Faye Anderson has had just about enough. It’s no picnic being a black female activist in the Republican Party under the best of circumstances, says the president of the Washington-based Douglass Policy Institute (and proud graduate of Bed-Stuy’s P.S. 3). But ever since the Washington Post reported in mid-December that Trent Lott, Bob Barr, and other Republicans have warmed themselves over the campfires of the Council of Conservative Citizens, the nineties version of the old White Citizens Councils, the circumstances have been far from the best, and Anderson wants changes.
“You can’t get the Republican leaders to listen,” Anderson says. “This is an issue that is of keen concern to me and a lot of people. You can’t talk about inclusion when under that tent are people who’d just as soon see us hanging from a tree.”
This we know so far: The Post’s Tom Edsall reported that Lott and Barr had spoken to CCC groups – Lott in 1992, Barr more recently. Some lower-level GOPers were actual members, or described by CCC leaders as honorary members. GOP chairman Jim Nicholson called the group “racist” and signaled anyone with ties to the group to sever them posthaste. A South Carolina committeeman, Buddy Witherspoon, did. Lott put a foot’s worth of distance between himself and the CCC but in essence defended his appearance before the group. Meanwhile, some Republicans – Anderson, radio host Armstrong Williams, Peggy Noonan, and Arianna Huffington – have demanded stronger action.
This week, the ante will be upped again. A bipartisan – though not, as we shall see, very bipartisan – group of legislators is planning a press conference to gather support for House Resolution 35, which calls on the House to “condemn the racism and bigotry” of the CCC. It was introduced by Democrats Robert Wexler of Florida and James Clyburn of South Carolina. By last week, they had collected 121 co-sponsors. And even if only nine of them are Republicans – including New Yorkers Michael Forbes, Ben Gilman, Amo Houghton, Peter King, Sherwood Boehlert, and James Walsh – 121 co-sponsors is usually enough to scoot a bill along.
So why do so many people think that somehow, this one may never find its way to the floor? Anderson, who has asked to meet with Lott and House Speaker Dennis Hastert about the CCC and the GOP’s general race problem, received the most perfunctory response from Hastert, and none from Lott. Wexler spokesman Josh Rogin says that in early February, his boss asked Lott to sponsor a companion resolution in the Senate and never heard back.
Which is not to say, however, that Lott has been silent on the matter. Last week, he announced that he will not support H. Res. 35, saying that general denunciations of white supremacy and fascism are fine, but that “if they start on one group or one kind, I don’t think that’s wise.” Funny, Lott felt different in 1994, when he voted for a similar resolution denouncing Khalid Muhammad. Faye Anderson understands the difference clearly enough: “Khalid never met with the Senate majority leader.”
The line the Republican party is currently peddling, about proving that it’s more than the party of impeachment, that the new GOP will be inclusive and broad-minded, faces its first real test here. Some in the party seem to mean it. New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman told an assemblage of moderate Republicans in Miami last month that the GOP should not waste time arguing with critics who call the party “mean-spirited” and “vindictive” but should “figure out how we repair the damage.” She did her part, firing the state police superintendent who made racist remarks and whose force is alleged to have been stopping black motorists far more than white ones for years now.
Evidence that she has company is thin. It’s true that the CCC resolution can be read as a partisan parry that’s useful to Democrats; on the other hand, as Wexler points out: “In fairness, in terms of all the elected officials who’ve had associations with this group, speaking before it over the years, the majority are Democrats – state legislators from Mississippi and so forth.” Of course, they’re not national figures. But it should be noted that when the Muhammad resolution was before the House, it passed in three weeks with the support of 192 Democrats and with unanimity in the Senate. The CCC resolution was introduced six weeks ago and hasn’t moved a centimeter. The difference is that if H. Res. 35 really picks up steam, it could cost Lott his job.
If the party’s leaders were smart, they’d ditch him. He enjoys a nice Beltway reputation – a fair negotiator, a gentleman, a genial basso profundo on “Elvira,” which he performs with a quartet called the Singing Senators (that Washington humor); the type of man Sally Quinn, cultural gulch between Georgetown and Mississippi notwithstanding, would probably call “one of us.” But a party looking to make itself acceptable to more than the 30 percent of the population that thinks Bill Clinton is Satan hardly needs as its most visible representative a man who called homosexuality a sin and told a convocation of CCCers that they represent “the right ideals and the right philosophy” (he did not intend a pun with those “right”s).
It probably won’t happen. What’s more likely is that H. Res. 35 won’t see the light of day, and Republicans will scamper. I called the campaigns of George W. Bush and Lamar Alexander and the congressional office of presidential candidate John Kasich of Ohio (a House member and not a co-sponsor of the resolution) seeking comment. They had none, and they’re likely to try to keep it that way.
Some people, notably some critics of Clinton on the left, marveled at 90 percent levels of black support for the president who signed the welfare bill into law. Marvel no more. The most public aspects of the Republican Party’s relationship to black people since 1963 – the year the party decided to oppose civil rights and get Dixie on its side – have been its use of racial rhetoric to gin up white turnout and its cozy relationships with groups like the CCC. Clinton sure doesn’t represent that, and it’s long past time Republicans didn’t either. By one interpretation, changing their stance on race means sacrificing their most loyal base, white Southerners; by another, it means shredding a devil’s pact the party made two generations ago.
They’re lucky to have even one Faye Anderson, who calls herself “loyal, but not blindly loyal,” and if they try to whistle past this one, they may lose even the likes of her.