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Governor declares Confederate History Month in Virginia

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Anita Kumar and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 7, 2010; 11:00 AM

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, reviving a controversy that had been dormant for eight years, has declared that April will be Confederate History Month in Virginia, a move that angered civil rights leaders Tuesday but that political observers said would strengthen his position with his conservative base.

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Washington Post staff writers Anita Kumar and Rosalind S. Helderman were online Wednesday, April 7, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the controversy.

Civil War, Confederacy, Virginia, McDonnell (dot.comments, April 7)

A Provocative Proclamation (Discussion group)

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Rosalind S. Helderman: Hi everyone and welcome! There are a lot of great questions already about Virginia's Confederate History Month proclamation. Let's get started.

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Arlington, Va.: Anita and Rosalind,

Exactly what constituency is Gov. McDonnell trying to reach out to with this proclamation? To me it just seems unnecessarily provocative with no real benefit to any party.

Anita Kumar: Some political observers say Governor McDonnell was trying to appeal to the conservative part of the Republican party -- particularly those who support state's rights and those who oppose federal intrusion. Mark Rozell, a political scientist at George Mason University, said that in our story this morning. While many people were angered by the news this morning, many praised him including conservatives such as Patrick McSweeney, a former state GOP chairman.

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Arlington, Va.: I don't see what the fuss is all about. The Confederacy was about states' rights; slavery was merely incidental to the rights of states to regulate commerce as they see fit. Don't you agree?

Rosalind S. Helderman: Well, this is a subject of vigorous historical, social and political debate. I can tell you, several of our fellow chatters today agree and several disagree. I'm about to post a message from one of those readers.

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Washington, D.C.: I am a minor in American history. Why is it that Civil War apologists want to whitewash the root causes of the Civil War to suggest that it was about more things than slavery? If you look at the "State's Rights" arguments put forth by John C. Calhoun they are all focused on slavery. If you look at the economic disparities issue between industrialized North and pre-industrial South that's all directly related to the plantation system and slavery. Every supposed alternative reason for the civil war is based on the issue of slavery.

Rosalind S. Helderman: Here's a reader who does not agree at all that the Civil War was fought over state's rights.

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Bethesda, Md: Why is this such a controversy? Why is anything Confederate equated to slavery? Isn't this outcry just a Northern perspective? McDonnell is not saying he is pro slavery. He is just declaring that Virginia historically fought against a central federal government that exerted its central power on all states. The result of the War of Succession is the loss of local rights. For instance if your entire state disagreed with the Iraq war, it doesn't matter, the Feds decided to go and your state will participate and pay for it. If your whole state is against abortion, it doesn't matter. Fed's decide what is good for you. Same with mandatory healthcare. That is what I think of when I look at the history of the war. Slavery is important, but there is a lot more to it. Why do newspapers and pundits overlook comments like mine?? Please answer.

Rosalind S. Helderman: We don't overlook your comments at all! There are certainly a lot of people who agree with you. And there are plenty who don't and feel as though leaving out slavery misses an important part of the war. You're comparison of the situation to the health care debate is an interesting one. Virginia political professor Bob Holsworth thinks Democrats in the state are going to try hard to tie the Confederate History Month proclamation to exactly such arguments in an attempt to undermine the efforts to use state government to push back against the federal government.

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Falls Church, Va.: Why is a governor who cannot seek reelection worried about his "base?" If the Virginia Constitution does nothing but ensure our governor is always concerned about his next position rather than the welfare of the Commonwealth, how will we ever have a decent governor?

Anita Kumar: He's a politician isn't he? Seriously, Governor McDonnell was just sworn into office in January. He has nearly four years left in the governor's mansion and is naturally worried about what people think of him and what he can accomplish in that time. Also, just because he can't run for re-election, doesn't mean he is done in politics. The Governor is a rising star in the Republican party. He's already been mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate. He could run for governor again (after sitting out four years), U.S. Senate or even president one day. Trust us, he cares about his base.

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Southern Maryland: "Conservative base" is misleading since many small-government conservatives reject the racist historical revisionism involved in this proclamation. McDonnell seems to be appealing to two groups -- mostly older whites who resent the gains that non-whites have made since the 1960s, and mostly younger whites who either don't know or don't understand either the Civil War or the civil rights movement.

