This post has been updated.
“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” Cliven Bundy told supporters last week, according to a New York Times story that published on Wednesday night.
The Nevada rancher was previously best known for refusing to pay two decades-worth of fines for grazing his cattle on federal land and fighting off the Bureau of Land Management for the nth time, this time with the help of armed militia -- or for being the patron saint of state's rights, pick your poison. But since those controversial comments were published, he has seen most of his friends in high places vanish overnight. Republican politicians who saw the Bundy stand-off as an opportunity to connect with the far right are now trying to figure out which adverb will put the most distance between themselves and the rancher.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul went with wholeheartedly, releasing a statement on Thursday saying Bundy's "remarks on race are offensive and I wholeheartedly disagree with him." Nevada Sen. Dean Heller chose completely. His spokesperson said Thursday, “Senator Heller completely disagrees with Mr. Bundy’s appalling and racist statements, and condemns them in the most strenuous way.” Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, who previously battled with MSNBC's Chris Hayes about Bundy, preferred strongly. "I strongly disagree with Cliven Bundy’s comments about slavery," she said.
Despite the flurry of backtracking, support for Bundy in most of the Republican Party had already gone tepid, or been nonexistent to begin with. When Paul was asked about Bundy on Fox News this Monday, he agreed that, broadly, he "would like to see the land owned by individuals, either privately or, at the very most, the state government, but not the federal government. And I would like to see the Endangered Species Act administered with a little more sense of what people need as well as what animals need."
Regarding the specific situation in Nevada, however, he said, "I'm for obeying the law and I'm not for a violent outcome." Heller did a local news interview with fellow Nevada Sen. Harry Reid (D) a few weeks ago. Inevitably, they discussed Bundy. “What Sen. Reid may call domestic terrorists, I call patriots," Heller said. As the stand-off came to an end in Bunkerville, Nev., Heller's enthusiasm waned. He released a statement on April 12 that read, “The dispute is over, the BLM is leaving, but emotions and tensions are still near the boiling point, and we desperately need a peaceful conclusion to this conflict. I urge all the people involved to please return to your homes and allow the BLM officers to collect their equipment and depart without interference.”
Conservative personality Glenn Beck has always been wary of Cliven Bundy. After Bundy's remarks on African Americans were published, he told his radio listeners that he had been right all along. That shows you how unhinged from reality this guy is,” he said. “You’ve got to distance yourself. You must know who you are standing next to at all times – with exactness." He went on, "You wondered if blacks were better off as slaves picking cotton and having a family life? They didn’t have a family life! That’s the real key to what he said. And there’s no way around that sentence.”
Regardless of how Republicans feel about federalism, they're likely done making Bundy the anecdotal thread they string the issue through. Especially given Bundy's self-composed coda to his New York Times interview, performed on two conservative talk radio shows on Thursday.
He went on Alex Jones' radio show, and said, "I'm not racist" and that the New York Times should retract their story. "I would appreciate that. I think they should do that," Bundy said. "They're making it a racist-type thing."
On Peter Schiff's talk radio show, however, he stood by his remarks. "Are they happier now under this government subsidy system than they were when they were slaves, and they was able to have their family structure together, and the chickens and garden, and the people had something to do? And so, in my mind I’m wondering, are they better off being slaves, in that sense, or better off being slaves to the United States government, in the sense of the subsidies. I’m wondering. That’s what. And the statement was right. I am wondering.”
There have been some Bundy supporters who have been reticent to relinquish a fairy-tale perfect fight with the federal government. Is it possible to step away from Bundy without stepping away from his cows? They're trying.
Arizona state Sen. Kelli Ward — who spoke at a Bundy rally in Nevada this month — wrote in an e-mail to The Washington Post: "Apparently he has some thoughts that aren't shared by many Americans. He is free to think and speak as he chooses (even if it may offend) and we are free to listen (or not) and form our own opinions. I am thankful for our amazing Constitution and the 1st Amendment right to freedom of speech — if I don't agree, I don't seek to silence or shame the speaker or to paint his associates with the broad brush of collective condemnation." Ward says she also disagrees with Bundy's statements to the Times.
Conservative talk radio host Dana Loesch, who has interviewed Bundy on her show, wrote a blog post on the rancher's remarks. "I hope no one is surprised that an old man rancher isn’t media-trained to express himself perfectly." Fiore said, "Mr. Bundy has said things I don’t agree with; however, we cannot let this divert our attention from the true issue of the atrocities BLM committed by harming our public land and the animals living on it." Republican National Committee chair Reince Preibus said Thursday, “Bundy could be right in his dispute with the government and the courts will likely decide that. But he’s 100 percent wrong on race.”
The Democrats who have come out against Bundy on Thursday have had no such reservations, and will make it difficult for the last remaining Bundy partisans to remain strong.
Reid, who has publicly denounced Bundy for breaking the law for months, released a statement calling on Republicans to step away from Bundy. “To advance his extreme, hateful views, Bundy has endangered the lives of innocent women and children. This is not a game. It is the height of irresponsibility for any individual or entity in a position of power or influence to glorify or romanticize such a dangerous individual, and anyone who has done so should come to their senses and immediately condemn Bundy. For their part, national Republican leaders could help show a united front against this kind of hateful, dangerous extremism by publicly condemning Bundy."
The Nevada State Democratic Party released a statement almost as soon as the New York Times published its story. "Every Republican elected official who risked inciting violence to gain political capital out of Cliven Bundy now owes the people of Nevada an apology for their irresponsible behavior of putting their own political future ahead of the safety of Nevadans.”
The slow news week that surrounds Bundy's comments may make it even more difficult for Republicans to move away from Bundy. With Congress and President Obama out of town, asking every politician their opinion on Cliven Bundy has become the news generator of the week.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry went on "CBS This Morning," and was asked about Bundy's comments. "I don’t know what he said," Perry responded, "but the fact is Cliven Bundy is a side issue here compared to what we’re looking at in the state of Texas. He is an individual – deal with his issues as you may. What we have in the state of Texas, I don’t get distracted about, is the federal government is coming in and attempting, from our perspective, to take over private property. And you must -- if this country’s to stay the land of freedom and liberty, private property rights must be respected."
Here's what the Times reported about Bundy's remarks:
“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” he said. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.
“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”