By MARSHA MERCER
Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi likely will run for president, so naturally everything he says can and will be held against him. That’s OK by me.
It’s a long, tough slog to the White House, and then the real work begins. The men and women who aspire to be president need to be tested, and voters need to see what candidates are made of.
Barbour, 63, is a GOP insider who as Republican National Chairman in 1994 helped his party regain control of both the U.S. House and Senate. He later became one of Washington’s top lobbyists. He expected to run for president in 2008, but Mother Nature intervened. When Hurricane Katrina devastated his state in 2005, he put his aspirations on hold.
The affable governor’s experience as a mega-lobbyist came in handy during his state’s massive rebuilding project. He steered more than $24 billion in federal aid to his state, a haul four times larger than its annual budget.
As Barbour gears up for 2012, however, strong winds of another kind are threatening.
This time, the winds of Southern history could blow him off track.
Late last year, Barbour, a son of the patrician South, made news in a published interview that suggested he was insensitive to blacks and the civil rights movement. He said growing up in the segregated South during the civil rights era wasn’t “that bad” and seemed appreciative of the pro-segregation Citizens’ Council in Yazoo City, his hometown.
He issued a statement about the Weekly Standard interview, explaining that he was answering a question about why Yazoo City didn’t have the same violence integrating the schools as other places.
“I accurately said the community leadership wouldn't tolerate it and helped prevent violence there. My point was my town rejected the Ku Klux Klan, but nobody should construe that to mean I think the town leadership were saints, either. Their vehicle, called the 'Citizens Council,' is totally indefensible, as is segregation. It was a difficult and painful era for Mississippi, the rest of the country, and especially African Americans who were persecuted in that time,” he said.
Now, as the nation marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, another issue has arisen, involving how to commemorate that troubled era. The Mississippi division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans recently asked the state to honor Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest with a specialty license plate.
Mississippi issues specialty plates for enthusiasms as varied as Elvis, wildlife and 25 different NASCAR drivers. The Sons’ plate this year has an outline of Beauvoir, the last home of Confederate President Jeff Davis, in Biloxi.
Forrest is a provocative choice, to say the least. A brilliant general and warfare tactician, he made a fortune before the war as a slave trader and afterward became Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
In picking Forrest, a Tennessean whose troops perpetrated the Fort Pillow massacre of African-American troops in 1864, the Sons invited controversy, and they got it. A Facebook page -- “Mississippians Against the Commemoration of Grand Wizard Nathan Forrest” – denounced the idea, and the NAACP asked the governor to do the same.
Barbour could have said that Forrest was an unnecessarily combative choice for a proud Southern heritage group. That other Confederate heroes are more appropriate for a state license plate. He could have said he wouldn’t have that plate on his car. He could have shown that he understands the conflicts that burden Southern history.
Instead, he sidestepped. “I don’t go around denouncing people,” he said the other day, the Associated Press reported. Besides, he said, the plate isn’t going to happen because the legislature would have to approve, and it won’t.
That might be a satisfactory answer for a governor without larger ambition. But if Barbour wants to be president, he needs show leadership. This is an opportunity for him to speak from the heart about race, much as Barack Obama did during the 2008 campaign, after the controversy involving his preacher, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
The downside of running for president is that everything a candidate says is closely scrutinized. That’s also the upside. People are listening.
© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.