WASHINGTON — A few months ago, former President Jimmy Carter was widely denounced for pointing out that racism is an element in the fiery opposition to President Obama’s policies. Carter’s critics included Democratic pollster and pundit James Carville, who insisted that polling showed no such racism.
It’s too bad Carville wasn’t on the grounds of the Capitol on Saturday, when tea party protestors hurled the N-word at two black Democrats, U.S. Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.) and U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). A protestor spat on another black Democrat, U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.).
(As if to demonstrate that they hold a deep-seated animosity toward all minority groups, the crowd of angry protestors serenaded U.S. Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, an openly gay Democrat, with anti-gay slurs.)
Lewis said the tea-partiers — gathered to protest sweeping legislation providing universal access to health care — reminded him of ugly anti-integration crowds in the 1950s and ’60s.
“There’s been this unreal, downright mean spirit that’s sort of loose in the land. It reminded me of some of the pictures you saw in newspapers and magazines in the 1950s and ’60s when little black children were trying to integrate schools. It reminded me of Central High (Little Rock, Ark.) in 1957,” he said.
Despite the chants and epithets, Lewis and his colleagues were undeterred. On Sunday, Lewis locked arms with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and two other Democrats, faced down the protestors (with protection from Capitol police) and walked across the street to the Capitol for a vote Lewis deemed “historic.”
Republicans were undeterred, as well. Never mind the race-baiting and anti-gay slurs. Never mind the chants of “Go back to Africa” as President Obama’s motorcade drove by last Saturday. Republicans eagerly embraced the protestors, fusing the party of Lincoln with a movement fueled, in part, by bigotry.
Oh, Republican leaders managed to summon a bit of displeasure at the racial epithets when TV cameras were rolling. On “Meet the Press” Sunday, House Minority Leader John Boehner called the outbursts “reprehensible” before dismissing them as “a few isolated incidents.” Similarly, Republican National Chairman Michael Steele, who is black, said, “It’s certainly not a reflection of the movement or the Republican Party when you have idiots out there saying stupid things.”
Oh, but it is a reflection on the Grand Old Party, whose members openly incited the tea partiers to ever-more-outrageous levels of hysteria last weekend. Republican members of Congress stood on the House balcony during the debate on the health care reform bill, waving their own signs — “Kill the bill!” — at the protestors. Worse yet, Republicans cheered two hecklers who yelled from the House public gallery before they were arrested.
Some Republican Congressmen said they didn’t see any reason to get upset about a few epithets. “Well, I think that when you use totalitarian tactics, people, you know, begin to act crazy,” U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) told C-Span’s Washington Journal.
U.S. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who was a speaker at one of the weekend protest rallies, was not troubled, either. “I just don’t think it’s anything,” he said.
Perhaps the oddest reaction, though, came from Fox News’ Glenn Beck, patron saint of the tea party movement, who denounced Lewis and Pelosi for their walk to the Capitol. “They locked arms because they wanted to compare themselves to the civil rights activists. How dare you!” he fumed on Monday.
Beck doesn’t know that Lewis was a hero of the civil rights movement? It’s telling that he displays such ignorance about the nation’s recent racial history.
None of this can do the Republican Party any good. The Democrats were virtually shut out of the White House for decades because they were closely identified with their fringe. The GOP, with its base of birthers, tenthers and tea partiers, faces a similar fate.