On apologies, Democrats and conscience

Posted: Jun 17, 2005 12:00 AM

"The U.S. Senate last night approved a resolution apologizing for its failure to enact federal anti-lynching legislation decades ago, marking the first time the body has apologized for the nation's treatment of African-Americans." The Washington Post, June 14, 2005.
"There may be no other injustice in American history for which the Senate so uniquely bears responsibility." Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.

 Are Americans going to read about this apology, slap their foreheads and exclaim "Gee, until now I had no idea America had mistreated African-Americans"? Besides, does the United States Senate have an immortal soul? Does it, as a body, have a conscience? Of course not. Only individuals can be held responsible for their actions. They and only they are guilty or innocent. The Senate might as well apologize for the Alien and Sedition Acts, or the Mexican-American War, or the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893. Oh, hold on, the Senate did apologize to the native Hawaiians in 1993. Well, in that spirit, I confess that my grandfather once threw my grandmother's new hat into the ocean. I humbly apologize to her.

 The Senate wants you to know how terribly, sincerely sorry they are even though not a single member of today's Senate was even in office the last time America saw a lynching. Some were not even born. But that's the way we prefer our apologies in American politics. We don't apologize for our own sins. Bill Clinton never apologized for turning the White House into an auction house, nor for his provocative weakness in the face of bin Laden's attacks. That wouldn't do. Those were his own sins. Clinton did apologize for the Tuskegee experiment -- because he had nothing whatever to do with it. (He did also apologize for that other business, but that was poll dictated.)

 Eighty of the 100 senators signed on as co-sponsors of this apology. But Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., is unsatisfied. "The Senate has never issued an official apology for slavery and has never gone on the record condemning slavery. The U.S. government needs to apologize for the whole system of slavery. Lynching was just a part of it."

 After the bloodiest conflict in American history, a century and a half of struggle, billions of dollars in government redistribution of wealth including affirmative action, education, set asides, quotas, job training programs, urban renewal and outreach efforts; hundreds of plays and movies; thousands of television programs, millions of newspaper and magazine articles, operas, novels, music, ballets, Black History Month, and so on, Mr. Lewis thinks we need an "official" condemnation of slavery? Integrity leaves off where pointless posturing begins.

 Or perhaps there is method in this after all. One of the original Senate sponsors of this resolution is George Allen, R-Va., widely believed to be planning a run for the presidency in 2008. Can it be his sly intention to remind America of just who filibustered anti-lynching legislation for 50 years? Why, Southern Democrats, that's who. Among the die-hard segregationists was Richard Russell, who has a building named after him in Washington. Another was J. Thomas Heflin (father of Howell), who reportedly explained in 1930 that "Whenever a Negro crosses this dead line between the white and the Negro races and lays his black hand on a white woman, he deserves to die." Filibuster = Democrat = Bad. Is that the formula Sen. Allen hopes to popularize? Interesting tactic.

 But if the Senate is institutionally responsible for blocking anti-lynching legislation, may the same be said of the Democratic Party, institutionally? Shouldn't Howard Dean be apologizing for heading what was once the party of slavery? Things have changed? The pro-slavery, pro-Jim Crow Democrats are dead and gone; replaced by a new breed that would no more discriminate than walk on all fours? Um hmm. Why can we not say the same of the United States Senate?

 But here's a thought. In 1975, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives comprehensively abandoned our ally, South Vietnam, denying them even bullets and gasoline. Doomed Vietnamese tried to cling to the skids of helicopters as Americans evacuated Saigon. Many living members of Congress participated in that shameful betrayal. An apology on that score would mean something.