McDonnell backpedals on Confederate History Month
Wednesday, April 7, 2010; 7:41 PM
By Lee Hockstader So it turns out that slavery did cause the Civil War. So says Bob McDonnell, Republican governor of Virginia -- a student of the Better Late Than Never School of Political Damage Control. On Tuesday the governor issued a proclamation that declared April as Confederate History Month, noted that ???all Virginians??? honored the Confederacy???s sacrifice and, amazingly, included no mention of slavery or slaves. Never mind that nearly half a million black slaves lived in Virginia at the time, or that large numbers of Virginians (especially non-slave owners) opposed secession. In response to an onslaught of public, private and online criticism -- and specifically to one particular critic who McDonnell really cares about -- the governor late Wednesday issued a statement that amounts to a mea culpa. He acknowledged that airbrushing the nagging issue of slavery was ???a major omission??? and a ???mistake,??? and he apologized for it. Basically, there are now two proclamations -- one that glorifies the Confederacy, the other that wallows in Virginia???s historical guilt. (In addition to being evil, vicious, etc., slavery, said the governor in proclamation no. 2, ???has left a stain on the soul of this state and nation.???) Do you pine for the gallantry of the soldiers in grey, affix Confederate flags to your pickup???s antenna and delight in rebel yells at football games? Or do you regard the Confederate cause as a fundamentally racist and treasonous project whose defeat was a blessing? Take your pick: McDonnell???s got a proclamation for each constituency. Let???s be fair. While McDonnell was raked through the coals as a candidate last fall for his now-notorious, retrograde 20-year-old thesis, his comportment during the campaign was moderate, civil, substantive and reassuring. Ditto his performance since his inauguration in January. Understated and affable, the governor took pains to align himself with what is undeniably a purple state, and one that has shown distaste for divisive politics. That???s why the first proclamation -- the one that glossed over history -- was so jarring. It seemed out of character for McDonnell to pick a fight when none was needed -- especially on a question of race and historical honesty. And igniting gratuitous firestorms is not a recipe for future political success. It took more than 24 hours, but McDonnell finally got that. That???s good. What disturbing, though, is how stubborn he was to get it, initially downplaying slavery???s significance as just one of ???any number of aspects to that conflict between the states.??? (What history books has this guy been reading?) What really seems to have opened the governor???s eyes was one person: Sheila Johnson. Johnson, the African-American co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, was a key backer -- the key backer -- of McDonnell???s campaign. Her support was so important to McDonnell that barely a day passed when he didn???t mention it, and she was featured front-and-center in his campaign advertising. Single-handedly, she conferred respectability on him not only as conciliatory on race, but as pro-business. For a solid 24 hours, McDonnell and his aides defended and excused the first proclamation. But the wind suddenly went out of their defense shortly after Johnson issued the following damning statement Wednesday afternoon: ???I must condemn Gov. McDonnell???s proclamation honoring ???Confederate History Month??? and its insensitive disregard of Virginia???s complicated and painful history, the remnants of which many Virginians still wrestle with today,??? said Johnson, an African-American business owner. ???The complete omission of slavery from an official government document, which purports to be a call for Virginians to ???understand??? and ???study??? their history, is both academically flawed and personally offensive. If Virginians are to celebrate their ???shared history??? as this proclamation suggests, then the whole truth of this history must be recognized and not evaded.??? Johnson deserves credit for butting heads with the man she helped put in office, and for helping right a wrong. As for McDonnell, the jury is still out. Has he learned a real lesson about the importance of historical truth, or simply bowed to political expediency?