Sam Tanenhaus’s Fevered Historical Imagination About the Racist GOP

Mary Grabar

2/16/2013 12:01:00 AM - Mary Grabar

Where to begin with the screed in The New Republic, “Original Sin: Why the GOP is and will continue to be the party of white people,” mislabeled “an historical investigation”?

In his claim that racism is the original and irredeemable sin of Republicans, Tanenhaus sets up the contrast to “the civil rights pageantry of the [Obama second] inauguration—Abraham Lincoln’s Bible and Martin Luther King’s, Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s swearing in of Joe Biden, Beyoncé’s slinky glamor [sic], the verses read by the gay Cuban poet Richard Blanco.”

In his enthusiasm, Tanenhaus missed the irony of using the word “pageantry,” which the dictionary defines as “mere show” or “an ostentatious display,” even as he indicts the GOP for its “history of long-standing indifference, at times outright hostility, to the nation’s diverse constituencies—blacks, women, Latinos, Asians, gays.”

Perhaps it was the lilting lines of Blanco’s inaugural poem, “All of us as vital as the one light we move through / the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day: equations to solve. . . .” that to Tanenaus conveyed “an assertion of Democratic solidarity.”

Like many other white liberals, he lectures the blacks, women, Latinos, Asians, and gays who vote Republican by presumably giving them a history lesson on John C. Calhoun, vice president under Andrew Jackson.

To Calhoun’s ideas of nullification (code for the right to own slaves) Tanenhaus links today’s “resisters—most glaringly Tea Partiers.” Today’s “most recent immigrants,” according to Tanenhaus, sense the “’hidden hand’ of Calhoun’s style of dissent, the extended lineage of rearguard politics, with its aggrieved call, heard so often today, ‘to take back America.’” This is all part of the lingering infatuation with the ‘lost cause.” Even “a new cast of GOP leaders—Ted Cruz, Nikki Haley, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio” have become “tethered to movement ideology.” Cruz, especially because he urged a “partial government shutdown” at the recent National Review Institute conference, cannot understand how his participation harkens back to the segregationist policies of Calhoun, George Wallace, and Barry Goldwater, who resisted the inevitable ushering in of the “egalitarian” one-party system of big government and majority rule.

Were he not so obsessed with proving “a politics of frustration and rage . . . most evident within the GOP’s dwindling base—its insurgents and anti-government crusaders, its ‘middle-aged white guys,’” Tanenhaus might have had time to do some historical checking, like reading one short speech by Senator Barry Goldwater. It would have helped to recall the 1964 smear campaign by segregationist Democrats who understood which way the political winds blew. They had shifted toward integration, often in sacrifice of the Constitution. Lyndon Johnson, former segregationist, is reported to have promised “to have these n*****s voting Democratic for the next two hundred years.”

Barry Goldwater understood this and noted it in his speech explaining why he voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, an action Tanenhaus misrepresents. (The speech is reproduced in The Story of the Draft Goldwater Movement and other books about the 1964 presidential campaign.)

Goldwater, contrary to Tanenhaus’s casting, begins his speech:

“There have been few, if any, occasions when the searching of my conscience and the re-examination of my views of our constitutional system have played a greater part in the determination of my vote than they have on this occasion.

“I am unalterably opposed to discrimination or segregation on the basis of race, color or creed, or on any other basis; not only my words, but more importantly my actions through the years have repeatedly demonstrated the sincerity of my feeling in this regard.”

Goldwater mentioned his twelve years as a member of the Senate Labor and Public Welfare Committee when he “repeatedly offered amendments to bills pertaining to labor that would end discrimination in unions” (a Democratic-stronghold with entrenched segregationists repeatedly criticized by Goldwater supporter, journalist George Schuyler).

Goldwater reminded Congress that “repeatedly those amendments have been turned down by the very members of both parties who now so vociferously support the present approach.” Those presuming to do “historical investigations” should read histories that reveal Goldwater’s lifelong support for civil rights.

