McDonnell's Civil War Blunder
Friday, April 9, 2010; 8:26 AM
How on earth does a new governor manage to make it seem that he's condoning slavery--or oblivious to its evils?
You would think that Robert McDonnell would have plenty to do in Richmond since taking office during a harsh recession. And the Confederacy is such a loaded subject, with constant state battles in the South over its flag and its symbols, that the danger of misfiring is great.
And yet Virginia's chief executive issued a Confederate History Month proclamation that was so horribly flawed, so politically tone-deaf, that he had to apologize within 24 hours.
The media coverage--front-page story in The Washington Post, stinging editorial in the Richmond Times-Dispatch--made that inevitable. The Civil War may have started 150 years ago, but it lives on in the 21st-century culture wars.
The clearest sign that the Republican governor had dug himself into a deep historical hole is that a number of conservative commentators turned on him, and others applauded his apology.
The war of secession is embedded in the culture as soon you get south of the Potomac River. I can remember listening to a tour guide in South Carolina talk about how the Yankees attacked our boys at Fort Sumter. Virginia celebrates Lee-Jackson Day, honoring Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Lee's birthday is honored along with MLK Day in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Mississippi, and there are parades, wreath-laying ceremonies and musket salutes.
There's an understandable desire on the part of any community to honor its war dead. But rebel soldiers were fighting to preserve the right of whites to own blacks. No amount of political side-stepping can avoid that. And that's why McDonnell had to quickly admit that he had made a "major omission" in trying to honor the Confederacy with no mention of those who were slaves.
McDonnell forged an image as an attractive, mainstream conservative after overcoming questions in last year's campaign about his master's thesis--written at age 34--which said that working women and feminists were "detrimental" to the family. He may now be in need of some image rehab.
Slate's John Dickerson says the apology "might be seen by some as a climb-down in the face of political correctness. But it was simply common sense. McDonnell's original declaration failed by the very standards of history it cited. It argued for the observation of Confederate History Month because historical context demanded it but elided the historical context of that rather enormous thing called slavery. As a member of the party with an elephant as its mascot, the governor was not able to get a pass for ignoring the one in the room. McDonnell compounded his problem by explaining the declaration's lack of a slavery reference on the grounds that 'there were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states,' he said. 'Obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues. But I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia.'
"This was historically nuts, politically curious, and logically inconsistent with McDonnell's own standards for other such proclamations. . . .
"As a political move, it was hard to fathom the initial overreach. This issue has become a switch that governors throw when they come into office. Democrats turn it off--McDonnell's two Democratic predecessors did not issue a proclamation honoring Confederate History Month--and Republicans turn it on. But the real puzzler was why McDonnell went the extra step to take out a previous Republican governor's nod to slavery. . . .
"During last year's campaign, McDonnell's opponents tried to paint him has a closet troglodyte who would turn back the clock once he got into office. . . . After having a brief civil war with himself over the last day, he has once again come to reconstruction."