Rand Paul addresses the students of Howard University. As brilliant as he is, he confesses he can’t figure out why the GOP has a certain reputation regarding race.
What gets lost is that the Republican Party has always been the party of civil rights and voting rights. Because Republicans believe that the federal government is limited in its function-some have concluded that Republicans are somehow inherently insensitive to minority rights. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Perhaps Rand is on to something. Maybe there’s been a misunderstanding over philosophy. The drive to limit the scope of government makes it look as if conservatives don’t care, as if they don’t want to extend a hand to the unfortunate. Victims of racism, for example. The perception has made for some bad public relations.
My father was a die-hard conservative actually. Back in the 80’s, when he learned there would be a Martin Luther King day in January, he asked, “Why did they give that n*gger a holiday?” Meaning, “Another federal mandate that will encumber business and squander taxes.” To the untrained ear, rhetorical flourishes like these are easily misconstrued.
Ronald Reagan once made a similar argument. He’d been asked to veto the MLK holiday legislation by limited-state activist and good friend Governor Meldrim Thomson:
Mr. Thomson called Dr. King “a man of immoral character whose frequent association with leading agents of communism is well established.”
Reagan was similarly daunted by the implications for government. Employing a familiar Libertarian argument, he replied:
“I have the same reservations you have, but here the perception of too many people is based on image, not reality.”
That the want to check federalism looked exactly like racism was a tragedy. Reagan apologized to Dr. King’s widow, then he played a round of golf at whites-only Augusta National. Which was misunderstood as well.
Unfortunately, the beat goes on. Only today I read a piece by Larry Elder, the self-proclaimed “Sage of South Central.” In it, he goes to great length to reacquaint the misty minded with Richard Nixon’s civil rights resume:
In the Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, Calif., records show considerable handwritten notes and correspondence between Nixon and King. This includes a 1957 letter from King acknowledging their previous meetings, which thanked Nixon for his “assiduous labor and dauntless courage in seeking to make the Civil Rights Bill a reality,” and praised him for his “devotion to the highest mandates of the moral law.”
But what’s your race-impression of Nixon? Probably nothing good.
Never mind that in 1956 Nixon revealed he was an honorary member of the NAACP. Or that Nixon pushed for passage of the ’57 civil rights bill in the Senate. Or that Time magazine wrote that Nixon’s support for civil rights incurred the wrath of one of his segregationist opponents, Sen. Richard Russell, D-Ga., who sarcastically called Nixon the NAACP’s “most distinguished member.”
Who knew? Not you. And the upshot?
But the GOP-is-racist meme can be heard nightly on MSNB-Hee Haw and in political science and history classes all over the country.
Very sad, oh my. But permit me? Perhaps this tragedy of historic perception arises from something like disbelief. A well-earned unease. A suspicion among African Americans that Republicans are rarely what they pretend to be. Example.
In earlier tapes released by the National Archives, Nixon told Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, “Henry, let’s leave the niggers to Bill and we’ll take care of the rest of the world” while working on his first presidential address to Congress. Nixon repeatedly referred to blacks as “niggers” and “jigaboos” in other conversations with Kissinger. Nixon later complained to Erlichman that Great Society programs were a waste “because blacks were genetically inferior to whites.”
The Nixon tapes bore the suspicion out. With Donald Rumsfeld:
“The second point is that coming out — coming back and saying that black Americans aren’t as good as black Africans . . most of them, basically, are just out of the trees. Now, let’s face it, they are.”
That Elder would try to lionize Nixon reaffirms the need for skepticism. That he would do it while the internet is still up and running speaks to stupidity, or disrespect. Perhaps we should say, regarding matters of race, that Republicans would prefer to be philosophically awkward or misunderstood. But they’re worse than that. To be kind.