For example, Lee Edwards’s well-known biography:

As a member of the Phoenix City Council [elected in 1949], Goldwater had voted to desegregate the restaurant at Sky Harbor Airport. As chief of state for the Arizona Air National Guard, he had pushed for desegregation of the guard. As a businessman, he had opened his doors to everyone. As senator, he had desegregated the Senate cafeteria in 1953, insisting that his black legislative assistant, Katherine Maxwell, be served along with every other Senate employee. As an individual citizen, he had donated generously to the Arizona NAACP, including a $200 check in 1952 to its legal defense fund to speed integration of the public schools.

Goldwater was a member of the Phoenix and Tucson chapters of the NAACP, until that organization, infiltrated by radicals, started attacking him politically. He was also a strong supporter of the Phoenix Urban League and in 1991 received their Humanitarian Award “’for fifty years of loyal service.’”

But Goldwater—unlike progressives—did not brag.

In his speech he only reminded Congress of his support for the 1957 and 1960 civil rights bills, opposed by many of the same Democrats clamoring for the 1964 bill.

Goldwater stated, “My public utterances during the debates on those measures and since reveal clearly the areas in which I feel that federal responsibility lies and federal legislation on this subject can be both effective and appropriate.”

Goldwater felt the 1964 bill was “effective and appropriate” except for Titles II and VII regarding public accommodations and employment. “I find no constitutional basis for the exercise of federal regulatory authority in either of these areas,” he went on. “The attempted usurpation of such power,” he said, was a “grave threat to the very essence of our basic system of government” and to the “freedoms of the very persons whose feelings and whose liberties are the major subject of this legislation.”

Goldwater would not compromise his oath to uphold the Constitution, an act that was supported wholeheartedly by the great journalist and black civil rights advocate George Schuyler. His amendments were not accepted, so with a reluctant heart and knowing that his vote would be “misconstrued” Goldwater voted against the act.

His vote was not only “misconstrued,” but used in a smear campaign against him, started by fellow Republicans like William Scranton. At the 1964 Republican Convention in San Francisco, 40,000 civil rights demonstrators picked up the ball and denounced Goldwater as Hitler. CBS reporter Daniel Schorr then spread a false report that Goldwater was to meet with Nazi holdovers on an upcoming trip to Germany. Schorr would go on to pontificate regularly at taxpayer-funded NPR—until his death in 2010—the same station that gave Tanenhaus a platform to expand on his lies.

Goldwater’s vote against the 1964 bill was misrepresented by his opponents, and by historians and textbook writers ever since.

The civil rights movement had been hijacked by the New Leftists (“communists with a small ‘c’”). The majority of blacks and old-line civil rights leaders rejected these (white) radicals’ demands for redistribution of property and loose sexual mores (“smashing monogamy”) under the cover of civil rights.

Nevertheless, Tanenhaus claims that any objections to excesses are mere excuses. Shamefully, Tanenhaus writes that Goldwater “joined the Dixie contingent . . . when he opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” He quotes Richard Rovere, Depression-era communist and writer for the New Masses, and then writer for the Nation and the New Yorker:

“for Goldwater the opportunity had been all but foreclosed by Brent Bozell—or some other hand guided by the ‘guiding hand’—in The Conscience of a Conservative. In that book, Goldwater allowed himself to be committed to a states’-rights position that Jefferson Davis could hardly have found acceptable.”

Ah, yes, the magical ‘guiding hand’ of Brent Bozell!

Tannenhaus brings readers to the present, to the ominous Calhounists of the Tea Party and the “Tea Party-inflected House of Representatives,” who “speak in the bitter tones of denial, as modernization and egalitarianism go forward.” “Nullification” is a threat and a code from those who challenge “’Obamacare.’”

“We see it as well,” continues Tanenhaus, “in Senator Rand Paul’s promise to ‘nullify anything the president does’ to impose new gun controls.”

For Tanenhaus upholding the Constitution is synonymous with racism. For him, disagreements over healthcare and gun control are not a “practical attempt to find a better answer,” but a ‘Constitutional’ demand for restoration of the nation to its hallowed prior self. It is not a coincidence that the resurgence of nullification is happening while our first African American president is in office.”

Of course, there are no “coincidences” for those like Tanenhaus. It must be the ghosts of Brent Bozell and John C. Calhoun that guide the racist hearts of those who disagree with the pure-hearted, perfectly egalitarian guardian of “blacks, women, Latinos, Asians, gays,” Sam Tanenhaus.