic West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd made yet another anguished self-confession that he once belonged to the Klan, the Republicans pounced on it. They giddily announced that they’d make his one-time Klan membership a big issue in a drive to oust him if he runs again in 2006. Though Byrd makes mention of his Klan past in a passing note in his near 800 page autobiography that was released this week, it quickly became the lead news story, and the source of even more Byrd political angst. He called his Klan night ride a “foolish” move that haunted him for decades.
Byrd’s Klan revelation is hardly new. He’s admitted it often, and every time he or someone else brings it up, the Republicans mercilessly pillory him for it. Whenever a Republican makes a racial foot-in-the mouth gaffe, and Democrats publicly lambaste him for it, GOP leaders quickly and reflexively scream, “But what about Byrd,” and pound the Democrats for having a former Klansman as a top Democrat.
But Byrd has come clean and apologized for that sordid episode in his past. Even more galling to Republicans, he's been a thorn in their side on Bush’s war policies. But even if Byrd hadn’t uttered a mumbling word critical of Bush’s policies, the GOP still should be the last to dump on him.
A week before his Klan confessional, 14 Republican Senators refused to sign a harmless, non-binding Senate resolution apologizing for lynching. The GOP senators gave no coherent reason why they refused to sign. The resolution did not mandate victim restitution, call for tougher hate crime legislation, or criticize the GOP for its part in helping to beat back a lynching law. A unanimous Republican vote on the lynching resolution would have sent a strong signal that the GOP will do whatever it takes to wipe the dirty stain of racial violence from America’s past and present, and not just talk about it.
It didn’t, and the hit on Byrd makes Republicans seem disingenuous at best and racial hypocrites at worst. But there’s no real surprise in that. Byrd flirted with the Klan six decades ago. Republicans flirted with them, in the past, and still do today.
It’s not just small fry Republicans who have shown a penchant for making foot-in-the mouth racist cracks, and racially loaded attacks. Prominent Republican Presidents set the tone with their own verbal race bashing.
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 escaped black convict Willie Horton the poster boy for black crime and violence and turned the presidential campaign against his Democrat opponent, Michael Dukakis into a rout. He 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.”
In 1998, the Republicans had a golden opportunity to loudly denounce race baiting, and racist extremist groups when it was revealed that then Senate Majority leader Trent Lott, and Georgia representative Robert Barr had snuggled up to the pro-segregation, states rights, Council for Conservative Citizens. Not one top Republican publicly denounced Barr or Lott, or demanded that they get out of the Council. In 2001, Senate Majority leader designate Trent Lott dredged up and praised the pro segregation rants of South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, it ignited a firestorm of rage. It took nearly a week for Bush to make a stumbling, kind-of, sort of disavowal of Lott.
The Democrats need do no such thing with Byrd. Whatever fumbles and missteps they’ve made on race in recent years have paled in comparison to that of the Republicans. Beating up on Byrd for something he did as a young hungry, on the make politician decades ago, and for which he has done his mea culpa for, is the worst kind of partisan political one-upmanship. If, or maybe when, the next Republican public official or personality is called on the carpet for a racist outburst, let’s see if Republicans publicly jump all over them they way they have on Byrd.