Mr. McDonnell gets slavery's history right and remedies a wrong

Saturday, September 25, 2010

IT TOOK GUTS for Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) to issue a blunt and humble apology for his ham-handed attempts last spring to minimize the importance of slavery in the history of Virginia and the Civil War. In doing so on Friday -- in an eloquent speech at Norfolk State University, Virginia's oldest public historically black college -- Mr. McDonnell disassociated himself not just from his own offensive remarks but from some in his conservative Republican base who leaped to defend and embrace a dishonest, immoral view of American history.

Mr. McDonnell was lampooned nationwide in April after he proclaimed Confederate History Month but airbrushed history by omitting any reference to slavery. He then compounded the damage by arguing that slavery was a sort of side issue in the Civil War as far as Virginia was concerned. The governor's efforts at damage control, which included an edited version of the proclamation referring to the "abomination" of slavery, fell on mostly deaf ears.

Now Mr. McDonnell has made what appears to be heartfelt amends. In his speech, he nailed both the history -- "For this nation to be truly one nation, under God, it required the abolition of slavery" -- and the contrition. "My major and unacceptable omission of slavery disappointed and hurt a lot of people, myself included," he said. "It is an error that will be fixed."

Instead of marking Confederate History Month next April, the governor said, he will proclaim a month to commemorate the Civil War as a whole -- free and enslaved Virginians, Confederate and Union.

Genuine contrition is a rare commodity in American politics, particularly in this era of hyperpartisanship. Mr. McDonnell could easily enough have avoided the academic conference on the 150th anniversary of the war, at which he delivered his speech. By meeting the issue head-on, he showed his mettle and reflected well the character of his modern, diverse state.

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