Last year, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid described presidential aspirant Barack Obama as a "light-skinned" black man "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one." The political establishment and cable news talking heads are now arguing over whether those comments by Reid constitute racism or are simply a tempest in teapot.
This much is certain. The treatment by the nation's news gatekeepers and liberal groups of racist or bigoted behavior varies wildly depending on whether the presumed guilty party is a Republican or a Democrat (or conservative or a liberal). Consider the history and events surrounding two longtime Senators.
Strom Thurmond of South Carolina left office in January 2003 at 100 years of age and after he became the longest serving U.S. Senator in history. He served for nearly fifty years. Thurmond was a son of the old south and he grew up a segregationist.
Although Thurmond was born and raised in the segregated south, he eventually renounced his past. In 1970, he became the first Southern senator to hire a black staffer and he was the first to recommend a black man to be a federal judge. He then sent his daughter to a heavily integrated public school. During the 1970s, Thurmond continued to distance himself from his fellow Southern Senators, nearly every single one of whom was a Democrat, when Thurmond supported black judicial nominees for the federal bench.
In 2006, Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia became the longest current serving member of the U.S. Congress. His total service in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate surpassed 53 years.
Like Thurmond, Robert Byrd grew up in West Virginia when segregation was commonplace. However, Byrd grew up a racist. He was a Ku Klux Klansman and a Klan recruiter, called a Kleagle. Byrd recruited 150 applicants to become new Klansmen and he founded a new chapter in which he was unanimously elected as an Exalted Cyclops, the chapter leader. Byrd was personally recognized for his leadership in the Ku Klux Klan by the Grand Dragon of the Realm of Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware.
Byrd opposed the integration of blacks in the military. While he was active in the Klan, Byrd wrote to segregationist U.S. Senator Theodore Bilbo (D-Mississippi) declaring he would never fight "with a Negro by my side. Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds."
Byrd opposed both black nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court. He was the only member of the U.S. Senate who voted against the liberal Thurgood Marshall (appointed to the Supreme Court in 1967 by President Lyndon Johnson) and the conservative Clarence Thomas (nominated in 1991 by President George H. W. Bush). Both were confirmed as Supreme Court justices in spite of Byrd's staunch opposition.
Byrd often opposed black nominees to the judiciary and to cabinet positions. He once called Martin Luther King a "self-seeking rabble-rouser" and he voted against the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Acts. As recently as 2001, Byrd used the term "nigger" twice in a televised news interview. Nonetheless, Byrd is among the few Senators to receive a 100% favorable rating from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
In recent years, Byrd stated that his Ku Klux Klan membership was a "mistake," like any cagey politician would. In his autobiography he claimed he left the Klan "in early 1943," however, years later he wrote the Imperial Wizard of the KKK, "The Klan is needed today as never before and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia" and "in every state in the Union."
Evidence has been unearthed showing Byrd to be a staunch supporter of the Klan for at least another fifteen years after he claimed to have left the Klan, and five years after he had begun serving in Congress. During his 1958 race for the U.S. Senate, Byrd told a reporter that he believed the Klan had been the target of unfair blame. Years after he claimed to have broken with the Klan he had actively campaigned to return the Klan to West Virginia.
In his 817-page autobiography, Byrd referred to his role in the Ku Klux Klan in a total of 26 pages, occasionally calling it a "mistake," but he never wrote that he had renounced the Klan or his membership in the organization.
On December 5, 2002, then-Senator Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi praised Thurmond at his 100th birthday celebration saying the sort of things people say about someone else during the celebration of a significant event. Lott stated that Thurmond would have made a great president. He said, "I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."
Lott's comments were so vague that they could have meant anything. This is what thoughtful and considerate people do when celebrating the noteworthy achievements of other people. Unfortunately for Lott, that simple statement of kindness unleashed a torrent of criticism from the political left and their foot soldiers in the partisan press. They seized on Lott's remarks and interpreted them as meaning Lott was in favor of segregation today.
In one week's time hundreds of stories and news articles appeared on television and in print breathlessly calling Lott a racist and urging him to step down as Senate Majority Leader. Time magazine even devoted a front cover to Lott titled "Whitewashing the Past." Caving in to the media pressure, Lott resigned his position as Senate Majority Leader.
On April 1, 2004, Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd praised Byrd after his 17,000th Senate vote, stating that Byrd was a great leader and "He would have been right during the great conflict of Civil War in this nation."
Dodd was very specific. He praised Byrd, the former Ku Klux Klansman and former Klan recruiter, who filibustered for 17 hours against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, who voted against black nominees to the Supreme Court, who opposed blacks in the military, who campaigned to restore the Ku Klux Klan to power in West Virginia and throughout the country, and who still publicly uses the term "nigger," as a man who would have made a great national leader when the nation had gone to war over slavery.
Considering Byrd's deeply racist past, there was no mistaking what Dodd had clearly implied. Yet, the nation's press studiously avoided the incident. In one week's time, only eight stories were found addressing the topic in daily newspapers, weekly news magazines, on television network newscasts and on cable television news programs. There was no Time magazine cover. There were no cries of "racist" or "bigot" directed at Dodd. There were no calls for Dodd to step down.
This striking contrast is telling. Liberal groups and their media partners in the network and newspaper newsrooms find bigotry perfectly acceptable as long as it is Democrats who are the racists and bigots.
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