RICHMOND Va. – Under pressure from critics, Gov. Bob McDonnell on Wednesday called it a “major omission” not noting slavery in declaring April Confederate History Month in Virginia.
As part of his mea culpa, McDonnell inserted into the proclamation a paragraph condemning slavery and blaming it as the cause of the Civil War.
“The abomination of slavery divided our nation, deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights and led to the Civil War. Slavery was an evil, vicious and inhumane practice which degraded human beings to property, and it has left a stain on the soul of this state and nation,” he said in a 400-word statement.
The Republican governor’s revisions came after a day of scalding denunciations as the story became grist for cable news shows and caught fire on political blogs and in social media.
On Tuesday, McDonnell said in a telephone news conference that he wasn’t focused on slavery in drafting the decree but on Civil War history.
“The failure to include any reference to slavery was a mistake, and for that I apologize to any fellow Virginian who has been offended or disappointed,” McDonnell’s statement said.
The lack of any mention of human bondage originally and his fumbling reply in the news conference when a reporter asked him why left critics and even former supporters outraged.
“It’s really one of the dumbest things I’ve seen a governor do in my lifetime,” University of Virginia political expert Larry Sabato told the Virginian-Pilot, noting that “once you do something like this, it stays with you forever. This has been a PR disaster for him and for Virginia.”
Sabato told the Norfolk-based newspaper that the proclamation flap – combined with the recent controversy over Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s letter to state colleges and universities advising them they lacked the authority to devise policies protecting gay workers – places Virginia in a negative light.
“I think Virginia’s now seen as being a second cousin to Mississippi,” Sabato said. “That’s embarrassing.”
Sheila C. Johnson, the co-founder of the Black Entertainment Network and a longtime Democratic donor who rocked the world of politics by endorsing McDonnell’s candidacy a year ago, blasted him.
“The complete omission of slavery from an official government document, which purports to be a call for Virginians to ‘understand’ and ‘study’ their history, is both academically flawed and personally offensive,” she told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
State Senate Democratic Caucus Chairwoman Mary Margaret Whipple of Arlington appeared on MSNBC to chide McDonnell for ignoring a profound wrong in U.S. history.
“I think Gov. McDonnell’s proclamation is very troubling to me and many others because it only presents one side of the story, one part of our history,” Whipple said.
McDonnell’s predecessor and Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine said that to dedicate April to honoring the Confederacy “without condemning, or even acknowledging, the pernicious stain of slavery or its role in the war disregards history, is insensitive to the extraordinary efforts of Americans to eliminate slavery and bind the nation’s wounds.”
McDonnell’s apology mollified one of his harshest critics from a day earlier, L. Douglas Wilder, a grandson of slaves whose election in Virginia in 1989 made him the nation’s first elected Black governor.
“I think he did the best he could do with what he had to work with,” said Wilder, a Democrat who gave McDonnell’s candidacy a boost last fall by refusing to endorse his own party’s nominee for governor. “For him to come out at first and do what he did was a mistake. He admits that was a mistake.”
McDonnell issued the proclamation Friday at the behest of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, descendants of rebel soldiers. McDonnell was the first Virginia governor to issue such a proclamation since fellow Republican Jim Gilmore in 2001. Democrats Mark Warner and Kaine, who succeeded Gilmore, refused.