Posted on August 20, 2004

A Conservative Slave Reparations Plan?

FrontPage Magazine, Aug. 19

The movement to legislate reparations for slavery has a new face: Alan Keyes.

In a craven attempt to boost his faltering (read: hopeless) Senate campaign, Keyes said Monday that he would support exempting blacks from all taxation in order to repay the debt America owed them for enslaving their ancestors. Blacks would pay only Social Security taxes under his plan. The Chicago Tribune reported that Keyes justified his position with an appeal to ancient history, “When a city had been devastated (in the Roman empire), for a certain length of time—a generation or two—they exempted the damaged city from taxation.” Keyes, usually no fan of the morés of the later Roman Empire, said this would “compensate for all those years when your labor was being exploited.”

When whose labor was being “exploited,” Ambassador? It’s been far more than “a generation or two” since Americans atoned for their tolerance of the peculiar institution, which more than half the country never really tolerated, and which 300,000 free state Americans gave their lives to end.

In contrast, Keyes’ rival Barack Obama sounded much more conservative—not to mention sane—than Keyes, telling Illinois reporters, “I generally think that the best strategies for moving forward involve vigorously enforcing our anti-discrimination laws in education and job training and other programs that can lift all people out of poverty.”

Thus, in the Illinois Senate race, the left-wing Democrat has shunned the overheated racialist rhetoric embraced by his ultra-conservative Republican challenger.

So manifest is the illogic behind the reparations movement that it has been recognized by none other than Alan Keyes. Discussing the Civil War in a column in 2002, Keyes wrote, “The price for the sin of slavery has already been paid, in blood.” This would make Keyes’ second major flip-flop since announcing his candidacy last week, the first being his carpetbagger candidacy itself.

Mark your calendars: this is the earliest point at which Keyes has resorted to racial demagoguery, a staple of Keyes’ media appearances for nearly 20 years. When Keyes left the State Department in the late 1980s, he blamed his stalled career on a biased superior. Keyes referred to his inability to attract media attention during the 1996 presidential primaries as “a blackout, which means you keep the black out.” (Keyes last cited his racially charged dictionary in 1992, when he told Republicans they had gone colorblind, which “means that when a colored person walks in, you suddenly go blind.”) In 2000, the single-digit candidate accused the New Hampshire press corps of racism for not covering his presidential campaign to his satisfaction.

Beyond stirring ethnic animosities, Keyes also has a habit of engaging in genuinely neurotic behavior. Keyes chained himself to an Atlanta TV station in 1996, then went on a hunger strike to protest his exclusion from a televised debate. He deliberately provided fodder for Michael Moore’s camera during the 2000 primaries, body surfing the crowd at an alternative rock concert in return for Moore’s promised endorsement. (Moore predictably reneged.) Will this man convince Illinois voters that he’s the steady hand they want at the nation’s helm during a time of war?

The Illinois Republican Party chose Keyes, because, like his opponent, he is a minority and an eloquent speaker. If there’s any truth to the charge that the Republican Party is racist, it lies in the fact that the GOP continues to lavish political attention on a proven loser, with a case of racial hypersensitivity and a penchant for spouting nutty-sounding rhetoric, merely because he is black.

The reason Alan Keyes accepted the nomination is clear: running for elective office is his most reliable means of employment. Keyes paid himself $100,000 out of his campaign funds when he ran for Paul Sarbanes’ U.S. Senate seat in 1992 and more money out of subsequent campaigns. After telling Wolf Blitzer he was not taking a salary during his 1996 presidential bid, he was caught taking $20,000 (which he reimbursed after unwanted publicity).

For those who share a conservative position on social issues, Alan Keyes is not the face you want associated with your cause. Although he enacted little of his social agenda, Ronald Reagan gave religious conservatives a major propaganda coup by associating their opinions (which the media always portrayed as “extreme”) with his warm personality.

Alan Keyes does no such thing. He began the race by referring to the pro-choice African-American Obama as a “slaveholder” with all the sophistication and finesse of a street preacher. As Mike Murphy has noted in the Weekly Standard: “The job of a political candidate is to attract people to a party’s political philosophy and bring victory to the party on Election Day. In two U.S. Senate races and two presidential campaigns, Alan Keyes has done the exact opposite: shown a great ability to stampede voters away from his candidacy like a herd of panicking animals fleeing a huge volcanic eruption.” Indeed, in his two home state Senate races (1988 and 1992), Keyes garnered 38 and 29 percent of the vote, respectively. In a ludicrous race against an equally charismatic, far more mainsteam-sounding minority politician, he is likely to pull in even fewer votes.

He’s already off to a disastrous start. In the now-reliably Democratic state of Illinois, Keyes chose to make his campaign’s keynote issue abortion, trumpeting his opposition to abortion in the case of rape and incest—a position far more restrictive than the Republican Party platform.

Electorally speaking, if Alan Keyes becomes equated with the pro-life movement, the public will safely conclude the pro-life movement is politically untenable. And the damage he does in the next seven weeks will go a long way towards eroding support for the Party of Lincoln in the Land of Lincoln.

Keyes is an eloquent spokesman for causes near to his heart. For the sake of those issues—and the Republican Party—he should never seek to be anything more.