If the McDonnell administration plans any public events to mark Confederate History Month, I propose a counter-event with speeches by historians such as James Loewen, whose books are excellent refutation of the misguided romanticism of the Confederacy. If the Virginia NAACP and other groups in the state would sponsor such an event, I would contribute.

Rosalind S. Helderman: Thank you for the comment. You may be right--some experts have suggested that if McDonnell thought he was appealing to the conservative base with this, he might have misread the base of 2010. I haven't heard of any events being planned by either McDonnell or NAACP to mark the month, although there will certainly be plenty of events next year when Virginia marks the 150th anniversary of the war. In the wake of this dustup, it will be fascinating to see how McDonnell observes the events.

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Levittown, Pa.: My husband is from immigrants in the 1600s, I have some in the 1700s. Yes, we are both SAR & DAR members. There is no month to celebrate the first pioneers of the U.S. The war between the states, was not just about color. As a matter of fact when my Irish ancestors came over in the 1800s they were considered worse than black people and Chinese. In the 1700s my husband has two of his family lines where they were white but indentured servants. Why try and forget the Civil War? It is a piece of our history, although schools tend to forget American history. Families fought on both sides. It was brother against brother literally. Those who were on the losing side lost their homes. Just as most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence lost their homes, fortunes. Today they are famous. Back then their names were held in secret. We learn from our mistakes, that is why all aspects of American history should be taught. Why did they make South Carolina take the confederate flag off the capital there? Why have a whole month for black history? What about Irish, German, Chinese, Hispanic month or week? To me it makes them think they are special and not equal. The South was brave enough to fight for what they wanted, and it wasn't just against slavery. Some of those ideals changed the country. What about native American Indian week or month? They were here first?

Rosalind S. Helderman: Thanks for the comment.

A few years ago, I wrote a story about an effort to remove the statue of Justice Taney from in front of the Maryland State House. He was the Supreme Court Justice who ruled that Dred Scott and other blacks could not be American citizens and returned Scott to slavery, in the years before the Civil War. I tracked down descendents of both Scott and Taney--interestingly, both families were heavily involved with efforts to achieve racial reconciliation. But both thought the statue should remain in place, as a historical reminder of those difficult times.

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Washington, D.C.: I find it a bit absurd. I understand the significance of Black History Month. The contribution to the development of the U.S. by African Americans traditionally been lightly covered in traditional history textbooks. So I can see highlighting their contributions to American society. But what exactly did the Confederacy contribute to the development of the United States? Slavery? Is that something we want to highlight? I don't think it should be ignored by any means, but I don't think giving a month to honor a system that was based on forced labor is right.

Rosalind S. Helderman: And many people agree with you on this one. The Richmond Times-Dispatch, which generally has a very conservative editorial page, editorialized on this topic this morning and called the lack of mention of slavery in McDonnell's statement a "hole" in the statement's heart.

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Washington, D.C.: Any reason why he couldn't have changed it to the less controversial "Civil War History Month?" That still honors people who fought, without alienating large chunks of the population.

Anita Kumar: Governor McDonnell could have changed the proclamation to anything he wanted or he could have chosen not to have one at all. The language he used was less offensive to many people than the one former Gov. George Allen used when he signed a proclamation in the 1990s calling the Civil War "a four-year struggle for [Southern] independence and sovereign rights" and made no mention of slavery. Former Gov. Jim Gilmore, on the other hand, choose to add a condemnation of slavery. Gilmore later changed the proclamation by dropping references to Confederate History Month and instead designated April as "Virginia's Month for Remembrance of the Sacrifices and Honor of All Virginians Who Served in the Civil War." McDonnell chose language that his office said calls for the study, reflection and understanding of the Civil War -- but not celebration. But the bottom line is that any proclamation at all was going to anger some people -- probably even Civil War History Month if he had chosen to go that route.

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Washington, D.C.: Are you aware of any formal move afoot to boycott Virginia tourism and businesses?

