Robert McCartney
Robert McCartney
Columnist

McCartney: McDonnell was right to scrap Confederate History Month, but will rest of Va. GOP follow his admirable lead?

Gov. Bob McDonnell deserves applause for fully confessing past error and scrapping Confederate History Month in Virginia. Now the question is whether the rest of the state Republican party will follow his admirable lead in explicitly repudiating the secessionists’ long-ago fight to defend slavery.

So far, the answer is mixed. State Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli won’t say a word on the topic. That’s striking, because he usually rushes to speak out on any available issue, especially the contentious ones. His silence could be a gesture of sympathy to racist parts of the conservative base still nostalgic for the Lost Cause.

But McDonnell has received support, albeit carefully worded, from an unlikely quarter: George Allen, the former governor and U.S. senator. That’s significant, because Allen was the GOP governor who famously stoked the controversy by proclaiming Confederate History and Heritage Month for three straight years starting in 1995. His attachment to the rebel legacy ran so deep that he displayed a Confederate battle flag at his home and in a television ad when he ran for governor.

Given Cuccinelli’s reticence and the enduring influence of groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, it’s too early to say definitively that Virginia Republicans are giving up using Confederate heritage as a political tool.

Still, it’s a telling and positive sign of the GOP’s evolution that two of its top leaders in the state that led the Confederacy have switched course on honoring it. It’s well past time for the state to stop letting romantic notions about the secessionist regime obscure its wicked traits — a mistake made by segregationist Democrats in the past as well as Republicans more recently.

The new tone is particularly welcome as the nation prepares to mark the 150th anniversary in November of the election of Abraham Lincoln, which led to the start of the war five months later.

The issue got stirred up again in April, when McDonnell issued a Confederate History Month proclamation with no mention of slavery. Mocked nationwide, he quickly apologized and added a paragraph recognizing that the “evil and inhumane” institution led to the Civil War.

The governor went further in a Sept. 24 speech. McDonnell said the state will not celebrate the Confederacy next year but instead will commemorate the whole of the Civil War in Virginia. He said the event will remember “all Virginians — free and enslaved, Union and Confederate.” He also praised the war for ending slavery and said the earlier proclamation was “an error of haste and not of heart.”

The political shift comes partly in response to demographic changes. The state, especially in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, increasingly draws residents from around the country and the world who lack roots in Virginia’s past. The business community also dislikes seeing such disputes cloud the state’s reputation.

Virginia today is “more the Dynamic Dominion than the Old Dominion,” said Ed Gillespie, a former chairman of both the national and Virginia Republican parties. The state is “growing and diversifying, and I think the governor’s new proclamation reflects that,” he said.

Allen, in a two-sentence response to my request for comment, said he agreed with McDonnell’s “decision to recognize all aspects of this pivotal and tragic time in our nation’s history.” Although he didn’t use the word “slavery,” Allen indirectly welcomed the Union’s victory in 1865 as an advance for liberty.

“It is vital that we understand the motivations, lives and deaths of the men and women of every background, race and social status who were part of this important struggle to fulfill the words of the Declaration of Independence, that all men and women should enjoy the freedom and rights given to them by God,” Allen said.

There’s little doubt that McDonnell and Allen changed tack on this partly because of their aspirations for higher office. McDonnell is often mentioned as a possible GOP vice presidential candidate in 2012.

Race is an especially sensitive topic for Allen as he actively considers running for the U.S. Senate in 2012 against incumbent Jim Webb (D). Webb narrowly ousted Allen from the Senate in 2006 after Allen was videotaped using a racial slur, “macaca,” to refer to an Indian American Democratic campaign worker.

Allen’s statement supporting McDonnell in ending Confederate History Month “reminds me of the ‘new Nixon,’ ” said George Mason University political scientist Mark Rozell, referring to Richard Nixon’s image overhaul before running for president in 1968.

“Now we’re getting the new George Allen. He really is trying to remake himself. The fact that he took this position is representative of his understanding of the shifting politics of Virginia,” Rozell said.

Now we need Cuccinelli to get on board. He’s thinking of running for governor in 2013, but so far he’s mum on this issue.

Confederate History Month “really has nothing to do with this office, so we just don’t have any comment about it,” said Brian Gottstein, Cuccinelli’s spokesman in the attorney general’s office.

That’s pretty disingenuous. When he wants, Cuccinelli manages to find a way to comment on virtually any topic. A skeptic of global warming, he cited the alleged need to crack down on fraudulent expenses to try to go after a former University of Virginia professor whose research has supported concern about climate change.

Bob McDonnell and George Allen have moved to the right side of history. Ken Cuccinelli should say whether he’s ready to do the same.