Political Theater and the Debt Ceiling

Ross BarnettThis is delicious! Ed Kilgore over at Washington Monthly went looking for a way to provide the Republicans with an out for the terrible situation they have put themselves and the country in, Template For Dem Aid to Republican Leaders. And he found it in a perfectly reasonable (and hilarious) place: the integration wars of the early 1960s.

In 1962, Ole Miss was being forced to integrate by allowing James Meredith to attend. The people of Mississippi were very much against this. This put Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett in a bad situation. It wasn’t that Barnett was for civil rights; he was actually a staunch supporter of segregation. But he didn’t want a fight with the Federal government—at least not one where he might be embarrassed. So he made a secret agreement with Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Federal agents would escort Meredith into the school, Barnett and his supporters would try to stop them, but the lead agent would pull his gun. This, and the fact that all of the other agents had their hands on their guns would give Barnett the ability to give in.

The story gets even funnier. Barnett felt that the single gun was not enough. According to the transcripts, he said, ” I was under the impression that they were all going to pull their guns. This could be very embarrassing. We got a big crowd here and if one pulls his gun and we all turn it would be very embarrassing. Isn’t it possible to have them all pull their guns?” I love that! You can just hear how eager he is for this ruse to work. Kennedy doesn’t want to do it, but Barnett eventually persuades him. In the end it wasn’t done, because it was deemed to be too dangerous as a mob had shown up at Ole Miss in anticipation of Meredith’s arrival. Kennedy and Barnett decided their bit of street theater might cause a riot. Remember, these are people who were too often willing to kill for segregation.

In the end, there was no ruse and things went really badly—people died in the rioting. But what is clear from reading through all of the transcripts is that Barnett doesn’t take the whole thing seriously. Even late into the negotiations, he tried to finesse the Kennedy brothers. But they had a trump card. Eventually, Robert just flat out threatened him. He said that the president was going to go on television and expose the secret negotiations with Barnett. That would have been the end of his political life. (It turned out it was anyway.)

In those negotiations, Robert Kennedy said something that directly applies to the situation today:

I think it is silly going through this whole facade of your standing there; our people drawing guns; your stepping aside; to me it is dangerous and I think this has gone beyond the stage of politics, and you have a responsibility to the people of that state and to the people of the United States. This is a real disservice.

Barnett responded that he wasn’t interested in politics, just like Sarah Palin did yesterday at the silly protest when she said, “Our veterans should be above politics.” The problem is just the opposite. For these people, it is all politics. Most of Barnett’s power in politics came from his inflammatory rhetoric about segregation. So in 1962, Ross Barnett was a conservative demagogue; today, Ted Cruz is a conservative demagogue. And the kicker is that time will put Ted Cruz in the trashcan with all historical figures who stood for repugnant policies no one ever supports in polite society. But Cruz will be replaced by a new demagogue with a new cause. All this harm is done for nothing.

The real question before us now is why we should help the Republicans out of the mess they’ve gotten themselves into. My resolve got stronger over the weekend. I now thing that even allowing the Republicans to save face is a mistake. I’d like to think that we can crush this kind of behavior once and for all. But even if not, we can look back on this in ten years and get all the dirt. I mean, we know the Republicans are privately panicking and looking for a way out. But the details have got to be delicious.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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