Washington — South Carolina hosts an early presidential primary in 2016, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has visited the state repeatedly in his run-up to his official announcement Wednesday that he’s a candidate for the Republican nomination.
No doubt, he’ll be back. But on Friday, another high-profile Republican elected official from Louisiana traveled to Charleston: House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, of Jefferson.
The occasion was the funeral of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was among the nine black worshipers gunned down June 17 at a church in Charleston. The shooting apparently was racially motivated: The shooter, a young white man, indicated as much before opening fire, according to survivors’ accounts. Police have arrested a suspect, Dylann Roof, whose website includes white-supremacist material and photos of himself with a Confederate flag.
President Barack Obama delivered the eulogy. Scalise attended as part of a congressional delegation led by his boss in the House Republican leadership, Speaker John Boehner, of Ohio. Louisiana’s only black member of Congress, Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, also went to the funeral.
Scalise’s presence attracted an extra level of attention because of his attendance at a different event 13 years ago, when he gave a speech at a Metairie hotel to white supremacists gathered for the convention of an organization founded by notorious neo-Nazi David Duke. When reports of the speech surfaced late last year, it touched off a spirited controversy, with calls from some Democrats and others for Scalise to resign as whip. Scalise — who was a state representative in 2002 — said he was unaware of his audience’s affiliations and that the appearance was a regrettable mistake. Richmond vouched for him, and Boehner stood by him.
Scalise weathered the tempest. But the reaction to the church shooting vividly demonstrates that attitudes about white supremacy — and the Confederate flag as a symbol of it — still burn hot.
South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union, and the Civil War started in 1861 with a Confederate attack on the federal Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. A Confederate battle flag flies on the grounds of the state capitol. But a few days after the church shooting, Republican Gov. Nikki Haley announced that it’s about time to remove it. Scalise applauded the decision, as did other Republican leaders, among them some of Jindal’s rivals for the nomination. Soon, other white politicians from Southern states — where the flag is displayed officially in some form or other — joined in the #TakeDownTheFlag movement.
But not Jindal, or not so much. He has responded to questions about the flag’s display (which includes, in Louisiana, its representation on a vanity license plate) by saying now is a time for mourning and that the ultimate decision is up to the states — apparently forgetting, for the moment, that he is still the governor of one of those states. He reportedly has said he will not act to eliminate the vanity plates.
That was not Jindal’s first comment in connection with the shooting. On the morning after the killings, when Obama suggested that the incident fit a distinctly American pattern of mass violence that should be addressed, Jindal characterized the president’s remarks as a “completely shameful” attempt to “score cheap political points,” which left Jindal himself open to the same accusation. He reminded Obama of his job as commander in chief — apparently forgetting, for the moment, that in February he stood on the White House lawn and declared that Obama was unfit to be commander in chief.
Jindal’s states’ rights argument — in this case, about the flag — is popular with Republicans on many issues: Jindal raised it Friday in response to the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on same-sex marriage. It carries strong echoes of the protests by white Southern politicians — almost all Democrats — against federal efforts to end racial segregation in the 1950s and ’60s, and of the claims advanced by the seceding states who formed the Confederacy in 1861 in large part to perpetuate slavery.
History has rendered its verdict in both those cases: Those arguments were pernicious. The Confederate flag is patently offensive to black Americans, who view its display on pickup trucks and ball caps as a statement of hostility. But it remains a potent symbol for white Southerners, who overwhelmingly vote Republican — and who will play a large role, in South Carolina and other states, in the selection of the Republican nominee.
Gregory Roberts is chief of The Advocate Washington bureau. His email address is groberts@the advocate.com, and he is on Twitter, @GregRobertsDC. For more coverage of national government and politics, follow The Advocate Politics Blog at http://blogs.the advocate.com/politicsblog/.