A persistent meme of the liberal mainstream media this election year is that the Tea Party is steeped (pun not intended) in racism and/or neo-Confederate sympathies. Howard Fineman is more than happy to breathe new life in that storyline in yesterday's attack leveled at Kentucky Republican senatorial nominee Dr. Rand Paul in particular and Bluegrass State conservatives in general.
In his May 20 "Rand Paul and D.W. Griffith," blog post, the Newsweek staffer not-too-subtly compared Kentucky's Tea Party contingent of 2010 with the more racially-charged elements he perceived among some anti-busing opponents in the 1970s:
If Americans think of Kentucky at all, they tend not to regard it as part of the Deep South on racial matters: no history of water cannons fired at civil-rights demonstrators; the kind of place that gave the world a proud and defiant Muhammad Ali, not a brutal and racist Bull Connor.
But there is another Kentucky, one I witnessed as a reporter starting out there when court-ordered busing began in the 1970s. It is a border state with a comparatively tiny black population, and which, as a result, is way behind the times in accommodating itself to the racial realities of modern America.
There was little violence when busing started, but there were Klan rallies and smoldering anger along Dixie Highway and a Republican Party ready to rise on those emotions.
Some of that old-time, race-based attitude—a Kentucky mix of romantic benevolence and cruel disdain (immortalized in D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation)—has seeped into the groundwater of the Tea Party. I attended one of its first rallies, in Louisville more than a year ago, and I saw on the ground some of the anti-busing elements of old there.
Fineman then indicted Paul on two charges for which he called for a swift apology:
If Dr. Rand Paul doesn't immediately apologize for holding his victory rally at a private club—and doesn't abandon his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act—then he will not only pollute the Tea Party, he will severely damage the GOP's chances of winning control of either the House or Senate this fall.
Of course the first item is more about the "optics" of campaigning than any questions of substantial policy. I agree it's probably foolish to hold a victory rally at a country club, especially when you're a Republican and the media are quick to jump on "party of the rich" stereotypes, but it's hardly an issue that will be in voters minds in November. As for the Civil Rights Act, Fineman is being disingenuous about Paul's attachment to the matter as a campaign issue.
Paul has not campaigned on repealing or altering the historic legislation, he simply answered a question raised by a journalist in an interview, and in the story to which Fineman linked, it's clear that Paul's concerns are based on his libertarian read of the limits of the power of the federal government, not a hatred of persons of color. In that sense, one may say Paul is very much a Barry Goldwater Republican.
Of course, Fineman seems unable to countenance that more charitable conclusion. Instead, the Newsweek staffer seems intent on painting Paul as cravenly appealing to some racist undercurrent in Tea Party politics, and worse, aiming to re-fight the Civil War, at least metaphorically speaking:
Tea Party philosophy runs smack into the wall of rights the Constitution creates, and if Paul doesn't want to recognize that, he will turn the entire election into a referendum on racial discrimination.
We fought a war 150 years ago about that. Paul wasn't born in Kentucky, but he should know the local history. Brother fought brother; both Lincoln and Davis were born in the state; Kentucky's government was Union, but many of its citizens were rebels.
That war is over. It's not in anyone's interest—especially Paul's—to revive it.