By MARSHA MERCER
Fall is the season of books and provocative ideas, and author Taylor Branch has no shortage of either.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian hopes to keep educators interested in teaching about the civil rights era with the publication of “The King Years,” a short version of his much-acclaimed trilogy on the life of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.
Last Saturday, he challenged his audience under a big tent at the National Book Festival in Washington with an idea he said is both dangerous and delicate. He’d sprung it last month on Gwen Ifill when she interviewed him for the PBS NewsHour. Intrigued, Ifill gingerly broached the idea when she and Judy Woodruff interviewed President Barack Obama a day later.
Obama “danced all around it,” Branch said.
Here it is: Obama is the victim of partisan racial gridlock.
Everyone agrees that Congress is dysfunctional and that the tea party has put sand in the gears of Washington.
But is it accurate – or unfair -- to ascribe race as a motivator of partisan gridlock?
Even practiced interviewers like Ifill and veteran interviewees like Obama get hives using the words race and racial. Ifill held the question until last, and she used many words asking it. She asked the president if he agreed with the historian “and, if so, what, if anything, the first African-American president can do to break through that kind of motivated gridlock.”
The last thing Obama wants is to suggest that he considers himself a victim of racism. He talked and talked. He went on for 647 words, more than twice as many words as Lincoln used for the Gettysburg Address, and basically Obama said no, he doesn’t think partisan gridlock is race-based.
But he did offer context to gridlock. Since the 1960s, Obama said, people have fought government efforts to help minorities and the poor as being bad for the economy, and that has led to thinking of government as the problem instead of the solution. That in turn led to criticism that “pointy-headed bureaucrats in Washington are just trying to help out minorities or trying to give them something free.”
Bingo! Obama is thinking of the racism of George Wallace even if he’s not talking about it.
In early 1963, Alabama’s governor declared, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” As Branch tells it, the March on Washington and other events convinced Wallace that talk of segregation and race were unacceptable, and Wallace never mentioned them again.
"He turned on a dime,” Branch says. “He switched his message adroitly.”
That September, Wallace launched a presidential bid with a speech that turned his scorn to “pointy-headed bureaucrats,” tyrannical judges and “tax, tax, spend” legislators.
It was “the beginning of the vocabulary of modern politics,” Branch says. For him, “The greatest unexamined question today is to what extent the underpinnings of partisan gridlock are racial.”
I thought of Branch’s question in connection with recent comments of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, about Jesse Helms.
“We need a hundred more like Jesse Helms in the U.S. Senate,” Cruz declared Sept. 11 at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.
Helms died five years ago, but his star in the political right constellation is brighter than ever.
Former Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., head of Heritage, calls Helms “my kind of conservative.”
Cruz said that he sent his very first political contribution -- $10 -- to Helms because critics were “beating up on him.” Helms’s “willingness to say all those crazy things is a rare, rare characteristic,” Cruz said admiringly.
Cruz was 19 in 1990 when Helms ran a chilling campaign ad against Harvey Gantt, Charlotte’s black mayor. The ad showed a white man’s hands crumpling up a job rejection letter. “You needed that job and you were the best qualified, but they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota,” the voiceover said. Helms won his re-election bid.
Helms, unlike Strom Thurmond and Wallace, never recanted or apologized for his use of racism as a political tactic.
In the 21st century, America needs to move forward, not back. We can’t afford to listen to rhetoric from the bad old days, whether we call it racially tinged or racist.
© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.