Rosalind S. Helderman: I am not aware of any such move at the moment. However, the NAACP called for a boycott of Virginia over the same issue in the 1990s and the group has called an emergency meeting to discuss this for Saturday.

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washingtonpost.com: Democrats step up protest over Confederacy proclamation The Richmond-Times Dispatch, April 7)

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Denver, Colo.: One the one hand, being a part of the Confederacy is a huge component of the state's history. You can't just place in a trunk in the attic and forget about it.

One the other hand, there has been a lot of talk lately comparing the Tea Party activists to Revolutionary War patriots: they are just trying to free us from a tyrannical government. So there is a part of me -- though I try to stay above the fray intellectually -- that says that this declaration, at this time, carries more symbolism than it might have even just a few years ago.

Rosalind S. Helderman: You may well be right. In reporting the story yesterday, a number of people on both sides of the issue chose to place this statement against the backdrop of that kind of rhetoric coming from the tea party activists. Gov. Wilder, for instance, said he thinks will not help cool our overheated politics of the moment. The representative of the Sons of Confederate Veterans said he believes actions by the federal government lately help people better understand the mindset of the Confederates and their desire to resist federal power.

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Prior Proclamations...: A decade ago, former GOP Gov. Gilmore's proclamations included references to slavery as a cause for the war (not the lone cause of the war).

Maybe its because I live in NYC and never lived in the South, but why is any acknowledgement of the role slavery played in the Civil War bothersome to some?

Rosalind S. Helderman: It's an interesting question. Actually, the member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans I spoke to yesterday said he would not have objected to a slavery mention, although he said other members of his group might have. He also said he did not want a proclamation urging study of the Confederacy to be entirely devoted to slavery--he felt Gilmore's statement had given the topic too much attention.

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North Bethesda, Md.: To correct a previous poster, there are indeed months for Asian Americans and Hispanic Heritage.

Rosalind S. Helderman: Thank you, you are correct. McDonnell has noted he has already issued dozens of similar proclamations since taking office in January. He declared February Black History Month.

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D.C.: Slavery wasn't the core of why Virginia succeeded or the PRIME cause of the Civil War? It suggests that Arlington doesn't have a very good grasp of his/her state's history.

Here's a choice excerpt from a speech given at Virginia's February 1861 secession convention by the South Carolinian John Preston, one of the Confederacy's great apostles of disunion:

"You may, as you are at this moment doing, centralize a coercive power at Washington stronger than the Praetorian bands when the Roman eagles shadowed the earth 'from Lusitania to the Caucasus,' but you cannot come nearer coalescing the people of Virginia and the people of Vermont, the people of the St. Lawrence and the people of the Gulf, than did Rome to make one of the Gaul and the Dacian, the Briton and the Ionian. No community of origin, no community of language, law or religion, can amalgamate a people whose severance is proclaimed by the rigid requisitions of material necessity. Nature forbids African slavery at the North. Southern civilization cannot exist without African slavery. None but an equal race can labor at the South. Destroy involuntary labor and Anglo Saxon civilization must be remitted to the latitudes whence it sprung."

It is a little like saying that anti-Semitism had only a little to do with the goals of Nazi Germany.

Rosalind S. Helderman: Thank you for this.

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washingtonpost.com: 2010 Proclamations (Office of Gov. Bob McDonnell)

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Fairfax, Va.: Why does the Governor find it necessary to elevate such a terrible time in American History? How would we all feel, if the a month was set aside by the Germans that honored the Holocaust? I believe the Governor is very misguided and any African Americans that voted for him in the last election should feel the sting of that vote now!

Anita Kumar: The Governor has issued more than two dozen proclamations since he was sworn into office on a variety of topics including Black History Month, Child Abuse Prevention Month and Career and Technical Education Month. He decides which to sign based on requests, tradition or his office's own ideas. Most, of course, are not controversial.

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Bowie, Md.: Any possibility to the conspiracy theory that issues like this are brought up (by conservatives) to distract opponents into unimportant battles; while cutting school budgets and other important government functions?

