By Bill Minor
He’s already lost 20 pounds and will lose 20 more by the end of April, Haley Barbour told the New York Times’ Jeff Zeleny on the Mississippi governor’s swing through presidential testing-ground Iowa two weeks ago.
That’s the most definitive evidence so far the 63-year-old Barbour is really, really serious about making a bid for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.
Though given high marks as a shrewd political operator, many on the home front contend he lacks compassion for the state’s thousands of poor people
One arch-critic, Democratic Rep. Steve Holland of Plantersville, a 28-year veteran in the Legislature and staunch advocate for health and human services, says Barbour gets “A-plus as a politician but not for the people of whom we have a great many in need of help.”
In recent weeks as the Legislature worked to craft a state budget amid a deep economic downturn (state unemployment is some 3 points higher than national figures) Mississippians came to realize they have a stake in Barbour’s presidential state-hopping. For weeks, he became an absentee player as legislative budget negotiators struggled at the Capitol. But before Senate Republican lawmakers could sign off on a deal, they had to wait for Barbour’s plane to land and he handed them his latest set of numbers.
GOP trained seals
The GOP senators resembled the trained seals Huey Long once had in Louisiana’s Legislature.
I’ve known Barbour since he played on the same high school American Legion baseball team with one of my sons. I have closely watched him climb the Republican job ladder since the 1960s. He went on to National GOP chairman, later forming the biggest lobbying firm in Washington and taking along with him the big corporate givers as clients.
Feeling his oats after helping engineer the GOP’s 1994 Congressional takeover, Barbour created the National Policy Forum which he called a think tank. Trouble arose when a $2 million loan guarantee by a Hong Kong businessman filtered through the NPF helped prop up the RNC in the 1996 elections. While it was targeted by a Senate committee investigation of campaign expenditures and also the U.S. Justice Department, Barbour managed to avoid campaign finance criminality. But Time Magazine concluded NPF was “just an extension of the party,” and the Internal Revenue Service denied it tax-exempt status as sought by Barbour.
A New York Times editorial characterized the Mississippi governor as another Southerner living in a “dream world” about the civil rights era after a lengthy Barbour profile appeared in the archly conservative Weekly Standard last December. Barbour related in the article that the segregationist white Citizens’ Council members in his hometown of Yazoo City were merely upright businessmen and professionals whose objective was to avoid violence in the racial transition.
Barbour’s depiction of the Yazoo Council doesn’t in the least comport with Neil R. McMillen’s definitive 1971 book, “The Citizens’ Council.” McMillen, then a history professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, reported that when 53 black parents petitioned the school board to comply with the 1954 Brown decision declaring racially segregated school unconstitutional, the Yazoo Council published the petitioners’ names in the county newspaper and printed large cardboard placards with their names displayed in local businesses. As a result, McMillen wrote, the petitioners were hit with economic sanctions and within weeks only six names remained on the petition. Several national journalists, among them the respected late David Halberstem, wrote articles telling that the black petitioners were either driven out of the county or lost their jobs or bank credit.
Though Barbour has mostly backtracked on his racial remarks and sought to revise his civil rights image, some critics have contended his pattern of racial insensitivity leaves serious doubt as to his fitness for national office.
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.