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McDonnell's Disappointing Misstep in Virginia

6:34 PM, Apr 12, 2010 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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During 2009, Bob McDonnell ran a campaign many political observers hailed as a model for the post-Obama Republican, with good reason. His Northern Virginia roots combined with conservative values and tech savvy to create a promising Republican who stuck to pocketbook issues in a purple state and made inroads with the independents and women McCain lost to Obama.

McDonnell's Disappointing Misstep in Virginia

The campaign was smart, careful, on-message and mature, even when under sustained fire from the Washington Post and Creigh Deeds (in almost equal measure). The campaign will remain a model, but with the issuance of one proclamation in one week, the man himself sustained what veteran Virginia political observer Larry Sabato called a "deep unnecessary self-inflicted wound."

Gov. Bob McDonnell's proclamation of Confederate History Month last week sparked a nationwide race discussion and reinforced exactly the kind of stereotypes a resurgent Republican Party and a prosperous southern state should be avoiding at all costs. The proclamation mentioned some utterly innocuous and even laudable things, like encouraging tourism to battlefield sites and acknowledging Gen. Robert E. Lee's role in ceasing hostilities. But it did not mention the abomination that was slavery, and its tone was too friendly instead of historical.

Sabato went on with what I think is a fair description of McDonnell:  

"I know Bob McDonnell a bit. He was born in Philly, grew up in NoVa, has never shown slightest evidence of prejudice that I've seen."

McDonnell apologized, though he should probably have taken the story by the horns earlier. But damage had been done, to his reputation, to many folks' feelings, and to the reputation of the state of Virginia, which McDonnell is certainly interested in protecting. Former Gov. Doug Wilder, the first black governor of Virginia, didn't sound pleased with McDonnell's apology, but did stick up for the state:

"Twenty years ago this state elected the grandson of slaves," Wilder said, referring to himself. He was governor from 1990 to 1994 and famously said in his inaugural address: "I am a son of Virginia."

The proclamation was quite a remarkable unforced error from a political team that doesn't usually make even small mistakes (at least, on the campaign). The hows and whys of the proclamation's writing are still unclear, but a McDonnell aide suggested it had been written quickly.

J. Tucker Martin, McDonnell's director of communications, hinted that the April proclamation that omitted a reference to slavery was prepared in haste.

"This office issues a broad range of proclamations for groups that request them," Martin said. "We have issued over 25 in just the first three months."

The governor's office has been mum on the process of writing the proclamation and naming the author, which may simply be McDonnell's way of saying "the buck stops here." Perhaps McDonnell thought it was a quick, easy fix to satisfy a vocal constituency that would go mostly unheeded, and therefore did not pay enough attention to its writing.

I was saddened by it. I don't believe McDonnell is racist or that this mistake makes him one, but the proclamation was insensitive. I spend some of my time—too much now that many in the media have decided everyone within a mile of a Tea Party is racist— defending innocent Republicans and Southerners of all stripes from unfair racism allegations. This made that job harder.

The really baffling part is there are rather obvious ways to honor history, with the Confederacy as a part of it, in a graceful and respectful way. Former Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore, for instance, called the month Confederate History Month but at least put a mention of slavery front and center. After two back-to-back Democratic governors declined to issue the symbolic proclamation, McDonnell could have made his administration the father of a compromise Civil War History Month.

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