July 18, 2005

An Empty Apology


One of President Bush's surrogates went before the N.A.A.C.P. last week and apologized for the Republican Party's reprehensible, decades-long Southern strategy.

The surrogate, Ken Mehlman, is chairman of the Republican National Committee. Perhaps he meant well. But his words were worse than meaningless. They were insulting. The G.O.P.'s Southern strategy, racist at its core, still lives.

"Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization," said Mr. Mehlman. "I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong."

He made his remarks during an appearance in Milwaukee at the annual convention of the N.A.A.C.P., which has a relationship with President Bush reminiscent of the Hatfields' relationship with the McCoys. In a chilling act of political intimidation, the Internal Revenue Service responded to criticism of Mr. Bush by the N.A.A.C.P.'s chairman by launching an investigation of the group's tax-exempt status.

The Southern strategy meant much, much more than some members of the G.O.P. simply giving up on African-American votes. Put into play by Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon in the mid- to late 1960's, it fed like a starving beast on the resentment of whites who were scornful of blacks and furious about the demise of segregation and other civil rights advances. The idea was to snatch the white racist vote away from the Democratic Party, which had committed such unpardonable sins as enacting the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts and enforcing desegregation statutes.

The important thing to keep in mind was how deliberate and pernicious the strategy was. Last month a jury in Philadelphia, Miss., convicted an 80-year-old man, Edgar Ray Killen, of manslaughter in the slaying of three civil rights workers - Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney - in the summer of 1964. It was a crime that made much of the nation tremble, and revolted anyone with a true sense of justice.

So what did Ronald Reagan do in his first run for the presidency, 16 years after the murder, in the summer of 1980? He chose the site of the murders, Philadelphia, Miss., as the perfect place to send an important symbolic message.

Mr. Reagan kicked off his general election campaign at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, an annual gathering that was famous for its diatribes by segregationist politicians. His message: "I believe in states' rights."

Mr. Reagan's running mate was George H. W. Bush, who, in his own run for president in 1988, thought it was a good idea to exploit racial fears with the notorious Willie Horton ads about a black prisoner who raped a white woman. Mr. Bush's campaign manager, Lee Atwater, said at the time that the Horton case was a "values issue, particularly in the South - and if we hammer at these over and over, we are going to win."

Mr. Bush's son, the current president, has been as devoted as an acolyte to the Southern strategy, despite anything Ken Mehlman might think. Like so many other Republican politicians and presidential wannabes, George W. Bush was happy to appear at Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., at a time when the school was blatantly racially discriminatory.

And in both of Mr. Bush's presidential campaigns, his supporters, especially his brother Jeb, the governor of Florida, have gone out of their way to prevent or discourage blacks from voting. In a particularly vile episode last year, Florida state troopers conducted a criminal investigation that zeroed in on black voter turnout efforts in Orlando. A number of people were indicted, including the mayor, Buddy Dyer, a Democrat who was then suspended from office.

In April, with the election safely out of the way, the indictments were dropped and Mr. Dyer was reinstated as mayor.

At its heart, the Southern strategy remains the same, a cynical and remarkably successful divide-and-conquer strategy that nurtures the bigotry of whites and is utterly contemptuous of blacks.

My guess is that Mr. Mehlman's apology was less about starting a stampede of blacks into the G.O.P. than about softening the party's image in the eyes of moderate white voters. If the apology was serious, it would mean the Southern strategy was kaput. And we know that's not true.