As you probably know by now, Haley Barbour -- governor of Mississippi, former chair of the RNC and tobacco lobbyist, and potential presidential candidate -- is in a whole heap of trouble over some comments he made in an article in the Weekly Standard, particularly concerning his odd assertion that in his town, the White Citizens Council (known colloquially as the "uptown Klan") was actually a force for racial justice, running the Klan out of town. Needless to say, this is absurdly false.
I suppose it's possible, as Jon Chait suggested, that this whole thing will help Barbour by making him a martyr to liberal political correctness, thereby boosting his standing among Republican primary voters. As Adam pointed out, many conservatives consider white people being unfairly accused of racism to be a far more serious and common problem than actual racism.
Some conservatives are indeed upset. Jim Geraghty at the National Review, for instance, wrote, "Any white Republican who grew up in the South is going to be accused of racism. In fact, there’s quite a bit of evidence to suggest that any Republican running against Barack Obama will be accused of racism, period. Hell, any Republican, running for office, anywhere, at any time, will be accused of racism eventually."
Does Haley Barbour get more scrutiny on his statements concerning race than other candidates? You betcha. But there's really no way around that. He's the governor of Mississippi, the heart of the Old South and home of some of the worst episodes of domestic terrorism in our history. He grew up during the Civil Rights movement, so he'll naturally be questioned about what he was thinking, feeling, and doing during that time.
Maybe the answer is, "Not much," which is perfectly understandable. Let's say we put aside Barbour's past episodes of playing footsie with white supremacist organizations, and grant him the most generous of assumptions, that while he wasn't out registering blacks to vote with the Freedom Riders or anything, he held no animus in his heart for any of his fellow men. Is there a way for him to answer these kinds of questions that won't get him in so much trouble?
Many conservatives would probably say no -- they think the liberal media is just waiting for any opportunity to call a Republican racist. But Barbour's problem is that he keeps lighting these fires. He could talk about it by saying, "Looking back, I wish as a young man I had had the courage to go march with Martin Luther King. Like most whites in the South, I didn't do anything to change what we all now know was an unjust system. I've reflected on this a lot, and I think it has given me some insight..." Voters would probably admire that kind of candor, it would be consonant with what the GOP now claims is its stance on race, and I certainly hope that's what he really feels. But politicians' default setting is to portray their own behavior in every situation as heroic, even when it wasn't.
And this is what keeps getting Haley in trouble. Whenever he's asked about his experiences in the time of Jim Crow, he seems to want to portray himself and his community as being the sole outpost of color-blindness in the South. He portrayed Ole Miss during his time there in the late 60s, just a few years after James Meredith's attendance at the university sparked riots, as a place where race just wasn't an issue anymore. "I went to integrated college -- never thought twice about it," he said, even mentioning a black girl who let him copy her notes (she didn't remember him, but described her experience at Ole Miss as a nightmare of harassment and fear). About racism in his home town of Yazoo City, Barbour says, "I just don't remember it as being that bad." And he was the one who brought up the White Citizens Councils -- but portrayed them as some kind of anti-Klan force for racial equality.
So there's a simple answer for Barbour if he wants to move on from this topic: just stop trying to rewrite history. He doesn't have to admit to any personal sins, but he shouldn't try to whitewash the sins of others.
-- Paul Waldman