Rosalind S. Helderman: I see this argument raised by both sides in various political debates whenever a symbolic issue gets a lot of attention. People will suggest it is being done purposely as a distraction to more serious issues. I almost always find such theories hard to buy. Elected officials want to be in control of the agenda; they don't actually like distractions, particularly those that get them bad press. They take staff time away from other things. It's especially hard to believe in this instance--if McDonnell wanted the attention, wouldn't he have done more to publicize the proclamation than quietly posting it on a rarely read portion of the state website, along with lots of other proclamations?

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Gainesville, Va.: As a Yankee-born Virginian, I find the governor's actions appalling. Even if we ignore slavery, the Confederacy represents a rebellion against the sovereignty of the United States. That rebellion ruined the South for decades and let to the most shocking carnage in American history. Nothing should be done to glorify that tragic moment in history, and nothing should be done which encourages further rebellion against the nation of laws and liberty.

Rosalind S. Helderman: Thank you for the comment.

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Leesburg, Va. : The debate over the health-care bill has also been classified as a state's rights issue.

I think it was irresponsible of the governor to take this action given the recent threats and actions against lawmakers over health care.

He seems to be stirring a pot that is already boiling.

Rosalind S. Helderman: Thank you for the comment. I will note that McDonnell has spoken out quite strongly against those threats. And, in fact, he was one of at least 30 governors to receive a threatening letter urging him to leave office. (He turned it over to the FBI.)

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Open question: To those who claim that the Civil War wasn't about slavery but about "state's rights:" What do you think would have happened to slavery if the South had won and stayed a separate nation?

Rosalind S. Helderman: Hard to know, right?

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Rural Nebraska: What does this mean for school children? How will this history be taught? Will there be enactments, discussion of the right of states to maintain a system of slavery, will there be children chained to represent the enslavement of a race of people? Or will it be just about the pride of a lost cause?

Rosalind S. Helderman: I doubt this proclamation means much for how the Civil War will be taught in Virginia's classrooms. The state's Standards of Learning curriculum, written by educators, governs what gets taught. This is really largely a symbolic gesture.

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Arlington, Va.: At the risk of being off topic, what is the Attorney General doing with all of those lawsuits attacking federal regulations? I was most interested in his opposition to fuel efficiency standards for cars which seems harmless enough. Perhaps he is doing too much by fighting against too many causes at one.

Rosalind S. Helderman: An interesting thought. It's not a huge office and these suits are largely being handled by the same small group of attorneys at the top of the office. Do they really have time for all of these? We'll see how they handle it.

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washingtonpost.com: 30-plus governors told to quit in letters from Guardians of the Free Republics (Post, April 3)

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Washington, D.C.: How can this be interpreted as anything but a purely political move on the governor's part?

Anita Kumar: Governor McDonnell told reporters yesterday that he signed the proclamation because of the battlefields in Virginia and that he hoped to helped tourism in the state. He said he hoped that that people's thinking about civil rights and the role of the Confederacy in Virginia history have advanced to the point where "people can talk about and discuss and...begin to understand the history a little better."

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Arlington, Va.: Why are southern Republicans so in love with the Confederacy? Do they believe that fighting for slavery was a noble cause? That seems to be the message they're sending me. I think Virginia's Republican party can forget about attracting minorities in the future.

Rosalind S. Helderman: How a gesture like this affects the Republican party's outreach to minorities is a really interesting topic. McDonnell was particularly outspoken during his campaign about wanting to broaden the party. He made an explicit attempt to get immigrant groups on board, for instance. It's hard to know how they will greet this.

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Richmond, Va.: Can you try to understand why people bristle when they are called racist? The vast majority of the Confederacy's adherents were not slaveholders; it was an issue of states' rights and perceived Northern aggression. To lump all who want to honor the Confederacy with racists just shows how biased you are.

Rosalind S. Helderman: Thank you for the comment.

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Lancaster, Pa.: No doubt slavery is woven into almost every aspect of the Civil War. I do not deny this. But at some point, will it ever be appropriate to honor the lives of those who fought to protect their homes and families? It is difficult to know many soldiers owned slaves and impossible to know how many had a grasp (or interest in) of the constitutional issues of states' rights; but it safe to say that probably all of them felt an obligation to protect their homeland from military forces that posed a threat. Why do we lose sight of this -- and why cannot we not honor this?

