Haley Barbour Comes West: Welcome to California, Governor

This weekend, the estimable governor of the Great State of Mississippi, Haley Barbour, comes to California to speak to the (rapidly diminishing) species we call Republicanus Californicus at their state convention in Sacramento.

Barbour will cause a buzz because he will be the biggest-name speaker the state GOP could draw to their gathering, keynoting the Saturday night banquet, and is a potential, if not likely, 2012 presidential candidate.  Barbour is rightly esteemed in his party for having been chairman of the Republican National Committee when the Republicans took over both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years in 1994, and having chaired the National Governors Association last year when the GOP won a majority of governors’ mansions.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have met Barbour only once, in passing, at a social event in Washington, DC, in the 1980s, and do not know him.  People whose judgment I trust who do know him well attest to his intelligence, administrative skills, sense of humor and common touch.  His record clearly demonstrates his political savvy and fundraising prowess, and his former lobbying firm was once ranked by Fortune magazine as the most powerful in Washington.

But in assessing Barbour as a potential presidential candidate, my own view is that he has a serious problem with the “two Rs”: race and rankings.

Let’s start with rankings.  In the 1992 presidential campaign, then-Pres. George H.W. Bush and his fellow Republicans were fond of denigrating then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton as the “failed governor of a small Southern state.”  Whoops, expect that characterization to make a big-time comeback if Haley Barbour is the Republican nominee in 2012.  Mississippi has only 2.9 million residents, ranking 31st in population as opposed to – guess which state? – next-smallest Arkansas in 32nd place.  And while Arkansas was certainly no Shangri-La back in the early ‘90s, Mississippi today makes it look like a fairly respectable garden spot.

Where do we begin?  On national rankings, Mississippi is dead last among the 50 states in median family income, percentage of people who have completed high school, children 0-5 who are read to every day, even such things as visits to the dentist and seat belt use.  The nonprofit Commonwealth Fund ranks Mississippi 50th in health care, with one third of the population considered obese – even though it also has the highest grocery tax of any state.  It also ranks first in the nation for high blood pressure, diabetes and adult inactivity.

The state is second to last in per capita personal income,  in the percentage of students above advanced 4th grade math and percentage of students above proficient 8th grade writing, in median value of owner-occupied housing units, even amusement parks per capita.

There isn’t enough room in this column to list all the categories in which Mississippi is 3rd to last, 4th to last, 5th to last and 6th to last.  Suffice it to say, it would take a lot of magnolias in full bloom to cover the smell of the wretched statistical rankings of The Magnolia State.

Is it any wonder that in the “State Rankings 2010” publication by Congressional Quarterly, Mississippi is ranked 50th among the states as the best place to live?  You can just hear it now: “Do we really want Barbour to do for the United States what he’s done for Mississippi?”

Then there’s the little matter of race.  Another Southern governor with presidential aspirations in a state with an ugly history of racial discrimination and violence – Jimmy Carter of Georgia – in 1973 hung a portrait of Martin Luther King in the state capitol over the objections of the Ku Klux Klan.  But Carter’s fellow son-of-the-South Barbour has shown over a long period of time a rather inexplicable tone deafness on the subject that has inflamed opinion about his views on the history of segregation and the South.

Last year on CNN, Barbour opined that his fellow GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia should not be criticized for omitting even a mention of slavery in a proposed gubernatorial proclamation of Confederate History Month, dismissing the brouhaha as “a nit” that “doesn’t amount to diddly.”  Okay.

Then in December, an interview with Barbour in the conservative Weekly Standard raised eyebrows again when he averred that as a white kid and son of privilege (he is the descendant of a Mississippi governor and U.S. senator) growing up in Yazoo City, a bastion of racial discrimination, he didn’t “remember it as being that bad.”  To add injury to insult, he also praised the white supremacist Citizens’ Council in his home town as a benign “organization of town leaders.”  The predictable outcry later led Barbour to denounce the councils as “indefensible.”  Hmmm.

Now comes Barbour’s curious reaction to a proposal for an official Mississippi state license plate to honor Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest.  Among other things, Forrest had been accused in the Civil War of ordering his troops to mow down black Union soldiers who were attempting to surrender.  Oh, yeah, and I did I mention he was also a founder and the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan?  But asked if he would denounce such an affront to the brave opponents of slavery in the 19th century – and presumably also to the 37 percent of his own state that is African American – the longtime partisan warrior and denouncer-of-Democrats Barbour turned meek: “I don’t go around denouncing people.  That’s not going to happen.”  Alright.

A much earlier incident also is part of Barbour’s track record on race.  As a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1982, when one of his campaign aides kept referring to “coons” – a longtime Southern pejorative for blacks – Barbour said in front of a New York Times reporter that if the staffer kept making racist remarks, he would be reincarnated as a watermelon and placed at the mercy of blacks.  Barbour said later he regretted the statement.  Really?

Far be it from me to interfere in the Republican nominating process, but does any Republican really believe that Haley Barbour is their best possible nominee against the first African American president of the United States?  Ronald Reagan was seriously criticized in 1980 for unfathomably kicking off his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers had infamously been murdered in cold blood in 1964.  Like Barbour, nobody ever accused Reagan of being a racist, but for the remainder of the campaign, analysts were picking over his strange choice of venues and musing about whether it was meant to send a wink to white Southerners.

Actually, Gov. Barbour, you may not know this, but we kinda share y’all’s pain.  It’s a common epithet in our statewide campaigns for one candidate to denounce the other by claiming he or she had something to do with the troubled Golden State being “down there with Mississippi,” or “tied with Mississippi,” or “just one rung above Mississippi” in some category or another.  Ouch!

That, and we are also home to a Republican Party that overwhelmingly has lost both Latino and Asian Americans voters because of racially insensitive moves and remarks over the last two decades by Republican officeholders and candidates.

So welcome to California, Governor.  You should feel right at home.