It's too bad for Haley Barbour that he's not in my book group.
Sure, the Mississippi governor and potential presidential candidate might feel a little out of place. He would be the only man -- and, as it turns out, the only Republican.
But Barbour might have saved himself a heap of trouble if he had been with us Sunday night to talk about "The Help," Kathryn Stockett's novel about white women and their black maids in Mississippi during the 1960s.
Barbour is a smooth pol who seems to stumble whenever he encounters the subject of the South and race. When Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell erased slavery from the annual Confederacy Day proclamation, Barbour dismissed critics for "trying to make a big deal out of something that doesn't matter for diddly."
A few months back, Barbour gave an interview to Human Events, the conservative magazine, that wished away the South of fire hoses and church bombings. "My generation," said Barbour, "went to integrated schools. I went to an integrated college -- never thought about it."
Perhaps he never thought about it because the actual facts were less pleasant. Barbour arrived at Ole Miss a few years after federal marshals were required to escort James Meredith onto the riot-torn campus. The schools in his hometown of Yazoo City were not integrated until 1970, By which point Barbour was in law school.
Now, Barbour, in an interview with the conservative Weekly Standard, has taken his airbrush to Yazoo City. Explaining how the local schools managed to desegregate without violence, Barbour said, "Because the business community wouldn't stand for it. You heard of the Citizens Councils? Up north they think it was like the KKK. Where I come from it was an organization of town leaders. In Yazoo City they passed a resolution that said anybody who started a chapter of the Klan would get their ass run out of town."
But Barbour's portrayal conveniently omits the more sinister role played By the councils -- "the South's answer to the mongrelizers," as one council pamphlet put it http://bit.ly/grWyEc . In Yazoo City as elsewhere in the South, the councils worked to intimidate whites and blacks from pursuing desegregation.
I don't think that Barbour is being deliberately ahistorical or insensitive here. These comments are not a calculated political tactic. Rather, and this is where "The Help" comes in, they reflect the limits of Barbour's cloistered world-view. Like the rest of us, his perceptions are inevitably skewed By the distorting lens of his background and upbringing.
"The Help" takes place in Barbour's back yard, Jackson, in 1962. The white women are not so much evil as they are oblivious to the inequities around them, not to mention those they inflict themselves.
The unpleasantness of the civil rights movement is a subject to be diligently avoided. When one of the white women, Skeeter, begins to watch a television report about Meredith at Ole Miss, her mother immediately flips the channel to Lawrence Welk, announcing, 'Look, isn't this so much nicer?' " After Skeeter anonymously publishes a book about the maids' difficult and humiliating lives in "Niceville," her friends can scarcely recognize themselves.
So when Barbour says he does not remember things "being that bad," I suspect he is telling the truth. Barbour's failing is not in his faulty memory. It is in his consistent unwillingness to recognize the edifice of self-serving myth on which he has constructed his comfortable conclusions.