By Robert McCartney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 8, 2010; B01
"There was a right side and a wrong side in the late war, which no sentiment ought to cause us to forget." -- Frederick Douglass, 1878.
Although he acted only under severe pressure, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell was obviously right Wednesday afternoon to admit a major mistake, issue an apology and add a vital new paragraph clarifying his original proclamation of Confederate History Month.
But the episode raises concerns about what McDonnell really believes and what Virginia's Republican Party stands for when it comes to the state's African Americans and other minorities.
McDonnell (R) is still stuck with having made the astonishing blunder of issuing a formal statement Friday that effectively endorsed the South's cause in the Civil War.
He didn't quite say it explicitly. But there was no other way to interpret it.
The first paragraph said "the people of Virginia" joined the Confederacy in a war "for independence."
It said they "fought for their homes and communities and Commonwealth." It urged reflection on their "sacrifices." It implied it was too bad they were "ultimately overwhelmed" by the North's "insurmountable" resources.
Nowhere did the original statement condemn or even acknowledge the fact that the South was fighting primarily to defend a society based on slavery, as the Confederacy's own leaders said at the time. It neglected to mention that the state joined the Lost Cause without consulting the one-fourth of Virginians in bondage because of their race.
When asked by reporters on Tuesday to explain why slavery wasn't included, McDonnell said it wasn't "significant" enough.
Now McDonnell admits the lack of any reference to slavery was a "major omission." He amended the proclamation to say that "the institution of slavery led to this war, and was an evil and inhumane practice."
Still, questions remain. First, how could McDonnell be so myopic about slavery's importance in Virginia's Civil War history? When the state's last Republican governor, Jim Gilmore, issued a similar proclamation in 2001, he put it right out there: "Had there been no slavery, there would have been no war."
Second, how could McDonnell and his team commit such an error given that they ran such a smooth, virtually flawless campaign for the governorship?
I'm sad to say that the most likely explanation is that McDonnell and his advisers knew exactly what they were doing and only reversed course when they realized that they'd blown it.
There's some truth in McDonnell's claim that he was trying to encourage tourism. Virginia has more Civil War battlefields than any other state. Civil War devotees -- and I'm one myself -- can drop a lot of money pursuing their interest.
But there's no doubt that McDonnell was also making a gesture to the most conservative parts of his political base. Perhaps he was jealous that Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R)was getting national attention for his various plans to sue the federal government for intruding on states' rights.
It's important to keep in mind that, for many Virginia conservatives, today's struggles against Obamacare and climate change laws are a continuation of the efforts by Jefferson Davis and the other secessionists in the 1860s.
"They were fighting for the same things that people in the 'tea party' are fighting for now," said Grayson Jennings, first lieutenant commander of the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which lobbied McDonnell to issue the proclamation.
If Jennings's views are any measure, the group's on the political fringe. He said he'd favor seceding again -- "tonight is not soon enough" -- because of high taxes, illegal immigration and energy legislation.
Jennings's views about what he called the "War of Northern Aggression" are also pretty far out. He said linking the Confederacy and slavery was a "tired old argument."
But that's not what history shows. One vivid account was provided by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens in 1861. He said the Confederate government's "foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural . . . condition."
Quotes like that make me wonder whether it's ever justified to honor Confederate "heritage." I think the answer is yes, but only if the full context is understood.
I'm okay with admiring the brilliant generalship of Confederates Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. I can even accept that the neo-Confederate worldview includes a measure of healthy, grass-roots resistance to authority. In those ways, I can stomach the bumper stickers with Confederate flags that read "Heritage Not Hate."
What's crucial is to couple any admiration for the Confederacy with the explicit admission that it fought for a repugnant cause.
Here's a historic parallel. We'd say that World War II German field marshal Erwin Rommel, the famous "Desert Fox," was a military genius serving an odious government. The Confederacy ranks a few notches down from Nazism in the hierarchy of immoral regimes, but I'd make pretty much the same argument about Lee.
I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM).