Cornered Barr: Bob Barr's Credibility Gap

By Jason Zengerle
The New Republic, vol. 22, nos. 1 and 2, January 4 and 11, 1999, pp. 10, 12-13
[Printed December 16, 1998]
� Copyright 1998 The New Republic, Inc.

The House Judiciary Committee's approval of articles of impeachment against President Clinton should have been a moment of triumph for Bob Barr, the Republican congressman from Georgia.  But The Washington Post spoiled the occasion for Barr, reporting that, last June, he addressed a meeting of a previously obscure white supremacist group, the Council of Conservative Citizens.  On what should have been his day in the sun, Barr found himself facing an embarrassing little scandal of his own.

As we all know, the impeachment drama has nothing to do with the president's illicit sexual affair.  The real issue is that, when confronted with questions about his wrongdoing, he lied to cover it up - it's about the character a politician exhibits when faced with the embarrassing truth about himself.  Similarly, Barr has every right to maintain a consensual relationship with a repugnant collection of old-fashioned racists.   But the Barr scandal isn't about racism, it's about truth.  Has Barr been completely candid about his fling with the ultraright?  Or does he, like the president, inhabit a "parallel universe ... when it comes to the use of the English language," as Barr so nicely put it during the impeachment hearings?

First, the background.  On June 6, 1998, Barr traveled to Charleston, South Carolina, to give the keynote address at the semi-annual meeting of the Council of Conservative Citizens (or CofCC, as it calls itself).  Though the CofCC professes to be a mainstream conservative organization, the Citizens Informer, the group's official newspaper, and its website betray its true agenda:  the preservation of white Christian America amid the onslaught of immigration and race-mixing.  One Citizens Informer columnist is Robert B. Patterson, the founder of the pro-segregation Mississippi Citizens' Council that sprang up during the civil rights era.  He wrote in a recent issue:  "Any effort to destroy the [white] race by a mixture of black blood is an effort to destroy western civilization itself."  The CofCC's website features the animadversions of one H. Millard, who writes:  "Genocide via the bedroom chamber is as long-lasting as genocide via war."

What did Barr know about this ideological tendency, and when did he know it?   CofCC officials claim he was fully informed before his speech.  "We don't invite people out of the dark who are not familiar with us, particularly a high-profile person," says Gordon Lee Baum, the CofCC's chief executive officer.  "So copies of our newspaper were sent to him and our brochure.  If he looked at it I presume he had knowledge of what it was about."

Barr told TNR that he never received the newspaper;  he said he was sent only a couple of pieces of the group's literature, which "by all appearances, makes them out to be a very pristine, conservative, grassroots organization."  This is an interesting assessment, since one brochure sent to Barr contained an endorsement of the group by Lester Maddox, the notoriously unrepentant segregationist who was governor of Barr's home state from 1967 to 1970.

Did Barr respond to questions about his appearance with immediate full disclosure?   Barr was first confronted about the CofCC last summer, when Margaret Kempf, a suburban Washington woman who tracks right-wing groups as a hobby, spotted Barr's smiling visage in a Citizens Informer photo spread about the Charleston meeting.   Kempf called Barr's office and said she wanted to ask about it.  But, Kempf says, "they just put me on hold and then they told me to call the Georgia office.   So I called the Georgia office, and they put me on hold for some time.  And I couldn't stay on because it was long-distance."  She later wrote a complaining letter to The Washington Times, which drew no reaction from Barr.

Then, on December 4, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who tangled with Barr during a December 1 appearance before the Judiciary Committee, wrote a letter to Chairman Henry Hyde complaining about Barr's CofCC speech.  Barr wrote back to Hyde, blasting Dershowitz's complaint as "completely unfounded."

To a reasonable person, those words could mean that Barr was denying that he even spoke at the CofCC gathering, since Barr's letter otherwise didn't specifically address the point.  But apparently it depends on how you define "unfounded."   Barr, it seems, meant that Dershowitz's suggestion that Barr himself was a racist and an anti-Semite was "unfounded."  For, when Thomas Edsall of the Post got wind of the story, Barr's spokesman acknowledged that Barr had, indeed, attended the group's meeting.

