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12.21.10

Haley Barbour's Mississippi Memories

Haley Barbour’s comments about racism are being blown up unnecessarily, just as past controversies ensnared Clinton, Kerry, and George W. Bush. Howard Kurtz on the media’s white noise.

This is not a defense of Haley Barbour.

As a savvy southern politician, the Mississippi governor should have known better than to gloss over the racist past of his home state. For him to tell the Weekly Standard that “I just don’t remember it as being that bad,” and to defend the ugly role of the White Citizens Councils, betrays a blind spot about the stain of segregation.

But if a politician has anything questionable in his background, no matter how long ago, oppo researchers and the media’s dirt-diggers will unearth it.

But is the press getting itself worked into a lather over what Barbour did and thought when he was a teenager?

If so, such an effort would follow a modern ritual in which presidential candidates—and potential candidates, since Barbour hasn’t decided whether to run—are put through the media wringer over early episodes in their lives.

Barbour stepped in it by telling reporter Andrew Ferguson that the Citizens Council in his hometown of Yazoo was merely “an organization of town leaders,” which ensured that “anybody who started a chapter of the Klan would get their ass run out of town.” Even if that’s true, it was still an organization of white supremacists, and certainly no black person would recall Mississippi in the early 1960s as not being “that bad.”

But is it really an outrage that when Martin Luther King came to speak in Yazoo, Barbour went with friends, could barely hear, and “paid more attention to the girls than to King”? Barbour was 15 or 16 at the time.

Does this warrant a spate of online headlines on whether he’s a racist—especially when he’s got a long record as a GOP chairman, lobbyist and governor for us to examine?

Barbour rushed out a clarification today, saying he wasn’t painting the Yazoo town leaders as “saints…Their vehicle, called the ‘Citizens Council,’ is totally indefensible, as is segregation. It was a difficult and painful era for Mississippi, the rest of the country, and especially African Americans who were persecuted in that time.”

Barbour provided the ammunition in what was otherwise a friendly profile in a conservative magazine. But if a politician has anything questionable in his background, no matter how long ago, oppo researchers and the media’s dirt-diggers will unearth it.

When Bill Clinton made his bid for the White House, he not only had to doggedly defend his decision to duck the Vietnam draft, there was plenty of conservative chatter about a trip he took as an Oxford student to Moscow, “standing in silent tribute and awe before the mummy of Vladimir Lenin” in “the center of world atheism,” as WorldNetDaily put it

John Kerry was a decorated hero in the war that Clinton avoided, but his candidacy was nearly sunk by overheated attacks on what he did to earn those medals—attacks that drew so much media attention they turned “swift boat” into a verb.

George W. Bush flew airplanes in the National Guard during the Vietnam era, but that hardly shielded him from attacks on whether he had secured a berth through his father’s connections and was AWOL during part of his training.

Now things have reached an extreme where a fringe birther movement has sprouted up to question, despite all available evidence, whether Barack Obama is lying about having been born in Hawaii. You can’t get any earlier than that.

Southerners of a certain age are especially vulnerable on questions of race. When Virginia’s George Allen was unsuccessfully seeking reelection to the Senate in 2006, Salon reported that three of his former college football teammates recalled him using the N-word and demonstrating racist attitudes toward blacks. Allen called the allegations “ludicrously false.”

As has become standard in such matters, the critique of Barbour’s unintentionally explosive comments has broken down along ideological lines.

“After all,” Salon reported, “this is hardly the first time Barbour has tried to whitewash civil rights history. He's previously asserted that the integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962—accomplished only through federal intervention and which set off riots that killed two people—was ‘ a very pleasant experience.’”

During a contentious interview with Talking Points Memo, Barbour spokesman Dan Turner told reporter Eric Kleefeld that “you're trying to paint the governor as a racist. And nothing could be further from the truth.” 

National Review’s Jim Geraghty counters that “we’ve hit a new low when an interview in which the subject recalls attending a Martin Luther King Jr. speech is the trigger for the accusation of racial animosity.” 

When you contemplate running for president, your life becomes an open book. Barbour should certainly be held accountable for the insensitive way he talked about the bad old days of officially sanctioned racial prejudice. His statement today is an acknowledgement of how badly he bobbled the question. But at some point you have to ask: Shouldn’t there be a statute of limitations on this stuff?

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.