Rosalind S. Helderman: I think there may well be plenty of people who would not have too much trouble recognizing the Confederacy and its role in shaping Virginia, as long as it's done in a way that also recognizes slavery and the pain that it caused. Some of those folks would probably feel okay with the statement put out by McDonnell--it was carefully worded to essentially urge the study of the Confederacy and not necessarily the celebration of it. Others would have wanted to see some mention of slavery in the document.

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D.C. : Do you think this will have the same economic impact that SC suffered during their flag controversy?

I'm a D.C. resident who frequently vacations Virginia Beach, etc., but will not spend a penny in Virginia -- unless I run out of gas but I may just push the car home.

Anita Kumar: It's unclear what the impact will be. There will definitely be ongoing negative attention this week, but I'm not sure if it will last beyond that. Hugh Keogh, president of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, called it an an "irritant" and said he may get a handful of questions about the issue from business leaders who are looking to relocate to the state but only as idle chatter after they ask about substantive issues, such as taxes.

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Don't blame me, I voted for Creigh Deeds: Not sure if anybody but me is still following Creigh Deeds on Twitter (his tweets are just the same as during the campaign, apparently they really are just how he is). I got hooked during the campaign and haven't been able to break the habit.

In between a lot of serious ones about the coal mining disaster, and the usual odd ones about his continued journey into popular American music of a certain vintage, I was tickled to see he was "retweeting" a funny line on this crisis. Go Creigh! (And isn't this interesting, since Deeds is actually named for a Civil War (civilian) hero and has confronted the issue head on and thoughtfully before.)

Rosalind S. Helderman: I just looked it up, to see what Sen. Deeds had to say. Here it is: RT @AugustIX: Isn't every month Confederate History Month in Virginia?

I did a story back during the campaign about the history of Creigh's name. He was, indeed, named for a Civil War hero. And he has said that as a child, he had a picture of Robert E. Lee hanging in his bedroom. When asked during the campaign, he talked about how this was an important and painful part of Virginia's past that needs to be remembered.

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Annandale, Va.: Has Michael Steele commented on McDonnell's declaration?

Rosalind S. Helderman: We've asked--we'll let you know if he does.

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Washington, D.C.: To Richmond, Va., Even though most confederate soldiers were not slave holders themselves, they clearly fought to protect the institution of slavery -- don't forget that expansion into the West was ongoing and many slave-owners hoped to own their own workers someday.

Rosalind S. Helderman: We're really getting lots of thoughtful comments today, on both sides of this issue. Thank you for this one, Washington, D.C.

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Oakton, Va.: If you actually read the proclamation you'll see nothing there about the causes of the war or any hint of McDonnell's possible views on the Confederacy. That this is even considered a Democrat/Republican "issue" is ridiculous, especially when you consider the Republican role during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Anita Kumar: You are correct. That was on purpose. As I indicated earlier, the governor's office carefully wrote the proclamation so that it did not include the cause of the war and did not "celebrate" the war. Their goal was to call for study, reflection and understanding of the Civil War.

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Arlington, Va.: The South didn't fight for four years just to preserve slavery; most of the people who fought derived no benefit from it and were not slaveholders. We just didn't want the Federal government telling us what to do. That's why the negative comments from everywhere ranking on Virginia for this proclamation rankle me. It's our history and we can celebrate it as we want, butt out!

Rosalind S. Helderman: And for this one, on the other side.

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Washington, D.C.: To add to North Bethesda's comment: There is also a Native American History Month (March). Also as a native Virginian who looks across the river with sorrow, why would the governor choose to be so provocative? Fail to mention slavery yet honor the Confederate dead?! I take honor in Virginia's knowledge and love for its history, but it has to be the WHOLE history, not just the white-washed parts.

Rosalind S. Helderman: Thank you for this.

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Washington, D.C.: This proclamation may offend but doesn't really affect anyone. On the other hand, Virginia does still celebrate Lee-Jackson Day as a state holiday. (For a time, it was the incongruous Lee-Jackson-King Day.)

