Monday, May 08, 2006

Allen, Webb, and the Confederacy

One of the most predictable habits of today's Republicans is that when they get caught doing something disreputable, they try very hard to deflect attention by claiming some Democrat has done the same thing.

This seems to be what's underway in Virginia, where there's a lot of buzz about Ryan Lizza's recent revelations in The New Republic concerning the boyhood Confeder-o-mania of Sen. George Allen, and its distinct echoes in his record as Governor of the Commonwealth during the 1990s.

Before you could say "So's your old man," the conservative Richmond Times-Dispatch published a breathless article noting that one of Allen's Democratic opponents this fall, former Navy Secretary James Webb, spoke at a Confederate Memorial event in Virginia in 1990.

I don't know if Allen's backers had anything to do with this article, but it hardly required deep oppo research, since the speech in question is displayed on Webb's own web page.

And once you read the speech and think about it for a moment, the differences between Webb's and Allen's attachment to the Lost Cause couldn't be clearer.

First and most importantly, Webb is a southerner with actual Confederate Army ancestors. Not so Allen, whose attachment to the Confederacy developed when he was a Golden Boy rich kid with no southern background. (This point about Allen is one I emphasized in a TPMCafe post, as did Jason Zengerle in the New Republic blog).

Second of all, there's the timing of these events. Sure, Allen's folks will argue that his Confederate infatuation burgeoned into true love back in high school, while Webb's speech was a mere fifteen-years-and-change ago, when he was a former Cabinet member. But I think that gets it backwards. Webb did his speech long after the civil rights movement had triumphed over Jim Crow and the Confederacy had been consigned its place in the stormy history of the Republic; that, indeed, is a lot of what he talked about. When Allen was speeding around Southern California in his sporty Mustang with the Confederate flag plates, and wearing a Confederate flag pin in his high school yearbook, that symbol, especially outside the South, was synonymous with Jim Crow's defiant death throes. (And, as a later TNR piece explains, Allen kept this romance up well after he moved to Virginia and entered politics).

And finally, there's the context of Webb's speech: at a Confederate Memorial event. I personally think this is the most crucial distinction of all. The main southern argument for getting the Battle Flag off state flags and public buildings is not that Confederate symbols should be abolished, but that they should be consigned to history instead of adopted as current ideological totems. This was, indeed, the main argument in the once-progressive Zell Miller's impassioned if unsuccessful 1993 Georgia State of the State address (disclosure: I was involved pretty heavily in drafting that speech): don't forget the Confederacy, or the terrible sacrifices of its soldiers and their families, but don't make the Lost Cause synonymous with the South as a whole, or allow it to be used for invidious racial or ideological purposes. As a Georgian who has long argued with my fellow crackers about the uses and abuses of Confederate symbols, I have read Webb's speech and personally found it irreproachable.

I sort of doubt George Allen was just exhibiting an exotic historical interest in the Confederacy, interchangeable with, say, an enthusiasm for the War of the Roses. No, there's not much doubt what it meant to be a Yankee Confedero-phile in the late 1960s. The southerner in me always reacts to such phenomena by saying: "You're touching my stuff, and breaking it."

So I hope nobody really buys the "everybody did it" idea about George Allen's strange past.
-- Posted at 1:23 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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