By JOSH MARSHALL JUNE 21, 2013, 11:50 AM
I must say. I love Paula Deen’s defense. It has the benefit of being both ridiculous and perhaps something her critics could actually agree about. According to the Wall Street Journal, “A representative for Paula Deen says that the 66-year-old celebrity chef used the “N-word” because she has roots in another era.” Or as you might translate this, ‘Look, she’s on the old side and pretty racist.’ Which sounds about right and sort of like the criticism rather than the defense.
Another thing it made me think about though is that these days, in 2013, if you’re in your 60s, you really didn’t grow up in the ‘Old South’. More like you grew up in the Civil Rights Era. Paula Deen was born in 1947. So she was 8 or 9 during the Montgomery bus boycott, sixteen for the March on Washington and twenty-one when Martin Luther King was assassinated.
It’s worth remembering how ingrained these words were for whites from the South from a certain era, not only for people who were fierce opponents of civil rights but even from some of their greatest advocates. The words signal the mental world of Jim Crow.
I’ll always remember this story told by Roger Wilkins, who was a young attorney in the Johnson administration, but also then and later a civil rights leader, historian, journalist and more.
This is back during the bleeding, breakthrough years of the Civil Rights Movement, with a President who is pushing through the big epochal legislation that changed the face of the nation but also helped wreck his presidency (in electoral terms) and tear the Democratic party apart for a generation. Notably, for Johnson, he did all of this with his eyes quite wide open.
I’ve read many things about Johnson in this period and it’s really human, almost Shakespearean stuff, because you’ve got this guy raised in the Jim Crow South, who’s gotten religion on the civil rights issue and is pushing the stuff in spite of the politics. And yet at some level he’s still an old school guy from Jim Crow Texas and can’t make sense of why after he’s been part of pushing through this landmark legislation and putting the presidency on the side of right that African-Americans aren’t more grateful to him. On thr contrary, the country starting to tear itself apart with riots in the big cities and young African-Americans and many non-young African-Americans not at all satisfied with the post-Civil Rights Act status quo.
In any case, Wilkins – then in his early thirties – saw all of this up close and clearly loved and admired the guy at a deep level and understood and breathed the historical context of all he was accomplishing and yet saw his limitations and how he was actually totally lost in the racial politics of the 60s.
Back to that anecdote, Johnson’s there with a bunch of aides in Oval Office, Wilkins included, and in a moment of frustration he slips into using the word ‘nigger’. This is from an American Experience documentary. It starts with the historian Robert McCullough talking and then Wilkins comes in …
“McCullough: [voice-over] It was called “the Golden Chalice”, the marriage of the President’s younger daughter, Luci Baines Johnson. One reporter said, “Nobody was invited except the immediate country.” It was August 6, 1966. There was war in Vietnam and riots in the streets, but there was still more Johnson hoped to do. What he wanted was time — time to build his Great Society. “We can’t quit now,” he told an aide. “This may be the last chance we have.” But time was running out.
Over four long, hot summers, riots had become a brutal fact of American life. Johnson looked helplessly on as more than 150 cities went up in flames. Detroit was the worst — 43 dead, 7,000 arrested, 1,300 buildings destroyed. Johnson dispatched army paratroopers and prepared to send his own task force to investigate. As part of the task force, Roger Wilkins was there as the President issued his final instructions.
Roger Wilkins, Attorney, Johnson Administration: And he started in a low-key. “I don’t want any bullets in those guns. You hear me? I don’t want any bullets in those guns! You hear me, gentlemen? I don’t want any bullets in those guns. I don’t want it known that any one of my men shot a pregnant nig — ” and he looked at me and his face got red. I was the only black in the room. “Well, I don’t — I just — no bullets in those guns.” But he was clearly embarrassed, and everybody in the room was embarrassed. So then he told us to go home and pack and get an Air Force plane to go to Detroit.
And as we’re leaving, he called me and he said, “Come in here, Roger,” and I went into his office with him. And he didn’t say anything. I mean, I knew he wanted to say, “I didn’t mean to say ‘nigger’,” but he meant to say ‘nigger’. And I knew he wanted to say, “I apologize.” He didn’t know how to say it.
And so he walked me over to the French doors that went out to the Rose Garden, and it’s the area where Eisenhower had his putting green. And he looked out, and he looked at me, and he looked down, looked out, looked down. There were pockmarks on the floor where Eisenhower’s golf shoes had hit the floor. And he finally looked at me, and he looked at the floor, and he said, “Look what that son of a bitch did to my floor!” And then he patted me on the back and said, “Have a nice trip.” And that was his way of apologizing. It was very human, I thought.”
Not to state the obvious, but Lyndon Johnson was born in 1908.
It’s not proven from the deposition – but the nature of the plaintiff’s deposition combined with Deen’s ‘defense’ in her deposition makes it pretty clear that Deen speaks like this … today, pretty much all the time. And far more than ‘talks’ like this, it seems pretty clear that she thinks that way too.
That’s why I think it’s a good thing when this stuff comes out. Because it shakes us up from the comforting denial that there aren’t a lot of people in the country still living in the Paula Deen world, which it would be nice to think is the world of the 1920s but in fact, for a lot of folks, is the world of 2013.
A beautifully written reminder that it was Lyndon Johnson who got it done. Others talked the talk. He walked the walk. He knew in pushing through the civil rights bill, he was falling on his political sword and ending his career. He used all his political leverage because he believed he was the only one who could do it.He was probably right. It was LBJ’s finest hour, an act of genuine political valor.
The heart has gone out of our political system. We may never live to see it again.
See on talkingpointsmemo.com