Rosalind S. Helderman: Yes, that's true. Still celebrated and noted each year on the floor of the General Assembly, which is in session when it takes place. The same is true for MLK day.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: Hi - Thanks for the chat. I'm from way up north and for the life of me don't understand why this is about the confederacy, not the civil war and why no mention of slavery. No judgment intended, just deep confusion. Can you help?

Rosalind S. Helderman: Well, the literal answer is likely that proclamations in Virginia come as the result of requests from citizen's groups. This one came about at the request of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. As you might imagine, their request was for a document specifically about the Confederacy.

But the larger question--why McDonnell didn't do a broader Civil War declaration to promote tourism--is something we'll have to keep exploring.

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Rosalind S. Helderman: I have to duck out a bit early. Anita will take you all on through the rest of the hour. Thanks so much for all the great questions!

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Isn't this evidence that McDonnell was just being a wolf in sheep's clothing when he tried to portray himself as a more moderate Republican during last year's campaign?

Anita Kumar: The proclamation did surprise some people yesterday because of the way Governor McDonnell campaigned last year. For the most part, he has spent the last few months taking the same moderate, pragmatic approach that he took during his campaign. He picked a team of top advisers who were for the most part not considered ideological. He concentrated his speeches and trips across the state on his top priorities during the campaign: jobs and the economy. He steered clear of talking about social issues or taking a stand on them unless forced to do so. But this proclamation would be the exception to that behavior.

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Alexandria, Va.: It is becoming increasingly clear that McDonnell and Cuccinelli want to take Virginia back to the days of the confederacy. First the whole issue regarding discrimination and gays/lesbians, then the lawsuit over health care, now this. What's next? Will the Dynamic Duo threaten to secede?

Thank goodness that the governor's term is limited to one term.

Anita Kumar: Thank you for your comment.

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washingtonpost.com: Virginia revises troublesome Northrop contract (Post, April 3)

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Alexandria, Va.: The Governor did not call a news conference to issue this proclamation. When I read the proclamation, I don't see a longing for slavery and I don't see much in the way of revisionism when it comes to the Commonwealth's role in a fight against the Army of the United States of America. I do see an admiration for General Lee and his efforts to bring about peace after the surrender at Appomattox. Yet, it seems clear that many if not most of the critics have not read the proclamation. None of them seem to mention or contradict McDonnell's stated intent to drum up tourism dollars for the Commonwealth. What is the likelihood that this benign proclamation will actually induce additional tourism to the Commonwealth? Is it possible that with increased tourism there may be the possibility of more jobs and perhaps enhancing the Commonwealth's tax base?

Anita Kumar: You are correct. There was no news conference. The Governor did answer our question about the proclamation on a conference call with the media about another issue. The governor's office did post the proclamation online Friday, like it does with other proclamations, though it was just noticed by media yesterday. I don't think the Governor plans to promote it. It's unclear if other agencies or tourism boards will do that as a way to help with tourism, but that is what the Governor is saying he wants to happen.

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Historical Statistics: For the record:

Per the 1860 census, 1.5 percent of the population owned slaves. I could not find Virginia's ownership percentage.

Anita Kumar: Thanks for the information.

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Martinsville, Va.: Virginia limits the term of the governor to two, not one. However, they cannot be served in succession.

Anita Kumar: Thanks for the information, Martinsville.

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Machipongo, Va.: The Civil War was the most disastrous episode in the history of the United States. Why would anyone want to celebrate it? It seems as though McDonnell is deliberately sticking his finger in the eye of those who support Obama and for no reason other than to try to appear to be a Tea Party champion. The Confederates fought not to defend their homeland against an enemy they created, but to maintain an economy based on no-cost labor. They (and their modern sympathizers) deny the fundamental tenet of democracy: "the majority rules". The fact that the federal government overrules state government is a simple expression of that tenet.

Anita Kumar: Governor McDonnell says he is not "celebrating" the Civil War -- merely acknowledging that it is part of Virginia's past and that we should reflect and study on that history. But clearly based on this comment and many others, people are interpreting this in many different ways. Thanks for these comments.

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Anita Kumar: Thanks for all your comments. That's all the time we have today. Goodbye. Anita and Roz.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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