Meme of the day: Haley Barbour in hot water over race comments

Matt Yglesias was the first, I believe, to seize on the key passage from Barbour’s interview with the Weekly Standard, but the pipeline from lefty blogs to bigger media moves quickly and now they’re off to the races. The DNC’s already jumped on it too, making this a semi-official sneak preview of what an Obama/Barbour 2012 campaign will look like. If he’s the nominee, Democrats will spend six solid months shrieking about racism in order to deflect attention from Obama’s record.

Mitigating factor: That’s actually their game plan no matter who the nominee is.

Both Mr. Mott and Mr. Kelly had told me that Yazoo City was perhaps the only municipality in Mississippi that managed to integrate the schools without violence. I asked Haley Barbour why he thought that was so.

“Because the business community wouldn’t stand for it,” he said. “You heard of the Citizens Councils? Up north they think it was like the KKK. Where I come from it was an organization of town leaders. In Yazoo City they passed a resolution that said anybody who started a chapter of the Klan would get their ass run out of town. If you had a job, you’d lose it. If you had a store, they’d see nobody shopped there. We didn’t have a problem with the Klan in Yazoo City.”

In interviews Barbour doesn’t have much to say about growing up in the midst of the civil rights revolution. “I just don’t remember it as being that bad,” he said. “I remember Martin Luther King came to town, in ’62. He spoke out at the old fairground and it was full of people, black and white.”

He also copped to having spent most of his time at MLK’s speech checking out girls. One thing he’s being hammered for is the “I just don’t remember it as being that bad” line, but as I read it, that wasn’t his take on the injustice of discrimination but rather how Yazoo City specifically coped with racial tensions. No violence in school desegregation, no Klan welcome in town, and a mixed audience for King’s address: Relative to other southern hot spots, I take him as saying, the town made racial progress peacefully. The other thing he’s getting hit for is whitewashing the Citizens Councils, a.k.a. the White Citizens Councils, which were essentially pro-segregationist groups for people too “respectable” for the Klan. Again, the way I read his quote was that he was describing only the Yazoo City chapter, not the overall organization (a point stressed by Barbour’s spokesman to TPM). Maybe the local CC’s mission had become less toxic by the time Barbour was a teen, or maybe he was simply naive about what the group’s true purpose was, remembering his hometown through “rose-colored glasses,” as Geraghty says. No doubt reporters are dialing up local historians as we speak to find out whether Barbour could earnestly and honestly be mistaken.

Whatever the answer, though, I agree with DrewM at Ace’s site that for a would-be presidential candidate who’s universally recognized for his political savvy, Barbour’s handling of the subject here was oddly clumsy. As you’ll see below, he’s keenly aware that “fat rednecks” will be held to a higher standard on certain topics than other candidates; running head-to-head against the first black president, that standard will be stratospherically high, yet here he is seeming to shrug off the local Citizens Council. It reminds me of Mitch Daniels continuing to wonder aloud about a truce on social issues or a VAT (coupled with an income tax): Knowing what your opponents will do with that, why hand them the ammunition? Exit quotation from Dan McLaughlin: “Fact #1: Haley Barbour may be the best potential POTUS in GOP field. Fact #2: a white man his age from MS may not be electable, as such.”