News - Pretty words

Barnes rejects race-baiting — finally

Gov. Roy Barnes is an artful politician. He is bold, he is tough, and he is ruthless.
Barnes put his considerable gifts to good use in late January, moving to replace Georgia's neo-Confederate flag in an early morning blitzkrieg that bypassed a Maginot Line of opposition and won the battle almost before it began.
Neither his cloak-and-dagger methods nor the busy new flag they produced were particularly pretty, but give Barnes credit for doing what needed to be done in a way few thought possible and still fewer thought probable. Orchestrating a quick flag change, he spared the state a long, drawn-out fight no one would have won.
Speaking before the Georgia House, Barnes was direct, forceful and at times eloquent. Arguing to cut the Confederate battle emblem down to size, he said, "The Confederacy is part of our history, but it is not two-thirds of our history." Well put, to be sure.
Again and again, the governor stressed the value of unity over division. Georgia, he said, has become the South's leading state by "focusing on the things that unite us instead of dwelling on those that divide us."
And he went further. "Adopt this [new] flag," said Barnes, "and our people will be united as one rather than divided by race and hatred." He warned legislators not to allow "the hope of partisan advantage to prohibit the healing of our people."
They were pretty words. Regrettably, they stood in stark contrast to ugly actions. Coming from Barnes, such worthy sentiments came freighted with the stench of hypocrisy.
Just three months ago, after all, Barnes and his fellow Democrats did precisely what he decried. They divided voters by race, sought "partisan advantage" in racial demagoguery, and smeared opponents with spurious racial attacks.
Last fall, Barnes' Democratic Party sent mailers to black voters declaring, over the threatening image of an imposing white fist, that "Georgia Republicans Aren't Just Against the Hate Crimes Bill ... Georgia Republicans Are Against You." None-too-subtle message: Republicans are racists.
In a shameful list of inflammatory accusations, the flyer claimed, without support, that GOP poll observers were out to "intimidate black voters in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act."
In a particularly gross distortion, the mailer claimed Republicans had "endorsed a candidate [who runs] a racist website that links to white supremacists spewing hate and the 'n' word." The man in question, Tom Mills, sells lithograph portraits of Confederate generals over the Net. His simple, inoffensive site — located at www.standrewscross.com — is loosely affiliated, via webring, with 280 other sites, none of which Mills controls or endorses.
And Republicans weren't alone. When Democrat Doug Stoner challenged party-switching Barnes lackey Randy Sauder in House District 29, he was savaged with vicious and baseless racial charges in a cowardly mystery mailer. Barnes probably didn't approve the hit, but he should have gone out of his way to denounce its gutter tactics. He didn't.
Condemning scorched-earth racial politics before the House, Barnes declared, "Using race to win leaves ashes in the mouths of the victors." And he would know. Last fall, Barnes went through a heaping bowl of such ashes like Jethro Bodine through cornflakes.
In his House speech, Barnes invoked an earlier time when state leaders "did the right thing." Yet he certainly didn't do the right thing during the 2000 election, wallowing in the filthy business of smear-and-scare racial politics. Will Barnes have the decency to do the right thing next fall and start living up to the grand ideals of his flag speech? Time will tell.
Meanwhile, Georgia Republicans need to shake off Barnes' cheap shots and reach out in earnest to African-Americans, reassuring doubting hearts that they are not the mean-spirited bigots some Democrats claim. The party of Lincoln can — and must — do more to make its case to black voters.
In this light, the flag debate was, for Republicans, a high-profile opportunity largely missed. Strong support for the new flag could have started Republicans on the path to reconciliation with black Georgians and diluted the impact of future racial assaults. Too bad it didn't happen.

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