Monday, July 18, 2005

An Empty Apology

Bob Herbert weighs in on the Republicans attempt to make nice with the African-American community over the Southern strategy.

The important thing to keep in mind was how deliberate and pernicious the strategy was. Last month a jury in Philadelphia, Miss., convicted an 80-year-old man, Edgar Ray Killen, of manslaughter in the slaying of three civil rights workers – Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney – in the summer of 1964. It was a crime that made much of the nation tremble, and revolted anyone with a true sense of justice.

So what did Ronald Reagan do in his first run for the presidency, 16 years after the murder, in the summer of 1980? He chose the site of the murders, Philadelphia, Miss., as the perfect place to send an important symbolic message. Mr. Reagan kicked off his general election campaign at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, an annual gathering that was famous for its diatribes by segregationist politicians. His message: “I believe in states’ rights.”

Mr. Reagan’s running mate was George H. W. Bush, who, in his own run for president in 1988, thought it was a good idea to exploit racial fears with the notorious Willie Horton ads about a black prisoner who raped a white woman. Mr. Bush’s campaign manager, Lee Atwater, said at the time that the Horton case was a “values issue, particularly in the South – and if we hammer at these over and over, we are going to win.”


At its heart, the Southern strategy remains the same, a cynical and remarkably successful divide-and-conquer strategy that nurtures the bigotry of whites and is utterly contemptuous of blacks.

My guess is that Mr. Mehlman’s apology was less about starting a stampede of blacks into the G.O.P. than about softening the party’s image in the eyes of moderate white voters. If the apology was serious, it would mean the Southern strategy was kaput. And we know that’s not true.