Barr: Bob Barr's Credibility Gap
The New Republic, vol. 22, nos. 1 and 2, January 4 and 11, 1999,
pp. 10, 12-13
[Printed December 16, 1998]
© Copyright 1998 The New Republic, Inc.
House Judiciary Committee's approval of articles of impeachment
against President Clinton should have been a moment of triumph
for Bob Barr, the Republican congressman from Georgia. But
The Washington Post spoiled the occasion for Barr, reporting
that, last June, he addressed a meeting of a previously obscure
white supremacist group, the Council of Conservative Citizens.
On what should have been his day in the sun, Barr found himself
facing an embarrassing little scandal of his own.
all know, the impeachment drama has nothing to do with the president's
illicit sexual affair. The real issue is that, when confronted
with questions about his wrongdoing, he lied to cover it up -
it's about the character a politician exhibits when faced with
the embarrassing truth about himself. Similarly, Barr has
every right to maintain a consensual relationship with a repugnant
collection of old-fashioned racists. But the Barr scandal
isn't about racism, it's about truth. Has Barr been completely
candid about his fling with the ultraright? Or does he,
like the president, inhabit a "parallel universe ... when
it comes to the use of the English language," as Barr so
nicely put it during the impeachment hearings?
the background. On June 6, 1998, Barr traveled to Charleston,
South Carolina, to give the keynote address at the semi-annual
meeting of the Council of Conservative Citizens (or CofCC, as
it calls itself). Though the CofCC professes to be a mainstream
conservative organization, the Citizens Informer, the
group's official newspaper, and its website betray its true agenda:
the preservation of white Christian America amid the onslaught
of immigration and race-mixing. One Citizens Informer
columnist is Robert B. Patterson, the founder of the pro-segregation
Mississippi Citizens' Council that sprang up during the civil
rights era. He wrote in a recent issue: "Any
effort to destroy the [white] race by a mixture of black blood
is an effort to destroy western civilization itself."
The CofCC's website features the animadversions of one H. Millard,
who writes: "Genocide via the bedroom chamber is as
long-lasting as genocide via war."
did Barr know about this ideological tendency, and when did he
know it? CofCC officials claim he was fully informed before
his speech. "We don't invite people out of the dark
who are not familiar with us, particularly a high-profile person,"
says Gordon Lee Baum, the CofCC's chief executive officer.
"So copies of our newspaper were sent to him and our brochure.
If he looked at it I presume he had knowledge of what it was about."
told TNR that he never received the newspaper; he said he
was sent only a couple of pieces of the group's literature, which
"by all appearances, makes them out to be a very pristine,
conservative, grassroots organization." This is an
interesting assessment, since one brochure sent to Barr contained
an endorsement of the group by Lester Maddox, the notoriously
unrepentant segregationist who was governor of Barr's home state
from 1967 to 1970.
Barr respond to questions about his appearance with immediate
full disclosure? Barr was first confronted about the CofCC
last summer, when Margaret Kempf, a suburban Washington woman
who tracks right-wing groups as a hobby, spotted Barr's smiling
visage in a Citizens Informer photo spread about the
Charleston meeting. Kempf called Barr's office and said
she wanted to ask about it. But, Kempf says, "they
just put me on hold and then they told me to call the Georgia
office. So I called the Georgia office, and they put me
on hold for some time. And I couldn't stay on because it
was long-distance." She later wrote a complaining letter
to The Washington Times, which drew no reaction from
on December 4, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who tangled
with Barr during a December 1 appearance before the Judiciary
Committee, wrote a letter to Chairman Henry Hyde complaining about
Barr's CofCC speech. Barr wrote back to Hyde, blasting Dershowitz's
complaint as "completely unfounded."
reasonable person, those words could mean that Barr was denying
that he even spoke at the CofCC gathering, since Barr's letter
otherwise didn't specifically address the point. But apparently
it depends on how you define "unfounded." Barr,
it seems, meant that Dershowitz's suggestion that Barr himself
was a racist and an anti-Semite was "unfounded."
For, when Thomas Edsall of the Post got wind of the story,
Barr's spokesman acknowledged that Barr had, indeed, attended
the group's meeting.
