By Jefferson Flanders

As New York’s man-about-town columnist Jimmy Cannon used to say: Nobody asked me, but…

“THE PAST IS NEVER DEAD,” argued Gavin Stevens, a character in William Faulkner’s 1951 novel Requiem for a Nun, “It’s not even past.”

Two stories about America’s dark, complicated legacy of slavery that surfaced this past week made me think of that observation. First, there was the revelation that the former presidential candidate and civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton was descended from a slave owned by relatives of the late senator Strom Thurmond, a one-time leader of the segregationist movement in the South.

Then, on Friday, came a Baltimore Sun story that a genealogical researcher had uncovered white slaveholding ancestors of presidential candidate Barack Obama, who is of mixed American and African origin.

The genealogist who broke the Obama story, William Addams Reitwiesner, also claimed that two other presidential candidates were descended from slave owners: Democrat John Edwards and Senator John McCain.

These newly revealed links highlight how the historic connections between whites and blacks in this country are more intimate and tangled than often recognized.

There are famous families—in New England as well as the South—whose fortunes were made through slavery. And, as Fortune magazine writer John Simons has noted “many slave women bore white men’s children, either the result of rape (a common occurrence) or more complicated relationships, such as that of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson.” Some estimate that a third of black Americans have white DNA.

A spokesman for Senator Obama, Bill Burton, had the following to say: “While a relative owned slaves, another fought for the Union in the Civil War. And it is a true measure of progress that the descendant of a slave owner would come to marry a student from Kenya and produce a son who would grow up to be a candidate for president of the United States.”

A highly-emotional Sharpton called the link to Thurmond “probably the most shocking thing in my life,” and lamented that his family had to “endure the particular agony of being slaves to the Thurmonds, the symbol of everything about America that I have fought to change.” That brought a rebuke of sorts from Thurmond’s 81-year-old biracial daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, who argued that Sharpton had overreacted and defended her father as having “done many wonderful things for black people.”

All of this came as the New York Times reported that researchers studying Thomas Jefferson’s Y chromosome “have found it belongs to a lineage that is rare in Europe but common in the Middle East, raising the possibility that the third president of the United States had a Jewish ancestor many generations ago.”

THE POLITICO’S JOHN F. HARRIS COPPED TO being the “author of the Democratic Party’s slow-bleed strategy for ending the war in Iraq.” Actually, as Harris explained in his piece “An Editor’s Confession: I’m the Source of ‘Slow Bleed’”, he had coined the term in editing a piece on John Murtha, the House Democrats and the anti-war movement.

The establishment media picked up the term and Republicans pounced on it to suggest that this new strategy meant letting American troops “slowly bleed.”

Harris says he would have done it differently if given another chance.

As happens all the time in journalism, this was a decision—made on the fly and under deadline—that I would have taken back in the morning. It is Murtha’s job to defend his own policies. But I’d prefer not to hand his opponents ammunition in the form of evocative but loaded language.

Harris is right that his colorful labelling was journalistically over the line, albeit a minor sin (not a major one). The Democrats did not use the term “slow-bleed.” Yet confronted by the thrashing about by the Democrats in both the House and Senate on the Iraq war, the Republicans could have come up with “evocative but loaded” language of their own (remember “cut and run”), and tagged the Democrats with it, with or without The Politico‘s help.

POET FRANK BIDART HAS WON THE BOLLINGEN PRIZE in American Poetry, chosen by Yale, a prize which includes a $100,000 award. Bidart teaches at Wellesley College and has published four books of poetry. While I don’t care for Bidart’s less accessible modernist verse and his E.E. cummings-like adventures in typography, it’s always great when poetry awards include financial rewards, since it’s not a field of endeavor anyone pursues with thoughts of making a fortune.

FRENCH DISDAIN OVER ALLEGED AMERICAN INDIFFERENCE to human rights in the war on terror should be placed in proper perspective. As detailed in a Wall Street Journal piece, the French pay little attention to the Anglo-Saxon niceties of civil and legal rights when they deal with terrorism on French soil; their anti-terror czar, Jean-Louis Bruguiere, has unchecked powers that American Homeland Security chiefs only dream of.

As Bret Stephens notes, these powers are considerable:

…Warrantless wiretaps? Not a problem under French law, as long as the Interior Ministry approves. Court-issued search warrants based on probable cause? Not needed to conduct a search. Hearsay evidence? Admissible in court. Habeas corpus? Suspects can be held and questioned by authorities for up to 96 hours without judicial supervision or the notification of third parties. Profiling? French officials commonly boast of having a “spy in every mosque.” A wall of separation between intelligence and law enforcement agencies? France’s domestic and foreign intelligence bureaus work hand-in-glove. Bail? Authorities can detain suspects in “investigative” detentions for up to a year….

Stephens notes that the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendments to the Constitution precludes (thankfully) these strong-arm tactics, but think of the French model the next time you hear wailing about the Patriot Act.

THE WORDS FOR THE WEEK come from the later, great humorist Will Rogers: “If the world comes to an end, I want to be in Cincinnati. Everything comes there ten years later.”

Reprinted from Neither Red Nor Blue

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders

All rights reserved

Be Sociable, Share!