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April 9th, 2010
06:00 AM ET

Avlon: Ugliness & absurdities in American politics continue

Editor’s note: John P. Avlon is a senior political columnist for The Daily Beast and author of the new book "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America." Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.

CNN Independent analyst John Avlon says Virginia's governor resuscitated more than a century’s worth of bad feeling and distrust by not mentioning slavery.

CNN Independent analyst John Avlon says Virginia's governor resuscitated more than a century’s worth of bad feeling and distrust by not mentioning slavery.

By John Avlon, Special to CNN

This week’s wingnuts include Virginia’s governor issuing a Confederate History proclamation that ignored slavery and a Georgia congressman confessing his fears that Guam might tip over.

The ugliness and absurdities in American politics continue, but they were belied this week by a moment of grace from a conservative senator who stood up to his audience’s expectations by complimenting Speaker Nancy Pelosi and standing up for civility. He gets our Profile in Courage Award for the week.

Virginia’s newly elected Gov. Bob McDonnell managed to resuscitate more than a century’s worth of bad feeling and distrust by deciding to issue a Confederate History Month proclamation – without mentioning slavery. It was a doubly odd decision, apparently made with an eye toward scoring subtle political points with “heritage, not hate” home state conservatives. The proclamation had been suspended by the two previous Democratic governors, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine. But the previous GOP Gov. Jim Gilmore had inserted language excoriating the evils of slavery into the proclamation.

McDonnell and/or someone on his staff apparently thought it would be a good idea to not only re-open that wound, but also made the proactive decision to remove any mention of slavery – not that slavery had anything to do with the Civil War in the first place. This neo-Confederate hat-tip did not go unnoticed and by Wednesday night McDonnell was offering voluminous apologies, but little by way of explanation.

Of course, it was southern conservative Democrats who presided over the post-Civil War segregated South, but the continuity is with conservatives, and for that McDonnell is this week’s right-wingnut.

Awkward humor and congressional hearings – they’ve rarely gone together as well as in a clip that went viral this week. Congressman Hank Johnson of Georgia became an internet sensation after an inter-change with Admiral Robert Willard, head of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. At issue was the stationing of 5,000 more U.S. troops on the island. Congressman Johnson’s concerns were more geologic than logical, as he methodically worked his way toward his ultimate concern: “My fear is that the whole island will become so overly populated that it will tip over and capsize.”

The admiral’s respectful response was a classic in understatement: “We don’t anticipate that.”

The congressman’s office subsequently released a statement saying that he was only joking, but the lack of a smile on his face, and the strange stage for stand-up comedy, either means that he has an unusually dry sense of humor or his explanation is all wet. He gets this week’s wingnut award on the left for absurdity, not extremism.

Send in your suggestions for 'Wingnuts of the Week'

Civility is a dying art on Capitol Hill and so it makes news when a committed partisan refuses to pander to the lowest common denominator for applause. But this week, Oklahoma’s conservative Senator Tom Coburn earned a Profile in Courage Award for his defense of Nancy Pelosi the person, not the politician.

Coburn was speaking to a home state crowd when he stated that while he is “180 degrees opposed” to Pelosi’s policies, she is “a nice lady.” This drew a chorus of boos and prompted Coburn to offer his constituents a lesson in civility: “Come on now. She is nice – how many of you all have met her? She’s a nice person. … Let me give you a little lesson here. I hope you will listen to me. Just because somebody disagrees with you don’t [sic] mean they’re not a good person. … What we have to have is make sure we have a debate in this country so that you can see what’s going on and make a determination yourself … So don’t catch yourself being biased by Fox News that somebody is no good. The people in Washington are good. They just don’t know what they don’t know."

It’s a pleasure to end on something positive, in the hopes that rewarding rare signs of civility might actually encourage more of it, instead of the cynical bitterness of scorched earth play-to-the-base politics.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.


Filed under: Opinion • Politics • Wingnuts of the week
soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. Allan

    A Pacific island flipping over isn't as crazy as it sounds... several veterans of World War II told me that there were islands in the Pacific that actually broke off of their coral pedestals, flipped over and sank under heavy battleship shelling during the war!

    It turns out that some Pacific islands are shaped like a mushroom or toadstool under water... narrow pedestals with a broad top near the surface of the water.

    As a divver, I have seen this phenomenon on a small scale in Bahamian coral heads, so I could be persuaded that this is possible!

    April 16, 2010 at 10:33 am |
  2. Dave Ryan

    Thank you John Avlon. We need to focus on issues, what is good for the country and the world. Personal attacks and superficial knowledge from our leaders needs to be exposed.

    April 15, 2010 at 12:09 am |
  3. bob

    i am confused, how is a statement mentioning confederate history month, without mentioning slavery any different then a support the troops comment that doesnt mention Iraq?

    April 13, 2010 at 9:52 pm |
  4. Lisa Wallace

    Ronvan - you are incorrect. And my brain is perfectly aligned, at least to the point where I read and understand the facts before I throw insults. With all due respect, prior to the Civil War, Lincoln declared that any existing slave states were to be allowed to remain slave states. Any others, existing or new, would not be allowed to own slaves. However, the existing slave states chose to secede anyway because they did not want to be told what to do by the federal government or anyone else. Lincoln declared war in order to stop them from doing so, not because they owned slaves.

    April 12, 2010 at 3:40 pm |
  5. ronvan

    GET REAL PEOPLE: Looking at the majority of these comments it just tells me Racism is alive and well! ANYONE that thinks the Civil War was about sucession needs a good brain alignment. Those states that "removed" themselves from the rest of Amereica hold the sole responsibility for the following war & the lives lost! Today, black
    people STILL endure discrimination and prejudices! Hyprocacy has no limits. Many of these problems have always been present but have only raised their ugly heads after President Obama was elected!

