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How badly did McDonnell stumble?

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Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Post asked experts about the Virginia governor proclaiming April as Confederate History Month. Below are responses from Sean Wilentz, Ed Gillespie, Larry J. Sabato, Leslie Bryne, Gerry Connolly and Thomas M. Davis III.

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SEAN WILENTZ

Professor of history at Princeton University

Does Gov. Robert F. McDonnell truly believe that Virginians should be proud that, a century and a half ago, their state joined and participated in a violent effort to dissolve the Union? Secession was and is a form of treason.

McDonnell's proclamation uses the familiar code words of the Confederacy's defenders, describing the Civil War as "a war between the states for independence." That wording contains within it the doctrines of state sovereignty and rebellion that have justified the Confederacy's cause since the day the South Carolinians bombarded Fort Sumter. Either McDonnell is ignorant of what these words mean, understands them but is using them in a politically self-serving way, or actually believes them. All of these possibilities are disquieting.

Recent years have brought the resuscitation, mainly on the fringes of the political right, of defenses of secession and of its close political cousin, nullification. These writers rail against the government as an illegitimate or quasi-legitimate "regime," which upholds an oppressive, vaguely defined establishment. Coming in this increasingly toxic political atmosphere, McDonnell's proclamation is all the more disturbing, because it is fully in line with the politics of today's extremist fire-eaters. As we have seen, associating himself with this fringe will not help his political image.

ED GILLESPIE

Former chairman of the Republican National Committee; volunteered as general chairman of the Bob McDonnell for Governor Campaign

In signing a Confederate History Month proclamation without any mention of slavery, Gov. Bob McDonnell made a serious mistake in the third month of his governorship. His reaction to the mistake, however, told us more about him than the mistake itself.

In an era of polarized politics, many elected officials who find themselves in a situation such as McDonnell's adopt a "never apologize, never explain" approach. Or they issue a "non-apology apology," usually containing the clause "if anyone was offended by my actions."

McDonnell flat-out apologized, publicly to all Virginians and privately to many individuals he knew he'd personally let down. He acted, amending the proclamation to state "that the institution of slavery led to [the Civil War] and was an evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights." And he accepted personal responsibility, not blaming staff.

I know the episode pains him, but McDonnell and I share a faith that believes mistakes are forgiven through recognition, remorse and reconciliation. He immediately recognized the mistake of the proclamation as originally written and expressed genuine remorse. The amendment about the evil of slavery was an act of reconciliation, and he will have ample opportunities for further reconciliation as he governs Virginia. Knowing him and his history, those are opportunities he will not miss.


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