Four perspectives on Confederate History Month
Story by Chris Graham
Gov. Bob McDonnell has declared April to be Confederate History Month, but if you’ve read a newspaper or turned on the TV news anytime in the past few days, you knew that already.
You also know that plenty of people are plenty mad that he did this, that plenty of people are plenty pleased that he did it, and that not surprisingly the ensuing back-and-forth resulted in a media firestorm that pushed McDonnell into backtracking mode and even caught President Barack Obama in some crossfire on the fringe of the controversy.
We wanted to go beyond the press releases and the yelling matches on TV and virtual yelling matches online to the heart of whatever the matter is here. To do so, we engaged four people – Brag Bowling, the commander of the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans; Chanda McGuffin, the president of the Staunton branch of the NAACP; Emmett Hanger, a Republican Virginia state senator; and Mark Rozell, a George Mason University political-science professor whose scholarship focuses on Republican Party politics.
If sense can be made of the Confederate History Month proclamation and the fracas that followed, it will come from talking with people with this diversity of viewpoints to bring to bear to the discussion.
A defining moment
Mayors, governors, congressmen, presidents issue these kinds of proclamations practically every day. It’s so commonplace that the proclamations themselves become like the proverbial tree falling in a forest with no one there to hear them; do they even make a sound?
In that context, consider McDonnell granting the request of the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans to proclaim a Confederate History Month. Democrats Mark Warner and Tim Kaine had declined to do so in the footsteps of moves by Republicans George Allen and Jim Gilmore to do so back in the 1990s.
Those ’90s-era proclamations inflamed some tension, to be sure – enough that Gilmore watered down his final proclamation in 2001 to be akin to a Civil War History Month. But that was pre-three-cable-TV-news-outlets, pre-everybody-and-their-third-cousin-has-a-blog.
“I was on National Public Radio this morning, and I thanked them for doing this. I said, You all have done SCV the greatest favor, and you probably don’t even realize it. Thank you to the national media for what they’ve done,” Brag Bowling said in an interview the early afternoon of April 8, Day Three of the story of the week in the national media and the blogosphere.
On Day One, Bowling had sent a short guest op-ed to AugustaFreePress.com thanking McDonnell for issuing the proclamation. We ran the column not thinking that it would be a part of a storyline that would dominate national news headlines.
On Day Two, I was in the middle of a phone conversation with Bowling when news broke that sent us both back to the drawing board as far as our thinking through the story was going. Critics had been howling not only about the proclamation itself but also about the glaring omission of any reference to the role that the institution of slavery in Virginia and other states that seceded from the Union played in the tensions that led to the Civil War.
The governor’s office sent out a press statement the afternoon of April 7 to address the omission.
“The failure to include any reference to slavery was a mistake, and for that I apologize to any fellow Virginian who has been offended or disappointed. The abomination of slavery divided our nation, deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights, and led to the Civil War. Slavery was an evil, vicious and inhumane practice which degraded human beings to property, and it has left a stain on the soul of this state and nation. In 2007, the Virginia General Assembly approved a formal statement of profound regret for the Commonwealth’s history of slavery, which was the right thing to do,” McDonnell said in the press statement, which also included an amendment to the original proclamation that added mention of slavery and its evils.
Some among Bowling’s cohorts in the Sons of Confederate Veterans specifically and generally on the political right have decried McDonnell’s backtracking as politically calculating and insulting. Bowling isn’t among them in sharing in that line of thinking.
“From our perspective, it was an omission, but with a good heart. I guarantee that he wasn’t specifically trying to exclude slavery as part of the history of Virginia and the war. He was tailoring a resolution for my organization, which is the Sons of Confederate Veterans,” Bowling said. “I think he’s made good on the whereas clause. My organization doesn’t oppose the change. And if he thinks that’ll help take some of the heat off of him, go for it.
