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Haley Barbour's Amnesia

Anyone who's been watching the self-inflicted damage that Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's undergoing over his sunny comments about his home town's experience with desegregation has probably felt a sense of deja vu. You might be remembering fellow Mississippian Trent Lott and his fall from the GOP Senate leadership in 2002 after he jovially suggested that life would be better if Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond had won the 1948 presidential election.

A lot of the same ingredients are there. Like Lott, Barbour said something objectively outrageous about the segregationist heritage of their common state with a breezy insouciance that belied either deep denial or aggressive mendacity. Like Lott, Barbour (or his handlers) first reacted with wounded innocence and counter-attacks, but quickly retreated to the attempted damage control of a partial apology.

Will Barbout, who doesn't occupy a national post similar in its vulnerability to Lott's boss-man role in the Senate, brazen it out?

That's hard to say, but this is one white southerner of Barbour's own generation who doesn't think he should get away with protestations of hazy memories or pretend that nasty old civil rights era was irrelevant to his own career.

The politics of Mississippi in the 1960s was all about race. And the growth of the Mississippi GOP, in which Barbour was a precocious leader making his bones in the early 1970s, was all about the party's positioning as the inheritor of the Dixiecrat tradition.

Consider this series of numbers: 24%, 87%, 13%, 78%. These are the percentages received by the Republican presidential nominees in Mississippi between 1960 and 1972 (Richard Nixon in three of the four). Why the wildly gyrating support levels? The GOP was he unquestioned White Man's Party in 1964 and 1972, and wasn't in 1960 and 1968. This lesson was not lost on young GOPers like Barbour, who labored to make sure the anti-civil-rights bona fides of their party was not questioned thereafter (Barbour's championship of Ronald Reagan in the contested 1976 nominating process was undoubtedly motivated by the very accurate fear that a moderate nominee like Gerald Ford would be vulnerable to a portion of the old seggie vote drifting to native southernor Jimmy Carter).

Now some of Barbour's defenders are deploying the old line that criticism of him represents a plenary condemnation of southerners or of southern Republicans. But that's a non sequitur. In a number of southern states, particularly those with an ancient Appalachian Republican voting base, the Republican Party as a viable political entity predated the en masse defection of segregationists in 1964. To put it another way, being a southern Republican in 1966 or 1970 did not necessarily connote deep hostility to civil rights. But in Mississippi, South Carolina, Alabama and Louisiana, it was a rare Republican leader in the late 1960s and early 1970s who wasn't a former Dixiecrat or Golderwatercrat or closely aligned with them.

All of this is simply to say that amnesia or verbal carelessness on the political events of the 1960s may be permissable for many politicians, but not for someone with Barbour's (or Lott's) background. It's like forgetting your middle name, and I just don't believe it happens innocently, particularly with someone who has Barbour's more recent record of allegedly color-blind reactionary policies.