Is the GOP Sincere in Denouncing its Bigots?
In a week’s time the wide range of what was once considered routine GOP bigotry was on full display. Dave Agema, a former West Michigan state representative, and Republican National Committeeman called gays “filthy homosexuals." Next, Alaska Rep. Don Young blurted out the epitaph “wetbacks” in discussing the immigration issue. Then 23 members of the so-called White Student Union attended the Conservative Political Action Conference where its leader tacitly endorsed segregation and even slavery.
In times past, the silence from the GOP officials and rank and file would have been deafening. It would have reconfirmed the standard knock against the GOP as a party of Kooks, cranks misanthropes, and, of course, bigots. But in each of the three cases, there was an outcry from local GOP officials, bloggers, and GOP campus groups. They publicly denounced the bigotry, and in the case of Young, House Speaker John Boehner, Arizona and Texas Senators John McCain, and John Cornyn, and Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus blasted Young’s remarks.
At first glance, this seems a signal that the GOP recognizes that it’s widely considered the party of bigotry, and that it’s willing to do something about it. But the sea change may be much less than meets the eye. Many top GOP officials are still mute on its party’s bigots. The official record still stands that no top GOP official aggressively and consistently denounces the bigoted remarks or acts by a GOP operative, representative, or senator.
The RNC in its near 100 page blueprint for reaching out to minorities, gays and young people did raise faint hope that the GOP may indeed have finally woke up that America is changing, and it can’t win national offices anymore solely with conservative white male Heartland and Deep South voters, or through the use of the crude race baiting. But this hope ignores the GOP’s horrible history of dealing with its blatant bigots and bigotry. The pattern was on ugly display in 2002 when then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott touched off a furor seemingly touting the one time pro-segregation battles fought by South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond. It took nearly a week for then President George W. Bush to make a stumbling, tepid disavowal of Lott.
In the next decade, a legion of Republican state and local officials, conservative talk show jocks and even some Republican bigwigs made foot-in-mouth racist cracks that invariably got them in hot water. Their response when called on the carpet was always the same: They make a duck and dodge denial, claim that they were misquoted or issue a weak, half-hearted apology. Each time, the response from top Republicans was either silence, or if the firestorm was great enough, to give the offender a much-delayed mild verbal hand slap. Lott was dumped from his Senate Majority Leader post, but soon got a top post back as Senate Minority Whip after a kind of, sort of mea culpa.
The bigger dilemma for the GOP when the bigots of their party pop off is that they remain prisoners of their party's racist past. It’s a past in which 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, saying, "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.
The sentiment that underlay the casual, and sometimes blatant, racist trash talk of top Republicans, even Republican presidents, inevitably percolated down to the troops. If GOP minor players feel that they can say whatever they want about blacks, Latinos, gays and women and get away with it, it's because other Republicans have done the same, and there were no real consequences for their vile remarks.
There are many Republicans who don't utter racist or homophobic epithets, use code speak, or publicly denigrate minorities, gays and women. Yet Colin Powell recently took much heat from many Republicans when he called the GOP racist. This still makes it a good bet that the next public official or personality hammered for a bigoted outburst will be a Republican. It's also an equally good bet that few top Republicans will immediately rush to condemn their GOP compatriot for it.