“I’m old and wise enough to know that not all of this is sincere indignation about leaving slavery out. There’s more to it than that. I think Gov. McDonnell has done the right thing here. He’s a man of courage and conviction, and we support him,” Bowling said.
Bowling ended Day Two of the controversy over the proclamation debating with Anderson Cooper on CNN and talking with liberal talk-radio host Alan Colmes. His lament is that he could already foresee by our conversation on Day Three that the millions of dollars in free PR for his organization was just about spent up.
“We’ve gotten attention nationally, our organization and what we stand for, that we haven’t had ever. It’s almost like it would be good for the issue to carry on for a few more days. I mean, we’re getting on national-news programs that never would have invited us in the past. We’re having debates like the one that I had last night that are most positive and give our side of American history and what our organization stands for. And it’s also helping us recruit new members. It’s the greatest PR coup in SCV history,” Bowling said.
Much ado about nothing consequential
“I’ve had a lot of requests to do interviews. I don’t know if what I have to say is what anybody wants to hear.”
Chanda McGuffin can be outspoken on issues. “I’m definitely not going to sound like other NAACP branch presidents,” she said when we talked about the Confederate History Month proclamation.
“When the media wants me to talk about how I feel about Gov. McDonnell, I really don’t care. Because I’m beyond that. I can’t waste time thinking about how he declared this to be Confederate History Month,” McGuffin said.
Diving deeper, we find that McGuffin does care somewhat. “As an African-American, I have people ask me, Why can’t y’all just get over slavery? Why can’t y’all?” she said. “I mean, you’re the ones who bring this up. We’re not walking around complaining about slavery. We weren’t enslaved. Our ancestors were enslaved. But we don’t know what it was like. We can’t talk about that. We’re so far removed that we can’t talk about that.
“What we can talk about is things that we’re experiencing now. There’s inequality right here and right now that’s not as blatant as it used to be, but it’s here. We as an NAACP branch need to come together and be on one accord on that,” McGuffin said.
So no, what she has to say isn’t what you’d expect to hear from a local NAACP leader. What we’d expect is to hear McGuffin talking about a protest rally or petition drive.
“I just believe that we all need to move to another place,” McGuffin said. “There’s going to be racism in America, and there’s going to be racism in the world. As long as we’re human, there’s going to be some kind of prejudicial feeling out there. If it’s gays, if it’s blacks, if It’s Mexicans, if it’s Asians, if it’s women, if it’s men, we’re going to have prejudices.
“What we have got to do as a body of people is find a level of respect for one another and allow people to be themselves. We have a hard time of that as Americans. We cannot allow people to be themselves. There are so many individualities amongst us that could bring us all strength if we allowed people to be who they are,” McGuffin said.
You can hear McGuffin thinking through what she feels an appropriate response to the Confederate History Month proclamation should be.
“The same time and energy that you are spending on making this Confederate History Month,” she said, “is the same time and energy you should be talking about Native Americans who were here in Virginia and the history and heritage that is here because of that. And the African-Americans who came here because of the slave trade and their history and heritage here for 400 years. The same time and energy that you’re spending on Confederate History Month, you should be spending on the history of everybody that makes up Virginia. Not just that. That’s the real issue. Why do you take something that brings us so much animosity and so much anger and so much hatred, why do you put that before everything else?”
The bottom line: “The more time that we as African-Americans spend on nonsense like this, we’re not about the business that we’re supposed to be about. We’re allowing ourselves to lose our focus on what truly is going on right now that our hands and feet and eyes need to be touching and feeling and seeing and moving on. But we’re losing that because we’re all over April being Confederate History Month. Who the hell cares?” McGuffin said.
“What we need to be telling Bob McDonnell is that he needs to hold up his end of the bargain. He said he was going to be the jobs governor. Well, people are hungry. People are losing their houses. People are losing their jobs. Why did you pick now to bring this out? Why was this so important for you to plateau for your platform? It just doesn’t make any sense,:” McGuffin said.
