Ties to Racist Group has GOP Playing with Fire

By Arianna Huffington, Syndicated Columnist
Chicago Sun-Times, Wednesday, January 27, 1999

The prevalent caricature that Republicans neither care for minorities nor have a place for them on their agenda gained credence when it was revealed that prominent Republican leaders -- Rep. Bob Barr (Ga.), Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.), Sen. Jesse Helms (N.C.) and Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice -- had been linked to the Council of Conservative Citizens.   They all promptly distanced themselves from the group, but a visit to its Web site -- with articles describing Martin Luther King as a "depraved miscreant" and America as turning into a "slimy brown mass of glop" -- made it clear that what was in order was not distancing but outright condemnation.

So I called each of them and asked if they would categorically denounce the council and demand that it stop using their names as an implicit endorsement.  The responses varied widely.  Barr told me he would write a letter to the council and did indeed fax me a copy.  "I find your views on racial issues repugnant," he wrote.   "If I had been aware white supremacist views occupied any place in the Council's philosophy, I would never have agreed to speak."

Lott's statement, given over the phone, was tortured and woefully inadequate, considering his long-term relations with the council, ranging from speaking at its events to meeting privately with its leaders in his office.  "I have made my condemnation of white supremacist and racist views espoused by this or any group clear," he said.  "Any use of my name to publicize their beliefs is not only unauthorized, it's wrong."

Here are the questions that remain unanswered by the majority leader:  Why did he endorse the group in a 1995 promotional mailer as a needed "national organization to mobilize conservative, patriotic citizens to help protect our flag, Constitution and other symbols of freedom"?  If, as he claimed, he had "no firsthand knowledge" of the group's agenda, what business did he have endorsing it?  And was his uncle, Arnie Watson, lying when he said that the senator was "an honorary member of the group"?

Helms' response was to have his chief of staff, Jimmy Broughton, write a letter to the council, which he faxed to me.  "In no way has Sen. Helms subscribed to your stance on racial issues," the letter went.  "In fact, the viewpoint espoused by your organization is precisely the kind of so-called 'identity politics' Sen. Helms wholeheartedly rejects."

Then came my telephone conversation with Fordice.  "I would probably go again," he told me.  "They are very delightful people and just because of a few views they hold, that wouldn't keep me from attending their events again."   I asked him specifically about their views on Martin Luther King.  "He's not a hero of mine.  He spent too much time in Soviet Russia for my liking," he replied.

The next stop on my journey was a call to the CEO of the council himself.  I asked Gordon Baum for his response to the letters disavowing his group.  He claimed that he had not received them.  After I faxed them to him, he was contemptuously dismissive:   "That's politicians for you.  Politicians do what's necessary to stay in power."   As for the rest of his views, they didn't seem very different from David Duke's.

James Carville is reported to be preparing an ad targeting the GOP's connection to the council, and Duke is planning to run for Rep. Bob Livingston's (R-La.) district, which he carried in both his 1990 Senate challenge and his 1991 gubernatorial race.  During the 1991 governor's race, an independent expenditure committee funded by Republicans determined to keep Duke out of their party ran an effective ad campaign against him.   The GOP will have to use every means available to ensure that neither Duke nor the Council of Conservative Citizens becomes identified with the Southern conservative wing of the Grand Old Party.

A lot has been said about returning morality to politics.  Republicans would be wise to remember that on the moral Richter scale, playing footsie with racists is more damaging to one's political health than "ministering" to -- or being ministered by -- a 21-year old intern.