Barr put out a press release blasting Dershowitz again and dismissing
his dalliance with the CofCC as "a brief appearance."
What does he mean by "brief"? Barr told TNR that
he was at the conference for roughly 90 minutes. Asked if
he considered an hour and a half in a busy congressman's day to
be a brief period, Barr bristled. "Anybody can interpret
that any way they want," he said. He then continued
to minimize the appearance. "I got there a little bit
early, I waited until it was time for my presentation, I gave
the presentation, and I left right after," he explained.
members recall that Barr's visit lasted a bit longer than 90 minutes;
they also dispute the notion that he left immediately after his
speech. According to Tom Dover, the president of the CofCC
(who also chauffeured the congressman from the meeting to the
airport), Barr spent "the balance of the time" at the
conference "visit[ing] with people" after giving his
speech. "There were pictures taken," Dover recalls.
"I was in one with him." Sure enough, a recent
isue of Citizens Informer features two shots of a smiling
Barr, one of which shows him embracing a CofCC member.
last detail is important because, in a follow-up story Edsall
wrote for the Post, Barr conceded that, while waiting
at the conference to give his speech, he sat through a CofCC "youth
panel" discussion that "gave me serious pause."
But if Barr was upset, he kept it to himself. Samuel Francis,
the former Washington Times columnist and CofCC board
member who moderated the youth panel, recalled that Barr "came
up and shook my hand after [the youth panel] and made positive
comments about what I had said. When I asked Francis if
Barr seemed ill at ease, he replied, "Absolutely not."
also said the congressman didn't seem troubled. As for Barr,
his memory on this point is spotty. He told TNR he could
not recall exactly what gave him pause, beyond the fact that someone
made "radical statements about race and immigration."
Francis doesn't remember what was said. Michael Pucci, one
of the four youth panel participants, recalled that two other
panel members said things that "made me very uncomfortable,"
although, like Barr, he couldn't recall the offending words exactly.
Baum refused to provide phone numbers for the other panel participants
when I was unabe to find them on my own.
press release said: "I strongly disagree with many
of this group's ridiculous views, and have said so publicly."
This phrasing clearly implies that Barr has, in the past, decried
the group (although, given the context, "ridiculous"
is a rather mild rebuke). But, when asked to point to previous
statements of his disagreement with the CofCC, Barr explained
that what he meant to say was that he had publicly repudiated
the "views, not the group." One wonders, of course,
why someone who had been as vocally opposed to racism and immigrant-bashing
as Barr claims to have been would ever have been invited to speak
by the CofCC in the first place. But Barr has an answer,
of sorts, to that, too: "If you're inquiring whether
I made any prior statements about this, no, because it never occurred
to me." When I later asked Barr's spokesman, Brad Alexander,
why Barr's press release made it sound like he had issued previous
statements on the matter, he explained that Barr was alluding
to comments he had made to the press earlier that day.
isn't the only member of Congress with a CofCC problem.
According to a number of CofCC members, including Dover, Mississippi
Senator Trent Lott is a dues-paying member of the group, which
is particularly strong in his home state. (Governor Kirk
Fordice, for example, is an open and enthusiastic supporter of
the group.) The Citizens Informer occasionally
carries Lott's freely distributed newspaper column. Moreover,
despite Lott's claim that he had "no firsthand knowledge"
of the CofCC, Edsall reported on December 16 that Lott addressed
the group in 1992, telling the audience members that they "stand
for the right principles and the right philosophy."
I asked Baum - who had just volunteered that Barr was not
a CofCC member - whether Lott does, in fact, belong to the group,
he said, "We don't deny or confirm whether anybody's a member.
If Trent Lott says he's not a member, then put it to bed:
he's not a member." When I noted that another CofCC
member had told me that there is a record in St. Louis, Baum replied,
"There's no earthly way you could obtain that information
if it were true." John Czwartacki, Lott's spokesman,
says that Lott rejects the group's views an "does not consider
himself a member."
too, has explicitly repudiated the CofCC - under questioning from
TNR and others. "Yes, I do," he said. "I
repudiate anybody that maintains racist views or anti-immigrant
views." That seems categorical - unless it all depends
on what the meaning of the word "racist" is.