Past Chairman of the national GOP (during which time the Republicans took both the U.S. Senate as well as the U.S. House for the first time since 1954).
One of the most successful lobbyists in Washington (actually, Fortune said they were the top firm at one point).
Hm, well, maybe. Hell, probably. Come on. The guy is a white good ol' boy from Yazoo City, Mississippi who came of age towards the grudging end of segregation in the South*. It's kind of hard to imagine he's not racist. But I'm not sure that's the right question to ask, though asking that question is certainly appropriate (and whatever you do, don't ask it of his brother, who provides far too predictable and revolting an answer). At least with respect to politics and the future, it may not be the appropriate focus.
Barbour recently had a lengthy profile in the Weekly Standard (I confess, I have not read all of it yet; you need to take the Weekly Standard in small doses... but I will eventually get through the whole thing). As with any profile of a southern politician, the subject of race came up.
Governor Barbour has gotten some grief for recounting his story of a visit paid to Yazoo City by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a teenager when Dr. King spoke there, and he, well, did what teenage boys do, and said as much. I grudgingly agree with Howard Kurtz that this in and of itself is not that big a deal -- and in fact, is somewhat refreshingly honest.
Where the governor found himself in hot water, and quite deservedly so, was his seemingly all-too-casual dismissal of race issues in his home town, and specifically, his praise of a racist organization which was started as a rival to the Ku Klux Klan, and was formed to fight against Brown v. Board of Education. Talking Points Memo has a pretty good timeline of Barbour's no good very bad day here, all the way through to his inevitable walk-back from those remarks. When people will ask if Barbour is racist in the future, they'll reference this day -- a lot. As we all should.
So... what was Haley Barbour, a top-shelf, well-credentialed politician possibly thinking when he said this seemingly careless thing?
I'll give you a hint:
There you have it.
Others have used the phrase "dog whistle," and I'd have to agree, again grudgingly (really? Dave Weigel? Really?), and only to a point.
I don't see much of a need to rake Barbour over the coals for saying clumsy things about race once in a while. The pattern revealed by his "gaffes," though, is of a politician who thinks racism isn't really a problem anymore, and that liberals get too much political leverage from the memory of the Civil Rights era.
Yeah, that's awfully intellectual. Painfully so, in fact. My guess is that Barbour was drawing first blood for the GOP presidential nomination by signalling to the GOP base, ie, white, middle-class Americans who harbor resentment not just of Obama, but of his whole complex racial identity as well (where the seed of birthirism was germinated, you might say).
For too long I've been seeing the media parody two political extremes. You're either a liberal progress-o-hippie Obama-bot with long hair and a patchuli aroma, or a racist Tea Party freakshow decked out in a "Don't Tread on Me" t-shirt and red, white, and blue face paint. Granted, this is breaking down to a degree with a more pragmatic wing on the Democratic side asking for more time and understanding for Obama's accomplishments and position (a case he makes infinitely more difficult with stuff like indefinite detention orders... sigh...). And it already broke down on the GOP side with the Tea Baggers taking over this last election and sabotaging the careers of a lot of moderate Republicans.
In short, I believe there is a vast base, if you will, of Republicans, independents, and even Democrats (many of whom supported Hillary Clinton in '08, to begin with), who aren't overt Tea Party racists, but have a deep distrust of Obama, and even a vague discomfort. It is not necessarily rooted in race, and this was, I think, Barbour's approach. I was too young and to be all into that civil rights stuff!
Savvy, I have to say. Disgusting, revolting, unacceptable -- but savvy. It'd have been a lot more savvy if he didn't go overboard covering for the racists in his home town.
Does this sink Barbour? No way. Barbour is one of a couple of Republicans I take deadly seriously for 2012 (John Thune is another). This incident excepted, he's got all the right moves.
And if it turns out that race issues dog him as he makes his run over the next couple of years, well, there is one thing he could to snuff that problem, and fast. All he'd have to do is pick a sort of post-racial, if you will, talented young Republican who is, well, not white.
I already know who's on that very short list. Do you?
Here's your hint:
See you in Tampa, Governor Barbour. I'm sure Senator Rubio will greet you upon arrival.
*with thanks to Stephen for the correction.