More details emerged Friday about Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie’s past commemoration of Confederate leaders with his remarks in a 1995 speech praising the president of the Confederacy as a “martyr to the ‘Lost Cause.’ ”
Wilkie called Jefferson Davis an “exceptional man in an exceptional age,” and while the VA leader called slavery and its aftermath “a stain on our story as it is a stain on every civilization in history,” he defended Confederate history and the soldiers who fought for the South.
Wilkie’s remarks at the annual Davis birthday celebration held at the U.S. Capitol by the United Daughters of the Confederacy were first reported by CNN, which discovered a transcript in the United Daughters of the Confederacy Magazine.
The speech sheds further light on Wilkie’s lifelong fascination with military history, including that of his ancestors, who fought for the Confederacy.
Early in a career working for conservative lawmakers and politicians in Washington, Wilkie defended Confederate symbols and was, as recently as 2005, a fixture at the annual memorial ceremonies held by descendants of Confederate veterans around Davis’s birthday. In 1995, Wilkie was legislative director for Rep. David Funderburk, a Republican from his home state of North Carolina.
The Washington Post reported on Wilkie’s sympathies with the Confederate cause before his Senate confirmation hearing in June. At the time, he told The Post that the events had become “part of the politics that divide us” and that he no longer attended them.
“Today marks the 187th anniversary of the birth of Jefferson Davis,” Wilkie began his speech at the Capitol on June 3, 1995, “planter, soldier, statesman, President of the Confederate States of America, martyr to ‘The Lost Cause,’ and finally the gray-clad phoenix—an exceptional man in an exceptional age.”
On Friday, VA spokesman Curt Cashour said in a statement that “Like many other Democrat and Republican officials, including President George W. Bush, Gov. Lawton Chiles, and Senators Sam Nunn, Jim Webb and Lloyd Bentsen, Secretary Wilkie occasionally participated in events recognizing Civil War Veterans years ago.
“Most of these events occurred in the 1990s and were government sanctioned, and attended by Republicans and Democrats.”
Cashour called them “historical in nature.”
The 1995 remarks underscored Wilkie’s apparent belief in a theory that slavery was not a central cause of the Civil War and that he sees the secession of the Southern states from the Union as a sympathetic, heroic struggle for states’ rights.
“To view our history and the ferocity of the Confederate soldier solely through the lens of slavery and by the slovenly standards of the present is dishonest and a disservice to our ancestors,” Wilkie said.
He called Davis “much more than a compilation of vital statistics” who “accepted the natural tragedy of life and the limits of man’s power to alter nature’s order. And for the first 3½ years of the war, that order included a defense of the institution of slavery.”
As recently as 2009, Wilkie gave a speech on Robert E. Lee to a Maryland division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, CNN reported. Cashour said Wilkie’s remarks came at a Christmas party and echoed what he said the same year at Arlington Cemetery at an event “to which President Obama sent a wreath recognizing the service of Confederate Veterans.”
Wilkie started his career as a young aide to Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), the five-term Senate firebrand who denounced Martin Luther King Jr. and once called gay people “weak, morally sick wretches.” He served as a top aide to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who lost his leadership post after defending a fellow senator’s segregationist campaign for president decades earlier. Wilkie joined the inner circle of former defense secretary and Iraq War architect Donald H. Rumsfeld before returning to the Pentagon last year to run military personnel policy for the Trump administration.