Gov. Rick Perry (R-Tex.) has a Barbour problem.
As with Perry, there was a time when folks were clamoring for Gov. Haley Barbour (R-Miss.) to get into the race for the GOP presidential nomination. He’s a powerhouse fundraiser who thrilled both the conservative and establishment wings of the Republican Party. But Barbour had a problem. A race problem. So much so that The Post’s Karen Tumulty reported last March that “Barbour . . . is considering giving a major speech on the subject. The likely venue: a 50th anniversary reunion of the Freedom Riders, set for late May in Jackson.”
Barbour scrubbed the presidential run. And one of the reasons could be that he couldn’t find a persuasive way to discuss race, the civil rights era and his place in it. Before he pulled the plug on his Oval Office ambitions, GQ asked a longtime friend of the governor’s if Barbour could pull off such a do-or-die high-wire act. “I wish I knew, I wish I knew,” he said. “I don’t know. He’s smart enough to know, and if there’s a way to figure it out he will.. . . But if he hasn’t figured out how you overcome it, or pretty well minimize it, in my opinion he won’t run.”
Perry now confronts the same problem Barbour did. If he can’t come to terms with it, Perry should do what Barbour did: Abandon his White House bid.
Perry talked about the “Niggerhead” controversy for the first time in an interview with Fox News correspondent Juliet Huddy that aired last night.
PERRY: All of us agree that the word that was on that rock is a very offensive rock and a very offensive word. At the moment we had to move to paint over that rock, we did.
HUDDY: Why are people coming out and saying — the ones who are saying, “Well, wait a second, we've seen it — we've seen that word. We saw that word there over the last several years”?
PERRY: I think there were some very much and strong inconsistencies and just infactual [sic] information that was in that story. I know for a fact in 1984 that rock was painted over. It was painted over very soon.
HUDDY: And your family did that?
PERRY: My family did that. We painted over that rock, and it stayed that way. I have no idea where or why people would say that they had seen that rock, because that's just not the fact.
Still not good enough.
As The Post reported Monday, Perry has a complicated record on matters of race.He appointed the first African American to the state Supreme Court. And then made him chief justice. Perry’s pick for the Texas A&M Board of Regents became his alma mater’s first black chairman. But the “Niggerhead” controversy is one in a series of troubling revelations about the long-serving Lone Star governor.
There was the racially tinged campaign for state agriculture commissioner in 1990. There was the 1991 he-said-he-said involving the N-word, a Perry deputy and two businessmen seeking a loan from the agriculture department. And then there’s Perry’s embrace of the Confederacy. He has supported allowing the Confederate flag to fly on state buildings. He opposed efforts to remove Confederate monuments, plaques and memorials from public property. Salon’s Justin Elliot detailed “Perry’s confederate past” in a July report that included this:
“A 1998 voting guide published by a leading neo-Confederate group and obtained by Salon not only endorses Perry for lieutenant governor but also describes him as ‘a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.’ Perry’s office did not respond to a request for comment about the governor’s possible membership in the Sons of Confederate Veterans.”
And the folks over at American Bridge 21st Century, a progressive research group that focuses on the words and deeds of Republicans, brought to my attention a 2007 Associated Press story about a celebration of Perry’s second full term as governor that featured musician Ted Nugent “wearing a cutoff T-shirt emblazoned with the Confederate flag and shouting offensive remarks about non-English speakers.. . .”
Barbour was dogged by similar race problems when he was considering a run for the Republican nomination. “To me, it’s a sort of feeling that it’s a nit that it is not significant, that is not, uh, that is trying to make a big deal out of something that doesn’t amount to diddly,” Barbour said when asked about the controversy surrounding Virginia’s Confederacy history month proclamation that made no reference to slavery. “I just don’t remember it as being that bad,” Barbour told the Weekly Standard when discussing the civil rights movement as experienced in Yazoo City, Miss. “You heard of the Citizens Councils? Up north they think it was like the KKK. Where I come from it was an organization of town leaders,” he continued in the same interview. “We didn’t have a problem with the Klan in Yazoo City.”
But at the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides in May, Barbour not only spoke to the veterans of that seminal moment in civil rights history. He apologized to them on behalf of the state of Mississippi.
On behalf of the state and the people of Mississippi it is . . . my honor to welcome you to the 50th anniversary celebration of the Freedom Rides. To the Freedom Riders, yourselves, our state does celebrate and thank you for your courage, your commitment, your sufferings and your sacrifices of 50 years ago. We apologize to you for your mistreatment in 1961, and we appreciate this chance for atonement and reconciliation.
Perry ought to find a way to talk honestly and persuasively about race from his perspective that seeks to explain and heal. That’s what President Obama did to great effect when his 2008 campaign for the Democratic nomination was almost derailed by the incendiary sermons of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. If Perry can’t or won’t address these serious and legitimate concerns he should get out of the race, as Barbour did.
Race and racism must not be ducked by anyone who aspires to be president of the United States. Perhaps Perry will be more expansive at The Post-Bloomberg debate on Tuesday in New Hampshire than he was in that Fox News interview. His relative silence now speaks volumes.