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Commentary on Pat Buchanan and the Southern Partisan Link

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Dr. Eric Foner’s assessment of the previous segment and editor Oran Smith’s description of the magazine; commentary on Dr. Foner’s book and the public’s reaction to it.

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AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. We’re now going to historian Eric Foner, author of Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution. Dr. Foner, your response to this discussion of the Southern Partisan, for which Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan is a senior adviser?

ERIC FONER: I found the discussion very interesting. I’ve seen a number of issues of the Southern Partisan, although it doesn’t circulate that widely in New York City, where I live. Mr. Smith sounds very reasonable and open-minded and quite, you know, well-balanced in his presentation of all points of view. But if you actually look at the Southern Partisan, which I’m sure most listeners have not, you will discover that it is an extremist publication, which prints very, you know, really outrageous sorts of things, both about history and current politics. And whether or not he, as editor, is completely responsible for it, they certainly attract letters and articles from people whose views are quite different than what you heard. There are strongly homophobic pieces, letters or articles denouncing homosexuals. They’ve published things claiming that Blacks are incapable of exercising democracy, or they published a letter by a fellow who visited New York City and said, “Well, I thought, 'Where are the Americans?' I only met Italian, Jews and Puerto Ricans.” In other words, this magazine is like turning over a rock, and a lot of strange things crawl out when you do that.

So, maybe this isn’t the editorial policy of the editor, but it certainly seems to attract people with a lot of resentments, a lot of hatreds, and really who feel that the Southern heritage that is being protected or defended by the Southern Partisan is a very narrowly defined one. It’s a Southern heritage of white, Christian, straight men, I guess you’d say, and anyone who doesn’t fit those categories is not part of the Southern heritage.

In fact, the thing that strikes me the most, both about the conversation and about the magazine, is that the Southern Partisan speaks of the South over and over again, but Blacks are not part of the South. The South, for them, are whites. Over and over, they talk about the Southern view on this, the Southern view on that. Even take the Civil War, secession. At the time of the Civil War, there were 9 million people living in the Confederate states; 4 million of them were Blacks. Now, that’s a fairly substantial part of the South. They didn’t — those Blacks, those slaves and free Negros, did not hold the same views that Mr. Smith and his magazine are glorifying. They wanted the North to win the Civil War. They didn’t see the Civil War as the beginning of a leviathan state. They saw the Civil War as part of the process of emancipation from slavery. But their views don’t count because they’re Black, and they’re not part of the South as this definition of the Southern heritage goes. So, really, beneath this fairly genteel and pleasant presentation, there is a very narrow, restricted and very often quite bigoted rhetoric that is promoted by this magazine.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, this is an election show, Democracy Now! And the reason we’re taking a look at Southern Partisan is that Patrick Buchanan is the adviser to Southern Partisan. He has proudly said that. When asked for comment in the Legal Times piece, his campaign manager, Terry Jeffrey, said, “Mr. Buchanan, who has been a subscriber and reader of the Southern Partisan for a number of years, considers it a high compliment to have been asked to serve as an honorary adviser to the magazine.” What is your take, then, on Patrick Buchanan? I don’t know if you needed this knowledge of him being the adviser to Southern Partisan to have an opinion.

ERIC FONER: Well, you know, I actually have seen his name as one on their listed — he’s a senior adviser, according to the masthead.

You know, playing the race card, which is really what this amounts to, is nothing new in Republican politics. After all, in 1964, Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And his whole strategy in that election was to base himself upon the segregationist South. And Reagan in 1980 — or, '84, began his presidential campaign by going to Mississippi — Philadelphia, Mississippi — where three civil rights workers had been murdered, and basically saying, “Look, forget about those three civil rights workers. I'm here to defend the white South.” There is a significant vote of white segregationist or racist Southerners, and conservative Republicans have been going after that vote for a long time. So, for Pat Buchanan to — you know, I don’t think Pat Buchanan cares one way or the other about interpretations of the causes of the Civil War. But, you know, there’s a bunch of votes out there, and he’s trying to appeal to them. That’s what politicians do. And as I say, conservative Republicans have been trying to appeal to this particular kind of vote for a long time. So, in a certain sense, I don’t see anything unusual about what Buchanan is doing in connecting him — so, he’s just a little more conservative, but that’s true on many fronts.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting. As he campaigns through Arizona, one of his main points, with English only, for example, and his anti-immigrant views, is that we have to maintain one nation. He talks about the threat of, for example, what is happening with Quebec. And he talks about one nation, and yet this magazine is ultimately about secession.

