I missed the Democratic town hall last night — I was watching Joan Crawford in Autumn Leaves, a terse sudster by Robert Aldrich in which the star’s beetle-like eyebrows persuade Cliff Robertson he’s not young enough to sex her on the beach like Burt Lancaster did Deborah Kerr. But I gasped when I read Hillary Clinton said the following when asked why she admired her favorite president (guess who):
You know, he was willing to reconcile and forgive. And I don’t know what our country might have been like had he not been murdered, but I bet that it might have been a little less rancorous, a little more forgiving and tolerant, that might possibly have brought people back together more quickly. But instead, you know, we had Reconstruction, we had the re-instigation of segregation and Jim Crow. We had people in the South feeling totally discouraged and defiant. So, I really do believe he could have very well put us on a different path.
Politicians don’t read. I doubt anyone running for president except the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue knows what to do with a semicolon or a piece of printed text between two softcover sides more than one hundred fifty pages long. But a lot has changed since I learned in high school that the so-called Radical Republicans had no wish to compromise with the South (call it one of the earliest instances of a Beltway ruling class accusing the faction on the side of moral justice of being unwilling to compromise). Even Matthew Josephson, one of the most lucid stylists who ever wrote history, got Reconstruction wrong, so flummoxed was he by the paradox of Republicans who believed in racial justice while stuffing their pockets with railroad dough. Charles Pierce:
Race has become an issue this year in an overt way that it hasn’t been in any presidential campaign in about 30 years. After the upheavals of the 1960s, and the two Wallace campaigns in 1968 and 1972, race became a covert weapon in the hands of the rising conservative movement in the Republican party, and, increasingly, something marginalized and thickly camouflaged within the Democratic party. (The Democratic establishment’s sour reaction to Jesse Jackson’s galvanizing campaign in 1988 was the perfect example. Also, it should be noted that Bill Clinton’s oft-cited “Sister Souljah” moment in 1992 was really a shot at Jackson, who was sitting on the same dais.)
That paradigm is breaking down. The Republicans currently are in the middle of a public argument over how much of a white nationalist party they truly want to be, and African-Americans are not willing to be shined on by Democratic politicians. Fairly or unfairly—and I think, in the case of Bernie Sanders, it has been pretty unfair—that’s the state of play right now. HRC walked right into the middle of it on Monday night because she spoke the history she was taught, which is the same history a lot of us of a certain age were taught. Its sell-by date is long past.
Besides Eric Foner, whom Pierce rightly praise, try Douglas Egerton’s The Wars of Reconstruction, an unforgiving account of how the forces that killed the president whom Hillary thinks would have Bridged All Divides gutted the Civil Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment and enforced the Black Codes at the point of a bayonet or by a hangman’s noose.
Still — what a state of affairs that in my lifetime we’re having these discussions at last.