Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Stolen Bases

The Grand Old Party is trying to put a brand new face on (and who could blame them). Towards that end they have unveiled a new feature on their party website called "Heroes" —and no, it doesn't claim that Republians are actually a secreted race of mutant superheroes careening through an unhinged space-time continuum and seeking the rescue of mankind's future.

Actually the implicit claims are a bit more off base.

The website page means to point to a number of noteworthy Republicans of bygone times —so as to celebrate a worthwhile legacy —and that's where the strangeness comes in. The feature highlights 16 historical figures that it counts as "Patriots: American Heroes & Famous Republicans" —and as you might expect you got your Eisenhower, your Reagan and Lincoln (even though the prevailing platform would seem to deplore that insidious invasive Federalism Old Abe represented) —but from there the list gets surprising. It goes on to include seven African-Americans, one Hispanic-American, and four women —and only one more white guy —Everett Dirkson.

Nobody who watched the last Republican National Convention would confuse the G.O.P. with the Rainbow Coalition. Minority participation set record lows. 36 of the 2,380 seated delegates at the 2008 RNC were Black. So perhaps it's a positive step, this new attempt at re-branding the party. It would be nice if the last vestiges of "The Southern Strategy" backlash against Civil Rights progress collapsed in on themselves and Republicans did indeed call on the "better angels" of their prouder history. But the whole of history isn't so easily put aside with a new marketing campaign. It just might be that history is most instructive when it's read in detail —not tokenized and glossed over.

That might actually involve coming to terms with what our "heroes" actually had to say. One such Hero—and supposed Republican Patriot— was Jackie Robinson, the ballplayer who broke the color barrier in baseball. His picture is up there on the website. A nice blurb points out that he campaigned for Nixon in 1960 and Nelson Rockefeller in 1964. What it does not choose to highlight was the way Robinson described his experiences at the nominating convention of '64, when his candidate lost out to Goldwater —and he saw first hand the seeds of a sad and more sordid Republican politics beginning to take root.

In his 2003 autobiography, "I Never Had It Made," Robinson writes: "Early in 1964 I wrote a Speaking Out piece for The Saturday Evening Post. A Barry Goldwater victory would insure that the GOP would be completely the white man's party. What happened at San Francisco when Senator Goldwater became the Republican standard-bearer confirmed my prediction.

I wasn't altogether caught off guard by the victory of the reactionary forces in the Republican party, but I was appalled by the tactics they used to stifle their liberal opposition," Robinson wrote of that year's G.O.P. gathering. "I was a special delegate to the convention through an arrangement made by the Rockefeller office. That convention was one of the most unforgettable and frightening experiences of my life. The hatred I saw was unique to me because it was hatred directed against a white man. It embodied a revulsion for all he stood for, including his enlightened attitude toward black people."

What he observed, Robinson said, gave him "a better understanding of how it must have felt to be a Jew in Hitler's Germany."

As Sam Stein writing for Huffpost points out, in his lifetime Robinson "went so far as to insist that he be called an independent, "since I've never identified myself with one party or another in politics." In 1968 he campaigned for Hubert Humphrey."

I don't mean to suggest Republicans are so wrong to list Jackie Robinson as a Hero —even as their Hero. I can believe Nelson Rockefeller —and even Richard Nixon— had done things to earn Robinson's support. When it comes to the history of Civil Rights advocacy that party does have some things to be proud of —and I know Democrats have their share of sad skeletons. But I do mean to ask that we all consider what the hero said —what he observed and shared before simply using him and some selective part of his story as an exculpating symbol.

That new old Republican Party their website seeks to imply —the party that identifies with its better history —and moves beyond its lesser past— would be a welcome thing. But that won't come with pretty pictures and telling only part of the story. It might come of telling the whole of it —and learning.

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