By any measure, it was a gutsy move for a freshman. Especially a Republican.
In 1984, two years before the vote, President Ronald Reagan won Kentucky with 60 percent of the vote. The freshman senator squeezed in that same year by a little more than 5,000 votes.
It was 1986, and Nelson Mandela had been in prison for 23 years.
The young Republican saw injustice in South Africa. He thought Reagan was wrong, so he joined the 31 Republican senators who sided with Democrats in voting to override Reagan’s veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act.
Mitch McConnell wasn’t always so easy for Democrats to hate.
But almost 30 years later, McConnell is Public Enemy No. 1 to a Democratic Party salivating at taking him out in November, and that’s only if his long list of enemies doesn’t get to him first through Republican challenger and Louisville businessman Matt Bevin.
In 2013, voting to end apartheid seems like a no-brainer. But in the Republican-controlled Senate of Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond, McConnell showed courage as he stepped over to the right side of history (The only Republican senators who voted to uphold the veto and still serve in the Senate are Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran.)
But even now some within McConnell’s party adhere to former Vice President Dick Cheney’s take on Mandela, nodding as reports of Cheney’s belief that Mandela was part of a terrorist organization have come back to light in the wake of Mandela’s death late last week.
Bevin, a potential nightmare for McConnell, posted on Facebook after Mandela’s death: “Thirty years ago, Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island. Today the world joins with South Africa in mourning the loss of a true hero.”
Within hours, the post was removed as commenters weighed in. They weren’t mad that Bevin got his facts wrong—Mandela went to prison about 40 years ago. They were calling Mandela a Marxist and a terrorist.
Bevin’s campaign declined to comment for this story.
It’s safe to say in 2013 that those commenters are well outside the mainstream on Mandela.
But in 1986, it wasn’t so cut and dried to the Republican Party—except to senators like McConnell.
The veto override that Kentucky lawmaker and his fellow senators handed Reagan was the first legislative rebuke through veto of a president on foreign policy in the 20th century.
“In the 1960s, when I was in college, civil rights issues were clear,” McConnell said of his vote. “After that, it became complicated with questions of quotas and other matters that split people of good will. When the apartheid issues came along, it made civil rights black and white again. It was not complicated.”
Even a cursory review of McConnell’s record reveals two separate portraits. One is the Senate minority leader who told National Journal that making Barack Obama a one-term president was his “single most important” goal and now finds himself endangered by a likely Democratic nominee, Alison Lundergan Grimes, who was 7 years old when the senator voted against Reagan.
The other picture, drawn before Grimes was born, would be tough to tag as the misogynist the Grimes campaign has described in recent weeks. That was the guy who pushed hard as a Senate staffer for the Equal Rights Amendment and, according to The Huffington Post, loaded his staff with high-profile feminists in his first elected office in Louisville.
Love him then or hate him now, or some variation of the two, McConnell’s vote in 1986 was a tough stand that put Kentucky’s senior senator in the black on the ledger of historical justice.
In a brief interview Monday morning, McConnell said he doesn’t remember much about the Senate debates surrounding the GOP’s decision to override Reagan’s veto, a move that according to reports infuriated the president now canonized by Republicans.
“It was an outrageous regime, as everyone now knows,” McConnell said. “President Reagan had in his head that somehow the sanctions would not work. I thought he was wrong.”
McConnell said he doesn’t think Reagan supported apartheid or endorsed the abhorrent oppression of the South Africa regime. He just thinks the president was wrong about sanctions.
McConnell remembers that Helms (R-N.C.), reviled by the African-American community, was emphatic in pushing to uphold the veto. And the Kentucky senator remembers watching as sanctions by the U.S., combined with subsequent sanctions from the international community, helped to reshape South Africa.
“I was a Reagan fan then and I’m a Reagan fan now, but I simply thought he was mistaken on this issue,” McConnell said.
The senator said Monday that the South Africa chapter molded his approach to Burma and his consistent sponsorship of sanctions against the country. In May of this year, just days after Obama met with the Burmese president, McConnell went to the Senate floor and called for an end to the sanctions.
Though human rights activists said the end was premature, Obama, the Senate, and McConnell thought enough progress had been made. It didn’t happen as fast as South Africa, but McConnell said the lesson he learned in 1986 has paid off for the Burmese.
McConnell recalled that over the years, when he would talk through back channels to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese activist held under house arrest for 15 years for her outspoken opposition to the government, the two of them agreed that the 1986 approach to South Africa was the model for what they wanted to accomplish.
“I’m not trying to make myself out to be a profile in courage here, but I thought the president was simply wrong,” McConnell said.