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December 21, 2010

Yeah, About Haley Barbour....

I stood up for him yesterday but the feeding frenzy went into overdrive and someone sent Politico a quote from a 1982 NY Times story on Haley Barbour's run for Senate that year.

But the racial sensitivity at Barbour headquarters was suggested by an exchange between the candidate and an aide who complained that there would be ''coons'' at a campaign stop at the state fair. Embarrassed that a reporter heard this, Mr. Barbour warned that if the aide persisted in racist remarks, he would be reincarnated as a watermelon and placed at the mercy of blacks.

Jim Geraghty seems to think it's a near fatal, if not actually fatal, blow.

A pattern of remarks is a different matter than one off-the-cuff anecdote that suggests a man remembers the elders of his youth through rose-colored glasses. Watermelon jokes are appalling. Perhaps in that time and place the comment was common, but to modern ears, across the country today, it’s an unthinkably obnoxious and racially provocative remark.

I asked earlier, in reference to Barbour remembering his local Citizens Council as anti-Klan, “This comment outweighs everything else he’s done with his life?” Presuming the anecdote of Barbour’s watermelon joke is accurate, it will outweigh everything else he’s done in the eyes of millions upon millions of voters. There’s too much baggage to that remark to dismiss as a momentary stupid slip of the tongue. Even if a racially insensitive remark is said to rebuke another’s racially insensitive remark, with enough examples, the benefit of the doubt is eviscerated.

Read the whole piece. Geraghty isn't throwing Barbour under the bus. He defended him yesterday and doesn't conclude from this that Barbour is a racist but a pattern is emerging of Barbour's approach to race.

My one caveat in this (which Geraghty also seems to share) is the accuracy of the statement. The watermelon anecdote is not in quotes and Ben Smith, who published the tip, describes the original article in the NY Times as "almost sneering about Barbour". It's 28 years old, so I don't see how we are ever going to know the truth (a contemporaneous protest by Barbour to the Times would be nice) but it's politics, so truth is often irrelevant.

Barbour comes from a period of time where you could say the things he is accused of and still be considered a moderate in someways on race. But in 2010 it just sounds so jarring and is simply far beyond what is considered acceptable. A younger candidate could never get away with that today, it would be an automatic political death sentence.

When yesterday's liberal furor broke over the Standard piece, my initial interest in it was the double standard that is inevitably applied by the media when it comes to controversial remarks, especially about race, by Republicans and Democrats.

Yes, the case will be made that Democrats, including Barack ("typical white person") Obama, get away with murder on this score. But that doesn't mean Republicans should give a pass to people with views of race that are questionable at best. There's always a strong temptation to rally around and defend our own, especially when they are attacked in a way Democrats never are. However, it's simply bad politics to run out candidates that are less likely to win just to prove a point. And if the evidence is that they are racists, throwing them under the bus is just the right thing to do regardless of what Democrats get away with. To be clear, I'm not talking about Barbour personally here, just the principles involved.

That said, Barbour was always going to be a tough sell nationally. He's a big, gruff, heavily accented guy from a state that conjures certain images for a lot of people nationally (racism and poverty to put it bluntly). I'm not saying any of this is true or fair. I'm just saying it's the reality.

As I said yesterday, if Barbour wants to run for President, he's going to need to have a better spin on his recollections of what life was like in the south during his younger days (through his college and early adult years). Even before today's story, his remembrances of that time are too at odds with the experiences and beliefs of others.

I'll wait to hear what Barbour has to say on this watermelon thing but if it's true and/or there are more such quotes out there...he's done.

UPDATED: Barbour reacted to yesterday's story by firmly denouncing the Citizens Councils.

“When asked why my hometown in Mississippi did not suffer the same racial violence when I was a young man that accompanied other towns’ integration efforts, I accurately said the community leadership wouldn’t tolerate it and helped prevent violence there. My point was my town rejected the Ku Klux Klan, but nobody should construe that to mean I think the town leadership were saints, either. Their vehicle, called the ‘Citizens Council,’ is totally indefensible, as is segregation. It was a difficult and painful era for Mississippi, the rest of the country, and especially African Americans who were persecuted in that time.”

As I said yesterday, he needed a better narrative. That's better.


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posted by DrewM. at 11:24 AM

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