Then Barr put out a press release blasting Dershowitz again and dismissing his dalliance with the CofCC as "a brief appearance."  What does he mean by "brief"?  Barr told TNR that he was at the conference for roughly 90 minutes.  Asked if he considered an hour and a half in a busy congressman's day to be a brief period, Barr bristled.  "Anybody can interpret that any way they want," he said.  He then continued to minimize the appearance.  "I got there a little bit early, I waited until it was time for my presentation, I gave the presentation, and I left right after," he explained.

CofCC members recall that Barr's visit lasted a bit longer than 90 minutes;  they also dispute the notion that he left immediately after his speech.  According to Tom Dover, the president of the CofCC (who also chauffeured the congressman from the meeting to the airport), Barr spent "the balance of the time" at the conference "visit[ing] with people" after giving his speech.  "There were pictures taken," Dover recalls.  "I was in one with him."  Sure enough, a recent isue of Citizens Informer features two shots of a smiling Barr, one of which shows him embracing a CofCC member.

This last detail is important because, in a follow-up story Edsall wrote for the Post, Barr conceded that, while waiting at the conference to give his speech, he sat through a CofCC "youth panel" discussion that "gave me serious pause."  But if Barr was upset, he kept it to himself.  Samuel Francis, the former Washington Times columnist and CofCC board member who moderated the youth panel, recalled that Barr "came up and shook my hand after [the youth panel] and made positive comments about what I had said.  When I asked Francis if Barr seemed ill at ease, he replied, "Absolutely not."

Dover also said the congressman didn't seem troubled.  As for Barr, his memory on this point is spotty.  He told TNR he could not recall exactly what gave him pause, beyond the fact that someone made "radical statements about race and immigration."  Francis doesn't remember what was said.  Michael Pucci, one of the four youth panel participants, recalled that two other panel members said things that "made me very uncomfortable," although, like Barr, he couldn't recall the offending words exactly.  Baum refused to provide phone numbers for the other panel participants when I was unabe to find them on my own.

Barr's press release said:  "I strongly disagree with many of this group's ridiculous views, and have said so publicly."  This phrasing clearly implies that Barr has, in the past, decried the group (although, given the context, "ridiculous" is a rather mild rebuke).  But, when asked to point to previous statements of his disagreement with the CofCC, Barr explained that what he meant to say was that he had publicly repudiated the "views, not the group."  One wonders, of course, why someone who had been as vocally opposed to racism and immigrant-bashing as Barr claims to have been would ever have been invited to speak by the CofCC in the first place.  But Barr has an answer, of sorts, to that, too:   "If you're inquiring whether I made any prior statements about this, no, because it never occurred to me."  When I later asked Barr's spokesman, Brad Alexander, why Barr's press release made it sound like he had issued previous statements on the matter, he explained that Barr was alluding to comments he had made to the press earlier that day.

Barr isn't the only member of Congress with a CofCC problem.  According to a number of CofCC members, including Dover, Mississippi Senator Trent Lott is a dues-paying member of the group, which is particularly strong in his home state.  (Governor Kirk Fordice, for example, is an open and enthusiastic supporter of the group.)  The Citizens Informer occasionally carries Lott's freely distributed newspaper column.   Moreover, despite Lott's claim that he had "no firsthand knowledge" of the CofCC, Edsall reported on December 16 that Lott addressed the group in 1992, telling the audience members that they "stand for the right principles and the right philosophy."

When I asked Baum - who had just volunteered that Barr was not a CofCC member - whether Lott does, in fact, belong to the group, he said, "We don't deny or confirm whether anybody's a member.  If Trent Lott says he's not a member, then put it to bed:  he's not a member."  When I noted that another CofCC member had told me that there is a record in St. Louis, Baum replied, "There's no earthly way you could obtain that information if it were true."  John Czwartacki, Lott's spokesman, says that Lott rejects the group's views an "does not consider himself a member."

Barr, too, has explicitly repudiated the CofCC - under questioning from TNR and others.   "Yes, I do," he said.  "I repudiate anybody that maintains racist views or anti-immigrant views."  That seems categorical - unless it all depends on what the meaning of the word "racist" is.