Biden Comparing Republicans to George Wallace, Bull Connor, Jefferson Davis: How Exactly Is This Not Valid?
Nothing angers hypocrites more than being called on their hypocrisy.
Republicans are waxing hot since President Joe Biden’s speech in Georgia last week, in which he advocated passionately for a federal guarantee of voting rights, in his big push to get the U.S. Senate to pass two related bills.
Republicans, who since losing the White House in 2020 have been assiduously dismantling voting rights in states controlled by Republicans, now profess not only to be shocked, shocked, but incensed unto apoplexy, that Pres. Biden would call them on their fierce opposition to any federal action to reverse their onslaught on the right preceding all others — the right to vote.
The hypocrisy? While Republicans dress up their actions as bolstering “election integrity,” the voters being disenfranchised, and whose districts are being gerrymandered away from them, are, oddly enough, people of color, notably African-Americans. This insidious GOP action, fueled by former president Donald Trump’s “big lie” of a “stolen election,” is well documented (here, here, here, and here), yet it continues apace despite vanishingly little evidence of election fraud.
In plainest terms: This is racism practiced legislatively. And those practicing it are Republicans.
Which explains Republicans’ apoplexy when, in his Georgia speech, Pres. Biden compared them to notorious racists in American history. The offending passage occurred in his peroration, when he put it to every elected official in America, “How do you want to be remembered?” Noting that “consequential moments in history…present a choice,” Pres. Biden asked, bluntly: “Do you want to be…on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?”
Yes, it’s “hot” rhetoric; the speech was a stemwinder. But on reflection, which part is not valid?
George Wallace is famously remembered as the Alabama governor who in June 1963 stood in “the schoolhouse door” (the University of Alabama) to debar any Negro students from attending. At his inauguration earlier, he declared: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
Bull Connor was the Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety(!), who in May 1963 turned attack dogs and firehoses on Negro protesters, including children. The images of Connors’ brutality galvanized — finally — national outrage and further legitimized Dr. King’s civil rights campaign.
Jefferson Davis, while a reluctant secessionist, led the South to secede from the Union, plunging the Union into the bloody Civil War; he served as the Confederacy’s president. Owner of 113 slaves, Davis was seen as the “champion of a slave society and embodied the values of the planter class.”
Cong. James Clyburn, Majority Whip in the U.S. House, and African-American, was asked by Christiane Amanpour if he agrees with Mr. Biden’s invoking these racist figures. “Absolutely,” Mr. Clyburn shot back, adding that Jefferson Davis was also an “insurrectionist.”
Republicans, though, indulged in faux-righteous ire at Mr. Biden’s audacity — no doubt to change the focus from their assault on voting rights in the states. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell called the speech “an incoherent rant,” meant to sow more division in the country and, altogether, beneath the presidential office (video here). Elsewhere in the Senate, Nebraska Republican Ben Sasse resorted to ad hominem attack, calling Mr. Biden “senile,” “pushed around by rage-addicted 20-somethings on his staff.” (This, from a Republican that Democrats considered non-extreme.) In the conservative press, Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal columnist, declared the speech a “break point” in the Biden presidency, describing Republican outrage as “honest.” Noonan, a tough critic of Donald Trump, knows, honestly, the true break point — for American democracy — occurred in the proto-autocratic Trump’s tenure, with the Jan. 6 insurrection a violent harbinger.
Noonan also panned Mr. Biden’s “over-the-top language,” with the Wallace-Connor-Davis reference the “most wince-inducing.” Which is odd (dishonest?) for a former presidential speechwriter who, for Ronald Reagan, eulogized the Challenger astronauts (they “slipped the surly bonds of earth”) and “The Boys of Pointe du Hoc.” For George H.W. Bush, she coined “a kinder, gentler nation” and “a thousand points of light.” Noonan knows soaring. Pres. Biden in his Georgia speech soared about democracy: From first to last, the speech is about democracy— saving it.
Also grist for Republican ire: Mr. Biden summing up the GOP assault on voting rights as “Jim Crow 2.0.” But: Mr. Biden has invoked Jim Crow and Republicans before (“Have you no shame?”) — and done so accurately: Jim Crow was all about rescinding the rights granted the slaves emancipated by Abraham Lincoln, ending Reconstruction (also here). Which is precisely what Republicans are doing now: rescinding rights. Stacey Abrams, African-American candidate for Georgia governor, calls it “Jim Crow in a suit and tie.” Absurdly and ahistorically, the conservative site RealClearPolitics calls Jim Crow 2.0 “imaginary.”
At bottom, though, this Wallace-Connor-Davis matter is not about rhetoric or division-sowing. It is, I think, ultimately about three things, overarching in importance, thus crucial to mind:
One: TRUTH. Our age is suffused with lies and lying, what Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” excoriated as mendacity — a perilous-to-democracy trend accelerated by former president Donald Trump. To let stand Republican claims of election “integrity” as they rescind the voting rights of minority groups is akin to the “doublethink” of George Orwell’s novel 1984: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength” (also here and here). Lies going undisputed become lore.
Two: RACIAL RECKONING. The substantial white participation at protests over the George Floyd killing (May 2020) made racial reckoning a nearer possibility. But Republican rescinding of voting rights, also their hysterical demonizing of critical race theory as a plot against whites, puts racial reckoning farther out of reach again. America must solve for its Original Sin, slavery. Many of us are so ready.
Three: WHITE SUPREMACY. Wallace, Connor, and Davis were arch white supremacists, and conversely arch racists. White supremacy, based on bloodlines and not on democratic equality, is now championed overtly. If American Democracy is to be saved, conscientious white Americans must call out white supremacy and paint its ugly face.
Hypocrisy — saying the right thing while doing its opposite, wrong thing — is an ancient human fault and, being about right and wrong, is moral in nature; thus, being called a hypocrite stings, acutely. Republican hypocrisy — claiming election “integrity” while dismantling voting rights, claiming to love America while dismantling its democracy — needs calling out. Pres. Biden did that in his Georgia speech. Anodyne language would give hypocrisy a pass. Mr. Biden said he was “tired of being quiet” on voting rights; I believe he’s also tired of being quiet on Republican hypocrisy.
Finally, this hopeful note: Jefferson Davis in his old age urged reconciliation of the South to the Union. Republicans: Take that note, please.