Governor can't escape Virginia's past

Seeking to avoid controversy on a painful subject, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell this week issued a proclamation on Confederate History Month that failed even to mention the word "slavery." So much for avoiding controversy.

David Frum

On Nov. 10, 1864, Abraham Lincoln addressed a group of well-wishers after his re-election.

“What has occurred in this case must ever recur in similar cases. Human nature will not change. In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak, and as strong; as silly and as wise; as bad and good. Let us, therefore, study the incidents of this, as philosophy to learn wisdom from, and none of them as wrongs to be revenged.”

A Southern governor looking for language about the Confederacy could do worse than Lincoln’s words – and most of them have.

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Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, sometimes spoken of as a potential national candidate, is the latest to join their ranks. He triggered a mini political storm yesterday by releasing a proclamation declaring April “Confederate History Month.”

McDonnell was trying to thread his way through a political and historical land mine first laid by former Virginia Gov. George Allen. Allen (a California transplant of partially Jewish ancestry) romanticized the Confederacy and in 1997 released an inflammatory proclamation declaring that “April is the month where the people of the Confederate States of America began and ended a four-year struggle for independence, sovereign rights, and local government control.”

Allen’s successor, James Gilmore, at first thought to discontinue the proclamation. But it seemed to him as wrong to say nothing at all as to repeat Allen’s Confederate apologetics. Gilmore instead released a series of proclamations that became steadily more convoluted in their efforts to please all sides. His final proclamation in 2001 recognized black Virginians who fought for the Union and denounced slavery, while also hailing the “sacrifice” of “great Virginians” who served the Confederacy “with honor.”

Gilmore was followed by two Democratic governors, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, who omitted the proclamation altogether.

Now comes McDonnell, elected as a pragmatic problem-solver. What to do when April rolls around? Ignore like Warner and Kaine? Celebrate like Allen? Apologize like Gilmore?

McDonnell opted for a fourth approach: Evade! He released what he apparently hoped would be a bland, inoffensive statement about the importance of remembering the past.

But the Civil War is a subject about which it is impossible to be bland, and in urging Virginians to remember, the proclamation engaged in some creative forgetting. It claimed that Confederate soldiers “fought for their homes and communities and Commonwealth.” None of those things was endangered in 1861. What was endangered was slavery – and slavery goes entirely unmentioned in McDonnell’s proclamation.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch, which endorsed McDonnell, angrily editorialized Wednesday:

“McDonnell speaks of shared history, yet does not cite slaves. Southern heritage includes not only those who supported the Confederacy but those who welcomed the Union armies as liberators. … The inexcusable omission reduces the slaves and their descendants to invisibility once again.”

For a governor who was trying to make an embarrassing and divisive issue go away, this was an epic fail. For a politician who is said to aspire to national office, it is a serious misstep.

But what was the right step? Leaving the events of April 1861 unmentioned also consigns the past and its victims to invisibility. That month, Virginians took up arms in a cause that Ulysses S. Grant accurately described as “one of the worst for which a people ever fought.”

A defense of the Confederate past is morally outrageous, yet an apology satisfies only if it is complete and sincere.

Maybe the beginning of the answer is found in another great speech, from another eloquent leader, Richard von Weizsacker, president of West Germany, delivered to the Bundestag on May 8, 1985, the 40th anniversary of the Nazi surrender. With just a few alterations, it could serve as a valedictory for the Confederacy as well.

“We need and we have the strength to look truth straight in the eye–without embellishment and without distortion. ... The greater honesty we show in commemorating this day, the freer we are to face the consequences with due responsibility. …

“There is no such thing as the guilt or innocence of an entire nation. Guilt is, like innocence, not collective, but personal. … The vast majority of today's population were either children then or had not been born. They cannot profess a guilt of their own for crimes that they did not commit. No discerning person can expect them to wear a penitential robe simply because they are Germans. But their forefathers have left them a grave legacy. All of us, whether guilty or not, whether old or young, must accept the past. We are all affected by its consequences and liable for it.”

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