    April 9, 2010 at 1:07 pm |
  6. Linny

    We can certainly speak about Confederates and Union alike without having to mention slavery.

    That's as silly as saying, "We can certainly speak about Nazis, the Final Solution and WWII without mentioning the Holocaust."

    You can't rewrite history no matter how much you want to make it disappear. IT HAPPENED. OWN IT. I don't want or expect anything from folks who embrace that kind of ignorance. But it is interesting to hold up the mirror to these folks and watch them stammer to deny what they see.

    April 9, 2010 at 12:52 pm |
  7. Robert

    When commenting about someone's foibles (Rep. Hank Johnson - an absurd person with his absurd Guam comments), it's important to be accurate with your own facts:

    8,000 Marines (not 5,000) and their families are planned to move to Guam.

    April 9, 2010 at 11:41 am |
  8. donna s

    These folks need to realize they LOST the Civil War and they LOST the election. If the right wing thinks we will relinquish power again after 8 years of Bush you have another thing coming. They can squeal and holler and threaten and have a little temper tantrum all day. But President Barack Obama will still be the Commander In Chief and President of the United States of America and the most powerful man on the planet. And he will win the next election. Signed, a Christian Mother, Patriot, small business owner, Scout leader, PTA Mom, and Volunteer. God Bless America!

    April 9, 2010 at 10:50 am |
  9. Mason Green

    Charles,

    Who the heck is "Mr. Shabaz", and what does he have to do with this discussion or this article?

    April 9, 2010 at 10:43 am |
  10. Mason Green

    I think it's especially egregious that McDonnell's proclamation omitted any mention of slavery (his explanation for doing so was that he thought slavery was not a "significant" issue for Virginia and its history) because Virginia had more slaves than _any_ other state at the time of the Civil War. If there was one state in which slavery WAS a significant issue, it was Virginia.

    April 9, 2010 at 10:42 am |
  11. darlene

    sick and tired: what about reverse racism. theres just as much of that going on. why do you guys think whites owe you something?

    April 9, 2010 at 9:27 am |
  12. reader

    Civility is fine, but it often leads to bipartisanship, an Orwellian term that basically means everybody get along and work hard for corporate and banking profits. As adults we all have people who we disagree with, and we need to get along with these folks. But when it comes to life and death issues like war, there has to be a limit to civility; people aren't disagreeing over tea vs. coffee. And if a person takes an immoral position, then that person is immoral and if you continue to not disagree vocally with that person you are enabling them in their immorality. John McCain singing bomb, bomb Iran was sick and indefensible. There is something positive in everyone, so what? I find it funny that all this talk of coming together is often used to get us to go after an external enemy or to bow our heads and meekly accept something like the bailout. Learn to love the hate, is that the point? I think there was too much civility in the lead up to the Iraq invasion, and look what that got us.

    April 9, 2010 at 9:10 am |
  13. Mitchell

    Let us offer something up, anything up, just as long as it is on the alter of political correctness.

    April 9, 2010 at 8:56 am |
  14. Sick and tired of being sick and tired

    America refuses to be honest on the race issue. African Americans are bombarded everyday of their lives with racism. Caucasian americans are priviledged just from the color of the skin. African Americans are underprivledged just from the color the the skin. Everyone in America is not even an American. The real Americans is the Indians. It seems since our ancestors landed on Plymouth Rock every country we land on we literally take over. Read history. Thats why no one wants us in their country. We seem to want to inflict our ideals on other countries. I as an American wants nothing from anyone except honesty. NO ONE IS PASSING ANY OUT!

    April 9, 2010 at 8:55 am |
  15. Badger

    Very true Darlene. It's pretty much common knowlege that the Civil War had something to do with slavery. We can certainly speak about Confederates and Union alike without having to mention slavery. At least February is the SHORTEST month of the year.

    April 9, 2010 at 8:47 am |
  16. darlene

    i am so sick of hearing black people yelling predjudice or of being excluded every time you turn around. you guys have black history month and like it or not the confederacy is part of our history. these guys died for what they beleived in. and what about whites that wre considered white trash and wre also slaves. i am not going to take responsibility for what my ancesters may or may not have done. there are more than whites and blackes in this country. why must you insist on being singled out. i am disabled and suffer from discrimination in some way, shape, or form every day. i take the good with the bad. besides, ther's just as much reverse racism in this country.

    April 9, 2010 at 8:30 am |
  17. v racer

    Those who choose to dishonor my confederate ancestors should take a look at the hoardes of illiterate criminal drug addicts that they are spawning.

    April 9, 2010 at 8:25 am |
  18. I

    They should have national Nazi day.

    April 9, 2010 at 8:16 am |
  19. AP

    Slavery needs to be mentioned if the Confederate History month is going to be proclaimed. It is a part of Confederate History. History isn't supposed to just remember the good, remembering the bad prevents forgetting the mistakes. Slavery should never be forgotten, the Nazis should never be forgotten, the gravest mistakes of humanity should be constantly remembered to learn from the lessons of the past.

    This sounds a lot like tiananmen square mentality, let's tell our people only what we want them to know.

    I hope not, not in this country.

    April 9, 2010 at 8:08 am |
  20. David

    Michelle & Sarah, two wingnuts on the same screw..

    April 9, 2010 at 7:48 am |
  21. Charles

    I think that nothing you said to Mr. Shabaz would have appeased him because even though clearly efforts were made to be sensitive to the issue, Mr. Shabaz simply implies that he wants to get paid as a descendant of slaves. It's this perpetual argument of something owed that flames the fire of racial tension because people like Mr. Shabaz can never be satisfied because generations pass down the concept that they are owed something.

    April 9, 2010 at 7:47 am |