Out of the swirl of chaos, grief, grace, and courage that has followed the Charleston shooting, partisan politics has mostly kept its rightful place nowhere near the state of South Carolina.
But the national debate over the future of the Confederate flag that flies in front of the state’s capitol has unwittingly given rise to one of the more bizarre Clinton conspiracy theories to date: that Bill and Hillary Clinton, despite decades as civil rights advocates and their right-wing caricature as Northeast liberal elites, are closet Confederate sympathizers.
The meme took off on Sunday, when The Daily Caller ran a story under the headline “Flashback: Bill Clinton Honored the Confederacy on Arkansas State Flag.”
The next morning, the hosts of Fox & Friends debated whether Hillary Clinton had refused to denounce the Confederate flag flying in front of the South Carolina (though she actually did denounce it in 2007) out of loyalty to her husband, who, Elisabeth Hasselbeck said, “signed a law honoring the Confederacy in Arkansas and about the flag’s design in 1987...that stated, ‘the blue star is to commemorate the Confederate states of America.”
The legislation that The Daily Caller, Fox & Friends, and now dozens of conservative blogs are referencing was a bill to make the flag that Arkansas had flown since 1924 the state’s official flag. That flag includes four stars, three to symbolize the countries that held the Arkansas territory—Spain, France and the United States—and the fourth, as Hasselbeck said, “to commemorate the Confederate states of America.”
Nowhere in the state’s legislative history does it explain why the 63-year-old flag needed to be made official, but Arkansas historians have two explanations. First, the legislature was moving to give the state a number of “official” designations—think “official state butterfly,” “official state grain”—as it celebrated its sesquicentennial.
Second, Bill Clinton and the state legislature were pushing through a series of measures to ban flag desecration as the U.S. Supreme Court debated and eventually struck down the 48 state laws against flag burning, including Arkansas’s ban. Historians told me they believed the 1987 flag bill was passed to specify the official design of the state flag in conjunction with that effort. As governor, Clinton later signed a bill making it a crime to burn or deface a flag, a move that drew vocal complaints from the American Civil Liberties Union.
It is true that Clinton did nothing in his time as governor to remove the state flag’s reference to Arkansas’s role in the Confederacy. But by all accounts, the bill he signed making the state’s flag official was not created as a Confederate memorial. The sponsor of the bill, longtime Arkansas legislator W.D. “Bill” Moore, has since died, but former Representative Steve Smith said, “I served with Bill Moore in the early 1970s, and he was hardly a neo-Confederate. Nor was Bill Clinton.”
The more recent Clintonian history related to the Confederate flag is easier to find and may be one of the more straightforward positions either Clinton has ever taken. Both have been consistently, unambiguously against its use.
During Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, he endorsed Georgia Governor Zell Miller’s fruitless attempt to remove the St. Andrews Cross from the Georgia state flag, a change that eventually came nine years later, and made Miller the keynote speaker at Clinton’s 1992 Democratic National Committee nominating convention.
In 2000, as South Carolina wrestled with the future of the Confederate flag that still flew above its capitol, then-President Clinton gave the state his unsolicited advice during a visit to Allen University, a historically black college in Columbia, just miles from the state capitol: Take the flag down. “As long as the waving symbol of one American’s pride is the shameful symbol of another American’s pain, we have bridges to cross in this country and we better get across them,”' he told the students.
When Hillary Clinton became a candidate for president herself in 2007, she said much the same thing during her own visit to the state, telling the AP she thought South Carolina should remove the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds entirely, not just from the front of the capitol.
And Tuesday, after South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s call to finally remove the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds in the wake of the Charleston tragedy, Hillary Clinton called it the right thing to do.
“I appreciate the actions begun yesterday by the governor and other leaders of South Carolina to remove the Confederate battle flag from the State House, recognizing it as a symbol of our nation’s racist past that has no place in our present or our future,” Clinton said. “It shouldn’t fly there, it shouldn’t fly anywhere.”
There are more than enough reasons for members of the conservative media to be dubious about the Clintons: the deleted emails, the paid speeches, the Friends of Bill you thought went away with the Y2K bug but were actually just sitting on the Clinton Foundation payroll waiting for the next Clinton administration to begin.
But accusing either Clinton of being a Confederate sympathizer, past or present, is a conspiracy beneath even its creators.