ERIC FONER: Well, as the editor said, they have not, as far as I know, endorsed secession. On the other hand, if you go on the internet to the home page of the Southern League, which advocates secession, you will quickly find a link to Southern Partisan. So they’re sympathetic to the idea of secession. Perhaps they haven’t endorsed it, but they certainly have published many articles. And certainly, their view, as we’ve heard, about the Civil War is pretty much that the South was right, that Lincoln was a tyrant, that the emancipation of the slaves was really a mistake, and that the period after the Civil War — I’m a scholar of the Reconstruction period, and they have published the most retrograde things on that period, things which are 50 or 60 years out of date by the standards of historical scholarship, you know, arguing that Blacks were completely unprepared for freedom, and it was a mistake to give them the right to vote, and they were all corrupt and ignorant and stupid. There isn’t a reputable scholar in the country who holds that today. And, in fact, what they publish on Reconstruction was originally published in the 1920s, and they just reprint it, because nobody today in the scholarly world holds those views.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, let me ask you something. A lot of people are saying that right and left is breaking down a bit. I mean, you have someone like Patrick Buchanan, who is the only candidate, Republican or Democrat, who’s against NAFTA and GATT, which, of course, environmentalists and labor unions were very much against. Now, in this publication, in addition to criticizing you for your book on Reconstruction, saying that you weren’t representing the Southern point of view — not, of course, considering the African American point of view Southern — they also criticize you for your role in the Disney project, which I guess — what? You were being paid by Disney for their project in the South that ultimately — 

ERIC FONER: Yeah, unfortunately, I wasn’t being paid. I wish I had been. I was going to be an adviser to Disney, if they ever built that thing near Manassas. And really, I had nothing to do with it, and it eventually didn’t — I mean, in the sense that it didn’t happen, so I never gave them any advice. But yeah, my feeling was that if they’re going to build a historical theme park, historians ought to be there to help determine what kind of history it is.

But their objection to me and to Disney was that I am, as one of their articles said, a Marxist-Leninist historian. I mean, they also go in for this McCarthyite thing. They attack my parents, my uncles, because of their political histories even before I was born. In other words, you know, this was just a sort of scattershot approach. But they don’t like me.

But my main problem for them is my book on Reconstruction. They don’t like the fact that my book on Reconstruction emphasizes the role of Black Americans in that period and sees the enfranchisement of Blacks and the empowerment of Blacks after the Civil War as a great triumph for American democracy, not as a terrible imposition by the North on the South, as they see it. They claim I’m anti-Southern. My book on Reconstruction won the prize from the Southern Historical Association in 1988 as the best book of the year on Southern history. The Southern Historical Association is not composed of radicals from the North; it’s all these Southern historians. So, their view of what is Southern or not is not only racially tinged, but is really completely out of date even in terms of, you know, the people who are actually doing and teaching Southern history in the South nowadays.

AMY GOODMAN: Last question, that has to do with states’ rights. A lot of the Republican rhetoric right now is about giving power back to the states. Now, many people understand states’ rights in the context of slavery, for example, giving states those rights. Is that what states’ rights is all about, when a magazine like the Southern Partisan talks about it?

ERIC FONER: Well, yes. States’ rights has a long history in the United States. And it has — that has been supported by people in all parts of the country at one time or another. States’ rights is generally upheld by people who don’t like what the federal government is doing, and then they claim the right to the states. But certainly, in this context, states’ rights was not only the great bulwark of slavery, but of segregation, much more recently. The opposition to integration in the South was all couched in the language of states’ rights.

But we ought to remember why it was that the federal government became empowered in our history. It was because the states and local governments proved incapable of dealing effectively and justly with the problems that we had. If there had been pure recognition of states’ rights, you still would have slavery in this country. You still would have segregation. It was the failure of the states to address these problems that eventually led to the federal government taking them on. And, you know, I would be very loath to see all this power go back to the states, if the states were going to be governed by the point of view of the Southern Partisan.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Eric Foner is the DeWitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia University. His seminal work on the post-Civil War period is called Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution.

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