Republicans Stumble Where Byrd Grew on Race: Margaret Carlson

Americans are angry, pollsters and cable television hosts tell us. Really they are depressed, deeply discouraged and feeling helpless as they watch oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, their unemployed neighbors paying too much attention to the lawn, and banks escaping the tight regulation called for after bringing the economy to a screeching halt.

Tomorrow brings a more uplifting event: President Barack Obama, our first black president, eulogizing Senator Robert Byrd, once a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Byrd predicted, rightly, that what he called his “biggest mistake” would remain such an “albatross around his neck” that we would read of it in his obituary. It took his many years in the Senate, on his way to becoming its longest-serving member, for Byrd’s good deeds to overtake his racist past.

Only hours after Byrd’s death on June 28, Republicans in the Senate decided one way to tar Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan was to link her with former Justice Thurgood Marshall --as if Marshall’s rise to the Supreme Court, through a carefully calculated legal assault on segregation, was a bad thing.

Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, cited Marshall in criticizing Kagan for having “associated herself with well-known activist judges who have used their power to redefine the meaning of our Constitution.” Better than associating herself with Sessions, who, as a U.S. attorney in the 1980s, was accused of behaving in such a bigoted fashion that the Judiciary Committee with a Republican majority wouldn’t confirm him as a judge.

Judge’s ‘Proper Role’

Most of Sessions’ Republican colleagues on Judiciary seemed to share his Marshall strategy. Charles Grassley of Iowa said Marshall’s behavior did not “comport with the proper role of a judge.” Jon Kyl of Arizona -- a state that refused to acknowledge Martin Luther King Day until protests threatened its economy -- disapproved of the fact that Kagan had praised Marshall’s vision of the courts as the organ to “protect the people who went unprotected.”

This is an odd tack to take and assumes only the hard-core base is tuning in. The rest of the country seems pretty happy with its progress on civil rights and not in the mood to debate a pre-Marshall world of Jim Crow laws, segregated schools and whites-only drinking fountains.

Airport and Stamp

Marshall may be the second-most-revered civil-rights icon, after that guy that even Arizona now recognizes. Michael Steele, now chairman of the Republican National Committee, helped christen the Baltimore airport named for Marshall. There’s also the Thurgood Marshall postage stamp, a Broadway play -- which Kagan attended in its run at Washington’s Kennedy Center -- and near-sainthood, according to the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, who pointed out that Marshall was added to the Episcopal Church’s list of “Holy Women and Holy Men” this year.

To argue that Marshall was a dangerous radical whose former clerk shouldn’t be on the court is as anachronistic as introducing legislation to allow smoking on airplanes.

Republicans are not a racist party. By revisiting and revising Marshall’s legacy, however, they flirt with playing one on TV.

It’s been many years since the GOP openly tried to tap into residual segregationist sympathies. (See Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, or Ronald Reagan’s 1980 appeal for states’ rights in Philadelphia, Mississippi.)

These days, retrograde impulses like that -- often shrouded in nostalgia for the Confederacy -- are usually stifled by Republicans who read the census and don’t want to become a regional party of men in Civil War costumes on the weekend.

Virginia’s Proclamation

A nationwide outcry followed the decision by Republican Governor Robert F. McDonnell to revive Confederate History Month in Virginia. Within 24 hours, McDonnell had apologized for not finding slavery significant enough to warrant mention in the proclamation. He thought that citing the very reason the war was fought would put a dent in revenue from reenactments in period dress at Appomattox.

What remains of an explicit Republican Southern Strategy seems confined to its Tea Party faction, which produced Rand Paul. After winning the GOP primary for the Senate in Kentucky, he expressed doubt about our long-settled civil rights laws, saying discrimination is not acceptable by government institutions but is for private businesses, who should be able to decide who to serve.

In other words, would-be-Senator Paul favors a country in which the president and his family would walk into a restaurant uncertain they would be served a burger and fries.

Byrd’s Journey

Byrd, a child of the Depression, joined the Klan in 1942, when he was 24, back from the war working at menial jobs. He renounced it a few years later and grew with America.

Paul is 47, the son of privilege -- his father is Representative Ron Paul of Texas, who sought the Republican nomination for president in 2008 -- and an ophthalmologist, though his board certification turns out to be from an organization that is little more than a post office box in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where he happens to live.

As Obama puts Byrd to rest in West Virginia, Paul could use the Kagan hearings as a teachable moment. He could renounce his remarks about civil rights, embrace Marshall and endorse his acolyte. He could grow, as Byrd did.

(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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