Romney’s Jeremiah Wright

Recently, there was talk of a supposed plan by a conservative PAC to launch a series of ads attempting to link President Barack Obama with his former minister, the ever-controversial Jeremiah Wright. After both Romney and President Obama criticized the plan, it was apparently scuttled. Details can be found here: (http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2012/05/17/super-pac-preparing-ads-tying-obama-to-former-pastor-wright/) Personally, I found some of what Jeremiah Wright said in his sermons and in other venues very offensive. I also found some of it accurate. At any rate, President Obama repudiated him several years ago. Despite the repudiation and despite McCain’s decision to avoid making Wright a major campaign issue in 2008, Obama’s longtime attendance at Trinity United Church of Christ was a major talking point for conservative pundits in 2008. Yet for some reason the media, which seems to lean quite a bit to the Left, has made the strange decision to not cover a similar connection of Mitt Romney that has the potential to become the equivalent of the Jeremiah Wright scandal in this election. Romney made the decision last year to form a “Justice Advisory Committee.” One of the members of that committee is Robert Bork. This name is unfamiliar to many people, so some background is in order. Bork is an eighty-five year conservative legal scholar, former U.S. Solicitor General, acting Attorney General, and Appeals Court judge. In 1987, Ronald Reagan nominated him to the United States Supreme Court, but the Senate had the good sense to reject him. So why is Bork such a despicable individual? Well, for one thing, he helped write the original proposed Federal Marriage Amendment, which would have banned same sex marriage in all fifty states. Of course, Bork will get a pass on this from the Right, since gay bashing is routine for conservative Republicans. He will also probably get a pass when it comes to his deplorable view that the U.S. Supreme Court was wrong to strike down the Virginia Military Institute’s ban on female students. (The issue of women in combat is ridiculously easy to solve—just enforce the same standards for women and men, and whichever women pass physical exams will have proved themselves capable of service.) What has the potential to be much more controversial is Bork’s record on race. To understand the significance of Bork’s racist constitutionalism and its significance in American politics, one must first look at the history of the Republican Party. When the Republican Party was founded in 1854, one of its major tenets was opposition to the expansion of slavery in the West. Almost all members were white Northerners, later joined by blacks across the country. During the 1850s, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, virtually all major party politicians who advocated decisive antislavery action at the federal level and more rights for African Americans were Republicans. Virtually all abolitionists in this period either refused to vote in elections, supported the fringe Liberty Party, or voted Republican. From the late 1800s to the mid 1900s, the difference became less pronounced, with the Republican commitment to racial justice often faltering and the Democratic Party acquiring some proponents of civil rights like Hubert Humphrey, and Paul Douglas.  Both parties had a great deal of variation and generally displayed a disturbing level of apathy toward the plight of African Americans. However, there is an important observation to be made that is often lost in the shuffle. The Republican Party was split between pro-civil rights liberals like Nelson Rockefeller, generally from the Northeast and Great Lakes regions, and Goldwater conservatives largely from the West, who opposed comprehensive racial reform at least publicly on states’ rights grounds but could often be persuaded to support modest federal civil rights legislation. The Democratic Party was split between Northern progressives and Southerners who made no secret of their support for racial segregation. The presence of strong civil rights supporters in both parties and the confinement of most die hard segregationists to the Democratic column due to the “Solid South” meant that the GOP remained the less racist party, at least when it came to blacks, until the 1960s. The facts that I have stated cannot be denied by any serious historian. What changed all of this? One such factor was the success of Democrats, beginning in the 1930s, in exploiting the Republican Party’s failure to continually make civil rights a top priority, as Republicans felt confident that they were guaranteed to continually get the lion’s share of the black vote due to being less racist than the Democrats. Another, however, was the Southernization of the Republican Party. In the 1950s and 1960s, Arizonan Barry Goldwater was a leader of the conservative wing of the Republican Party and displayed the same ambiguities on race as many of his fellow conservative Republicans. He favored the modest Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960, federal anti-lynching legislation, and integration of the Arizona National Guard. Yet Goldwater also denounced Brown v. Board of Education in his famous book, Conscience of a Conservative and again in a 1959 speech in South Carolina, at the time a Democratic bastion. In 1962, Goldwater told a group of Republicans in Atlanta that, “We’re not going to get the Negro vote as a bloc in 1964 and 1968, so we ought to go hunting where the ducks are.” In 1964, Goldwater became the Republican nominee, beating out a slew of civil rights supporters, mostly from the Northeast and Great Lakes states. That same year, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was voted on by Congress. As always, a greater percentage of Republicans voted for the bill than Democrats. Barry Goldwater, however, was one of just six out of thirty-three Republican Senators who voted against it. And here is where Bork comes in. While the Goldwater of the 1960s was remarkably willing to shred the Constitution and expand federal power when it came to, say, banning pornography, he claimed to be devoted to following the Constitution with regard to voting on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Thus, he sought legal advice from Bork, as well as William Rehnquist. Both men told Goldwater to vote against the bill. (Rehnquist, like Bork, was also very homophobic and a favorite of Ronald Reagan, but that is another story for another time.) Thus, it is no exaggeration to say that Bork played a decisive role in making the GOP the more racist of the two parties. One cannot help but think Mitt’s father, George, would be appalled by his son’s decision to cozy up to Bork. The elder Romney was a stalwart supporter of integration, participating in a civil rights march and speaking up for civil rights both in Michigan as governor and across America as a presidential candidate and Republican Party figure. Not surprisingly, Romney refused to endorse Goldwater in his run for president. Furthermore, whatever Bork and his defenders say, his opposition to the private sector provisions of the Civil Rights Act cannot be attributed to libertarianism. After all, he has demonstrated he has no problem with big government when it comes to bullying gay Americans. None of this is to say that Mitt Romney is a racist. After all, I am sure President Obama would agree that one can associate with certain people and agree with them on some issues without sharing their views on everything. Nevertheless, Romney’s association with Bork sends the message that he is apathetic about civil rights for African Americans and is trivializing racial bigotry like Democrats do when they have “Jefferson-Jackson Dinners,” which might as well be called “Dead Slave Master Appreciation Days.” It also sends the message that Romney is apathetic about civil rights for gay people, but then, everyone who hasn’t been living in a cave for the past five years already knows that. Besides, Wright’s racism, if indeed he is a racist, does not exist in a vacuum. Most black-on-white racism in the United States is a by-product of the mistreatment that African Americans have endured for centuries at the hands of people like Robert Bork. Condemning Wright while making excuses for Bork is attacking a symptom without looking at the cause. Thus, Romney must disassociate himself from Bork the same way that President Obama did with Wright. On a final note, Bork’s life and legacy is as good an argument as any that a rigid adherence to the Constitution can be disastrous. At the risk of harping on the same point I have made in other editorials, Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution stipulated that fugitive slaves had to be returned to their masters. This, if nothing else, ought to show people like Bork that sometimes even a constitution has to be subverted to defend people’s rights.

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