Emmett Hanger doesn’t like it when people call him a “moderate Republican.” He’s a conservative, rock-ribbed, Republican dating back to a time when Republicans in Augusta County could hold their meetings in a phone booth, he likes to joke, the first Republican elected to office in the county dating back to Reconstruction when he was elected commissioner of the revenue way back in 1979.
“Acknowledging that heritage is very important, but it has to be in the right context, and not in any way seen as stirring up old wounds or tensions that existed in the past,” Hanger said of the proclamation. “I think it can be a good thing if we’ve grown to the point now where we can acknowledge some of our past and indeed issues that were concerns in Virginia, and our society is certainly moving forward.
“I certainly think it was appopriate for him to issue the proclamation for the month. He clearly didn’t speak to the slavery issue at all, and as that was brought to his attention, it really became a big issue the way it was being played, so I certainly understand why he felt the need to revisit the issue to put it in context,” Hanger said.
Thoughtful Republican – more than that, thoughtful politician. Maybe those are better terms than “moderate” for Hanger. Few in elected office or the subset seeking elected office will risk saying what they really think when what they really think can be complicated to explain and also might put at risk offending voters in their party’s base of support.
“There’s such a polarization in politics right now that it immediately becomes a liberal-conservative issue, and you have extremes on both sides that want to play it very hard, almost to the point of coming forward and re-engaging in conflict. It’s extreme, and not just on this issue. But this is an issue that extremes on both sides can kind of rally around,” Hanger said.
“When we go back in remembering and honoring our heritage, as we will be doing with the sesqicentennial of the War Between the States, the Civil War, we just need to do it appropriately, with the entire story,” Hanger said. “Slavery was obviously a key component of that, but it was also a states-rights issue as well. And that is something I have some sensitivity to. Currently we’re engaged in a lot of rhetoric about states rights, and when we have these conversations, we don’t want to do it in a way that I guess stirs up trouble rather than moving forward as we have been in resolving some of those issues.”
How’s it going to play?
It’s Mark Rozell’s job to consider and analyze what politicians say and do. Bob McDonnell is proving to be an interesting case study.
“I was stunned that McDonnell was so politically tone-deaf, a guy who showcased a great deal of political astuteness in the campaign, who was very disciplined, on target in his messaging. And then to have to backtrack like this, which I think he had absolutely no choice, showcases that his initial instincts were just terrible. I just don’t know who is advising him on this, and how it is even possible that he or his advisors could not anticipate that there would be a severely negative reaction to the proclamation, the way it was written,” Rozell said.
McDonnell has been as tone-deaf this year as he was pitch-perfect last year, when he pulled off the rare feat of being able to run an inevitable winning candidate campaign that actually won. Even the potentially fatal flareup over a 1989 grad-school thesis that Democratic nominee Creigh Deeds tried to use to make McDonnell into a modern-day Neanderthal bounced off the Teflon Republican.
McDonnell looked like a Republican version of Democrat Mark Warner, a former Virginia governor now in the United States Senate. But whereas Warner, as Rozell pointed out, was able to stay in the comfortable political middle on issues, “various actions that this governor has taken have either inflamed opposition on the left or on the right. he has offended people across the political spectrum at one time or another in a relatively short period of time. It’s a very different style than his most recent political predecessors, who tried to stay more in the middle and be more consistent in that regard and try to tamp down the intensity of the opposition from the polar ends of the political spectrum.”
Rozell doesn’t see any political upside to the Confederate History Month story for McDonnell “at all.”
“I’ve said from the beginning that this was a lose-lose proposition for him to have gotten involved in this the way that he did. On the one hand, he may please certain elements of the conservative base, but now that he is backtracking on how he did it, he’s probably looking to some of that same base as abandoning principles yet again, or bending to what they would consider political correctness. So I think the end result is that everybody ends up unhappy,” Rozell said.