McDonnell issued a proclamation on April 2 stating April would be Confederate History Month, but failed to note the role slavery played in the U.S. Civil War that lasted from 1861-1865. Commentators and journalists seized upon McDonnell's omission as proof that conservatives are inherent racists, despite an apology and later inclusion in the proclamation of a strong statement condemning slavery.
In his apology, McDonnell called slavery an "abomination" and explained that the proclamation was "solely intended to promote the study of our history, encourage tourism in our state in advance of the 150th Anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, and recognize Virginia's unique role in the story of America."
These allegations of racism against conservatives have percolated in the media since Barack Obama's election in 2008. "Confederate" or "Confederacy" has been used 60 times in news reports on ABC, CBS and NBC since November 4, 2008, but it's this proclamation, coupled with the anger over the recently passed health care reform, that had some in the media wondering if conservatives were ready to wage Civil War Redux.
To ABC's Cokie Roberts during the April 11 "This Week" broadcast, the nation's current mood and the efforts of a group of state attorneys general seeking a federal court to rule the health care bill unconstitutional, invited comparison to the months leading up to the Civil War.
"You have these 14 states attorney general saying that they want to have the court overturn the recently passed health care law. I must say, I was just with grand kids at Fort Sumter and the notion of nullification made me extremely nervous, because it was, of course, the first step toward the Civil War."
Liberal historian Douglas Brinkley drew similar comparisons during his April 7 appearance on CNN's "Campbell Brown," noting that America is "in a big states rights movement right now." He continued, "There's a real anti-federal government feeling particularly in the Republican Party." Brinkley cited Texas Governor Rick Perry's talk of his state seceding from the union, and Perry's subsequent victory in the GOP gubernatorial primary.
Brinkley surmised that McDonnell's exclusion of slavery from the proclamation was a deliberate appeal to conservatives. "Governor McDonnell is a shrewd man. He figured that there was some political play in this that was going to solidify him with the right of the Republican Party and show him that he was a true Virginian in this regard." That's a dubious claim, considering that McDonnell is still new to the office and there's been no evidence of disaffection from his conservative base.
To Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, McDonnell's proclamation was an attempt at "whitewashing the war" and further claimed in an April 10 New York Times op-ed that "it is one way for the right - alienated, anxious and angry about the president, health care reform and all manner of threats, mostly imaginary - to express its unease with the Age of Obama, disguising hate as heritage."
"We cannot allow the story of the emancipation of people and the expiation of America's original sin to become fodder for conservative politicians playing to their right-wing base," he concluded.
The assumption of McDonnell's sinister machinations was widespread and often repeated on MSNBC and CNN.
CNN's Anderson Cooper reported on April 7, after McDonnell's apology and inclusion of the condemnation of slavery, "It seems pretty hard to argue that this was just an oversight by the governor. Because as we showed you as late as yesterday, he was defending and excluding any mention of slavery. Now, the other explanation, of course, is that it was a calculated effort to appeal to his base."
Cooper then turned to a debate between CNN contributor Roland Martin, and Brag Bowling, commander of the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans
Martin agreed with Cooper and went so far as to call Confederate soldiers Nazis and terrorists.
"That makes no sense," insisted Martin of the proclamation. "That's like someone sitting here and saying ‘Let's celebrate Nazi soldiers for simply doing their job." Later he maintained, "When you sit here and say well, we will celebrate the Confederate veterans, these folks committed treason by taking up arms against the United States. You celebrate that? They were domestic terrorists."
MSNBC's Chris Matthews stated during his April 8 "Hardball" broadcast that "many people believe that [McDonnell] did this to solidify his base and perhaps win himself a place on the ticket next time around as the conservative counterpoint to Mitt Romney ... whose political philosophy is indecipherable."
Matthews's guest, former DNC spokeswoman and director of communications Karen Finney, picked up Matthews's argument from there and claimed McDonnell was using "code words" to embrace racism.
"Any time you are talking about states' rights, right, I mean the - you know, the phrase comes from those who were defenders of slavery. I mean, there are certain code words. We all know what they mean, and words do matter," she told Matthews. Later she asserted, "That is a very specific tactic out of the Rove playbook, designed to incite peoples' anger. When you talk about states' right and sovereignty, you know exactly what you're doing."
The day before, Matthews hosted former Virginia governor Doug Wilder and Virginia Democratic Congressman Jim Moran on his program and asked them, "Is this a play for what's called the Republican base? Is this just clearly aimed at the ... the people who don't like change?"
Wilder labeled McDonnell's omission a "miscalculation." Moran did not directly answer the question.
Jesse Jackson told MSNBC's Ed Schultz on April 7 that McDonnell's omission was "highly calculated," after Schultz noted that McDonnell "gave the response to the State of the Union" and is "being touted by the Republican party as a possible future candidate for presidency."
"The governor knew what he was doing and now I think that a kind of light-hearted apology does not at all address the fact that he still wants to honor the Confederacy this month ... he should rescind the proclamation and should vow to commit himself to the United States of America," claimed Jackson, with touching concern for McDonnell's patriotism.
Not to be left out of the discussion, on her April 7 program MSNBC's Rachel Maddow discussed McDonnell's proclamation with Melissa Harris-Lacewell, associated professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University.
"To me, it's interesting and it's important that Republican governors keep endorsing that idea and Democratic governors keep not endorsing that idea in Virginia," opined Maddow. "Are there - either partisan or left and right - differences of opinion and perception about having a romantic view of the Confederacy?" she asked Harris-Lacewell.
Harris-Lacewell played the race card and connected this proclamation to what liberal elites view as racist backlash against Obama. "This is clearly to me about attaching to what [McDonnell] perceives as a national anxiety about the ways in which women, and people of color and immigrants are changing and rewriting the American story and saying, you know what, Virginia will be a nice, safe place for those of you who want to romanticize a past where this sort of, you know, power struggle did not exist." As through the Civil War with its 600,000 dead were not a "power struggle."
Not surprisingly, the media couldn't find room in their speculations to acknowledge that many conservatives were unhappy with McDonnell's original exclusion.
National Review's Jim Geraghty asked on April 8, "How many governors have stepped in it as needlessly as he has in the past week?" He reminded McDonnell of the negative connotations that go along with the Confederacy. "Once you start loudly touting the little-known facts of how the Confederacy was underrated, a lot of folks tune out anything else you might say."
Ed Morrissey at HotAir wrote April 7 that McDonnell's "approach seems needlessly provocative and almost guaranteed to create problems for Republicans in Virginia and across the country."
Over at PowerLine on April 7, Paul Mirengoff called the omission of slavery in the proclamation "historically untenable," "rather offensive" and that it "seemed like bad politics."
Ramesh Ponnuru weighed in as well on April 9, but labeled McDonnell's omission "a moral and historical mistake" and said it "damages Republicans and conservatives not only among blacks but among non-black voters as well."
The media didn't mention these comments because they didn't fit into the prescribed media portrayal of conservatives as unabashed racists.