THE BLOG

Blaxploitation, GOP Style

02/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

With the Democrats set to break the White House color barrier, the GOP is attempting to crash the party. In the wake of Chip Saltsman's "Barack the Magic Negro" mini-scandal -- in which the aspiring Republican National Committee chairman sent out a music CD with the titular song to fellow Republicans -- the GOP is stepping up efforts to stress diversity. A recent front-page article in the New York Times reports that two of the top candidates to become chairman of the Republican Party are African Americans.

In pushing these men forward, the Republican Party is seemingly attempting to shake off the parochial residue of the Bush years, and to share in Obama's historic accomplishment. But the Republicans are in reality resorting to a tried-and-true W. tactic: the promotion of deeply compromised, often disreputable individuals--a kind of lemon diversity that only highlights their cynicism and contempt for the public.

One of Bush's closest black friends is the former football player, professional wrestler and prison minister Ernie Ladd, who was put front and center at the 2000 Republican National Convention, and spoke at W.'s inauguration. In 2000, while the debate over the Florida outcome and the disenfranchisement of thousands of black voters there raged on, Ladd declared the election over, and criticized black leaders for "dividing this country."

In fact, members of the Bush clan have long sought to create an impression of broad-mindedness when the reality was otherwise. Grandfather Prescott Bush, who expressed less than flattering views about Italians in his hometown of Greenwich, CT, also sat on the board of the United Negro College Fund. Early in Poppy Bush's political career, Poppy had gone after black votes in his 1960's House and Senate campaigns, hoping to win enough to eke out a victory. Recalled Poppy's friend and employee Bob Gow: "Most of the blacks in Texas were Democrats, but George had one prominent black man who was staunchly for him. This man had a tire distribution company...[that] was failing and George asked me to go and meet with this man...with the objective of helping them make the company prosper, if possible, but if not, at least stay solvent through the election."

When George W. Bush was putting together his investor group to buy the Texas Rangers baseball team, appearances were very much on his mind. As Comer Cottrell, an African American hair products tycoon told me, "The first time I met George, he came up to my office and wanted to meet me and told me that he was wanting to have a true American diverse team partnership. He says, I would be his black partner, Afro-American. Then he had some Jewish people, and he had some European-Americans from Yale. Half the guys were from Yale."

As George W. Bush scaled the political heights, he and his team deployed faces of color to imply a kind of egalitarianism and broad concern for all--a concern that seemed to vanish the moment he gained the White House. Moreover, he preached against affirmative action except in instances where it served him politically. Then he practiced the most morally repugnant form of it - the advancement of second raters to serve his own advantage.

The two most prominent African-American appointees, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, were without dispute major leaguers, but beneath them was a B-Team that was less than impressive.

Bush's assistant on domestic policy was Claude Allen, a black Republican who had served as campaign spokesman for Sen. Jesse Helms, the man the Washington Post's David Broder referred to as "the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country." Bush named Allen his policy assistant after Allen's nomination for federal judge on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals stalled in the Senate. Allen resigned from his White House position in 2006, ostensibly to spend more time with the family--almost always a tip-off that something else is involved. Indeed, it soon came out that he had perpetrated a refund scam to swindle $5,000 out of Target and Hecht's department stores. On at least 25 occasions Allen attempted to collect refund money on items he hadn't purchased. At the time, he was the highest-ranking African-American on Bush's staff.

Then there was Education Secretary Rod Paige, whose "Texas miracle" in education scores became a cornerstone of Bush's 2000 campaign before being exposed as based on fraudulent numbers. Once in Washington, Paige strove assiduously to fit in, right down to his black cowboy boots. Bush basically ignored him. The New Republic noted that "In any Administration, the blatant marginalization of the only African American domestic Cabinet secretary would be noteworthy. In an Administration that loudly trumpets its commitment to Cabinet government and racial diversity it's stunning..."

Bush's high-profile African-American hires included also housing secretary Alphonso Jackson, whose inattentive and misdirected policies may have contributed to the collapse of the home mortgage market of 2008- a disaster that hit African-Americans especially hard. A front-page Washington Post article written the week Jackson left office characterized the secretary as a spendthrift who had a private chef and commissioned expensive personal portraits at taxpayers' expense. His office also spent $7 million on a new auditorium and cafeteria at Housing and Urban Development headquarters. "How can you spend that much money on building a shrine to yourself?" asked the vice president of the fiscally conservative National Taxpayers Union. Meanwhile, said the Post, Jackson repeatedly ignored warnings from his colleagues that his easy-credit policies on mortgage loans were putting poor families at risk. Perhaps the most striking fact about Jackson -- generally ignored by the media -- was that Bush's housing chief quietly exited the administration right in the middle of the housing crisis. That few noticed this embarrassing departure was in itself telling.

The irony was that Bush, an opponent of affirmative action designed to help the deserving, was using his own distorted form of it to reward the dubious for their loyalty -- and, just as important, for their complicity in helping to perpetuate a myth.

Consider the current African-American candidates for chairman of the Republican Party, Michael Steele, a former Maryland lieutenant governor, benefited in his unsuccessful 2006 US Senate campaign from an election-day operation in which men were bused to voting stations in heavily African-American precincts to hand out flyers painting Steele as a Democrat.

Even more interesting is Kenneth Blackwell, who served simultaneously as Ohio Secretary of State and chairman of the Bush reelection campaign in Ohio in 2004. During that election Blackwell labored diligently to put obstacles in the way of black voters. While running for Governor in 2006, he oversaw restrictive new regulations that included making voter registration canvassers (who work mainly in lower-income and Democratic-leaning neighborhoods) criminally liable for any irregularities on their rolls. After the regulations went into effect, the number of registration cards collected dropped dramatically, from 7000 to 200 per month. But as George Will put it in a 2006 column, Blackwell "appeals to blacks by being black."

Promoting candidates of this caliber as the new face of the Republican Party is blatant hypocrisy: the GOP skewers the Democrats for identity politics, then indulges in the most counter-productive forms of it. This opportunistic ploy should be seen as what it is: an insult not just to black Americans, but to all Americans.

Award-winning investigative journalist Russ Baker is author of Family of Secrets: the Bush Dynasty, the Powerful Forces That Put it in the White House, and What Their Influence Means for America. Book info at www.familyofsecrets.com.