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New controversy over VA secretary’s past praise for the Confederacy

Secretary Robert Wilkie has praised Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie speaks during a Veterans Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery on Nov. 11, 2018 in Arlington, Virginia. CREDIT: Al Drago/Getty Images
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie speaks during a Veterans Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery on Nov. 11, 2018 in Arlington, Virginia. CREDIT: Al Drago/Getty Images

Veteran Affairs secretary Robert Wilkie is coming under renewed criticism for his ties to groups that glorify the Confederacy.

In a report published Friday, CNN revealed comments Wilkie made as recently as 2009 praising Confederate President Jefferson Davis and General Robert E. Lee. The remarks raise new questions about Wilkie’s ties to neo-Confederate groups that seek to recast the Civil War from a conflict over slavery to a battle between rugged Southern individualism and Northern tyranny.

“Today marks the 187th anniversary of the birth of Jefferson Davis; planter, soldier, statesman, President of the Confederate States of America, martyr to ‘The Lost Cause,’ and finally the gray-clad phoenix — an exceptional man in an exceptional age,” Wilkie, said in a speech to the United Daughters of Confederacy in 1995.

Veterans Affairs spokesperson Curt Cashour defended Wilkie’s participation in Confederate memorial events to CNN, saying the events Wilkie spoke at were “strictly historical in nature.”

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“[A]s Secretary Wilkie said at his confirmation hearing in June, he stopped participating in them once the issue became divisive,” Cashour said of these events.

Wilkie denied being an “apologist for the South” during his 1995 speech, saying he did not ascribe to “the ‘moonlight and magnolia school,’ where the decorative past replaces the useable past.”

“Chattel slavery and its aftermath is a stain on our story as it is a stain on every civilization in history,” Wilkie said at the time. “But slavery was a collective American tragedy … To view our history and the ferocity of the Confederate soldier solely through the lens of slavery and by the slovenly standards of the present is dishonest and a disservice to our ancestors. We can’t surrender American history to an enforced political orthodoxy dictated to our children by attention-starved politicians, street corner demagogues, and tenured campus radicals.”

Wilkie has worked for the late Sen. Jessie Helms (R-NC), who was a critic of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and former Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS), who was forced to resign after praising the segregationist 1948 presidential campaign of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-SC). He has also worked in the White House for former National Security Advisor Condoleezza and at the Pentagon under Donald Rumsfeld, Robert Gates, and James Mattis.

“If the implication is that because he is interested in [events that commemorate the Confederacy] he somehow doesn’t treat everyone with dignity and respect — I would say that doesn’t logically follow,” retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro told the Washington Post in June before Wilkie’s confirmation. “Because if you know the guy, that’s just not who he is.”

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Experts say Wilkie’s comments are a classic example of the “Lost Cause”  — an ideological movement based in a romantic view of the Civil War that has driven generations of Southerners to deny the central role slavery played in the conflict.

“This man, that language right there, is the standard defense of the Lost Cause built over the period of decades as an ideology explaining confederate defeat, but also as a racial ideology,” Civil War historian David Blight, of Yale University, told CNN.

The Lost Cause has become a favorite battle cry of white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, the League of the South, and the so-called “alt right.” A rally to  defend a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year culminated in a terrorist attack by a neo-Nazi on anti-racism protesters.

While many Southerners have tried to defend Confederate nostalgia as “heritage, not hate,” the men who started and fought the Civil War were clear about what they were doing and why.

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea. Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man — that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition,” Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens told a packed audience in Savannah, Georgia, on March 21, 1861.

“This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”