Lincoln’s Party Betrays His Legacy

Whenever Republican politicians have to address the subject of civil rights or racial equality, you’ll hear them talk about “the party of Lincoln.” They love that phrase, but the more they use it, the more they cause others to ask what, if anything, the G.O.P. has done in the 138 years since Lincoln was murdered by John Wilkes Booth-who, were he alive today, would doubtless be a Southern Republican.

In light of the Trent Lott affair, it’s worth recalling the party’s opposition and grudging assent to affirmative action, voting rights and nearly every other measure designed to help African-Americans. There is much to be objected to about affirmative action or school busing, but the price of opposing them is proposing something else. The Republicans never came up with the something else.

The party of Lincoln’s line is: “We’re for giving everybody a fair shake. We don’t need to do anything special to help along the members of any group-not black people, not any people. Just treat ‘em all equal.” As “states’ rights” is the Republican term for keeping your boot on the black man’s neck, so “equal treatment” is Republican-speak for not doing anything. The results of Republican “equal treatment” are to be seen in the new Congress, in which there is not a single African-American Republican. The Congressional Republican Party is lily-white.

Thanks to “equal treatment,” it works out that no black Republican got nominated in a Congressional district where a Republican can win. So be it; no discrimination there. Something else is there, however-that none of the powers in the Republican Party thought it was important enough to make sure that there were at least a few African-American Republicans in Congress.

Call it affirmative action, call it good politics, call it the right thing to do, but whatever you call it, the Republicans could have gone out and recruited African-American candidates to run in heavily Republican districts. They didn’t. The thought probably never even occurred to them. Both political parties routinely recruit promising people to be candidates. The Republicans apparently don’t think there’s a single black person promising enough to be recruited. So there were the lily-white Republicans in Congress, flap-flipping in embarrassment over the Trent Lott mess and with nary a black-faced colleague to say a word on behalf of the not-so-Grand Old Party. What could be more convincing than rows of well-fixed, comfortably off, successful white men and white women telling an increasingly nonwhite nation that they oppose racism? Who doesn’t believe them when the same people say they’re for an equal, interracial society-though not one can point to a single thing they’ve done to bring that society into existence? How can you doubt us? We’re the party of Lincoln.

The White House Republicans are a different story. The Republican President is making a manful effort to recognize talented African-Americans and thereby bring the country a little closer to being a nation of truly equal opportunity. Not only does George W. Bush speak the usual good words, he does good things. In no previous administration have African-Americans played such large and important parts. Moreover, in the end, his education bill-even with its debatable aspects-may well do much to provide effective schooling for African-American children at last.

His chances of getting much credit for it are dim, to say the least. Mr. Bush is likely to be viewed as an aberration, an oddball in a Republican Party which continues to treat racial justice as one more political option-something you give lip service to, but only act on if it’s cost-free. Republicans continue to yield to the temptation to win elections by exploiting white racial fears and hatreds. They don’t do it the way Trent Lott’s boyhood hero, Strom Thurmond, did-by opposing an anti-lynching law-but they do do it.

The goings-on in Georgia during this last election make the point. Governor Roy Barnes and Senator Max Cleland, both Democrats, were defeated because they worked to get the Confederate battle emblem off the state flag. The Republican who won the governorship in Mr. Barnes’ place used this hateful issue to get himself elected. That’s what Republicans do. In 1998, they did the same thing in South Carolina.

To get elected, Republicans will stoop to whatever it takes to get the six-pack vote. For the last 40 years, the Republican Party-not just individual Republicans-have repeatedly found genteel ways to appeal to that stratum of whites who recoil when an African-American comes near them. The party has not yet had its moment of conversion, its hour of commitment to racial justice, as the Democrats have.

The Democrats’ hour of commitment came in August 1948 at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, when, after a stirring speech by Hubert Humphrey, then the mayor of Minneapolis, the delegates revolted against the controlling alliance of Northern bosses and swallowtail Southern politicians to vote a powerful civil-rights plank into the platform. This was the moment of commitment, the moment when the party bid adieu to the “solid South” and the certainty of carrying the states of the Old Confederacy in every election. It was the moment that caused Strom Thurmond to run for President as the candidate of the Dixiecrat Party and ultimately to join the Republican Party, where he was welcomed and is honored to this day.

After 1948, the Democratic Party-with all its insufferable foibles and maddening idiocies-became the party of civil rights and the party of human rights. The Republican Party, seeing that the Democrats had embraced a politics sure to anger and embitter a certain kind of white who, even now, can be found in shameful numbers, South and North, had a choice: They could link arms with the Democrats, or they could cash in on the disaffection of those who judge others by the color of their skin, not the content of their characters.

To be sure, there must be millions of Republicans who are fine people without a racist bone in their bodies, but their party has played an insignificant part in the civil-rights upheavals. The two parties being what they are, it followed that a Democrat, Lyndon Johnson, led the nation toward racial justice. It’s no accident that the African-American civil-rights hero, John Lewis, is a Democratic Congressman from Georgia. There simply are no Republican civil-rights heroes. Thus, Democrats suffer little political injury when one of their own, like Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, is revealed to have a Ku Klux Klan past. Beside having recanted somewhat more successfully than Mr. Lott, Mr. Byrd is dismissed by most people as a political deviant. A Republican does not get the benefit of the doubt.

Least of all does the party get a benefit out of the Lott business. Given the politics of the situation, the White House should have turned the Senator from Mississippi into a pillar of salt within hours of his uttering those insipid encomia to that cadaverous old man, but the President did nothing. The other Republican white men and women in the Senate horsed around and dribbled and drabbled for days and, in general, reinforced the impression that the difference between them and Mr. Lott is that Mr. Lott says in public what they say in private.

Much talk seeps out of Republican enclaves about becoming an inclusive political party. In his home state, the President has worked hard to bring that about and has, at least to some extent, succeeded, especially with people of Mexican background. But when he goes, does all that go too? Compare Texas with California, a state which, a generation ago, was dominated by the Republican Party, and where today a Republican can’t get elected thanks to the California party’s undisguised preference for blue-eyed blonds.

It’s said that Karl Rove, the chief White House political operative, knows this and is intent on making the G.O.P. into a multiracial, multicultural political organization. Perhaps he’ll succeed-but at some level, politicians must believe in what they’re advocating or it won’t work. Sooner or later, the fakirs and phonies will backslide and, at some crucial juncture, reveal themselves to be what they are.

In the meantime, it’s reported that in Georgia, as in so many other places, not-so-white persons are arriving from Mexico and India. It would seem that the Republicans have about two more election cycles to get it right or start moseying off toward the landfill of history.