Wednesday, April 30, 2014 | 2:03 a.m.
Here’s an important lesson for politicians and talk show hosts: Be careful whom you put on a pedestal. They might fall on you.
Yes, I’m referring to the saga of Cliven Bundy. I’m laughing too hard at the Nevada rancher’s political cheerleaders to be shocked by his famously ignorant slavery remarks.
Bundy became a hero with some Republican politicians, sagebrush libertarians and conservative talk show hosts after federal agents confiscated some of this cattle to help pay 20 years of grazing fees, totaling about $1 million, that he has refused to pay — since 1993. Enough is enough, say the feds.
But hundreds of gun-toting supporters rallied to his side. So did Sean Hannity. The Fox News host led a nightly charge on behalf of “freedom-loving Americans,” even if it meant siding with a lawbreaker.
But that was before the rancher wandered way, way off-topic to expound on the subject of low-income black people, sending his most prominent supporters scurrying away like cats from a water sprinkler.
“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” he said in a 55-minute ramble that was quoted by a New York Times reporter and posted later on YouTube.
Describing a public-housing development that he drove by in North Las Vegas, he said, “in front of that government house, the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do.
Why? Because “they were basically on government subsidy,” Bundy said. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton.”
Public housing needs cotton fields? Gee, thank you, Master Bundy.
But wait, there’s more: “And I’ve often wondered,” he mused, “are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”
Ah, seldom has a freedom-loving American made a more spirited pitch for slavery. Bundy’s vision of slave family life amazingly included no whips, chains, auction blocks, lynchings, wives torn away from husbands or children forever torn away from their parents. Maybe “Twelve Years a Slave” didn’t make it to his part of Nevada.
At least, Bundy insisted in later interviews that he is “not a racist.” That’s a relief. I’d hate to think of what he would said if he had been trying to sound racist.
Republicans such as Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada who had supported Bundy’s complaints about federal land policy, if not his lawbreaking, quickly condemned Bundy’s remarks as offensive. So did Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, who must have imagined his party’s minority outreach efforts flying out the window.
Hannity distanced himself from Bundy’s remarks (“racist” and “beyond repugnant”), although not his cause. That cause never has sat well with conservative talk show host Glenn Beck, who charges grazing fees on his own Texas ranch. Having described Bundy as a “welfare rancher,” freeloading his cattle at public expense on public lands, Beck said Bundy’s outburst on race “shows you how unhinged from reality this guy is.”
Never have I agreed with Beck more. Bundy criticizes people who “live under government subsidy” while he does precisely that.
He has said on-camera that “I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing,” yet he also proudly poses on horseback waving a huge American flag. Race isn’t the only thing he’s mixed up about.
Yet Bundy would not have received nearly as much support had there not been a legitimate political beef behind his antics. For decades, a sagebrush rebellion of Western politicians and cattle ranchers has argued that the federal government owns too much land and governs environmental policies too tightly.
In fact, Bundy’s dispute began with new protections for the desert tortoise, an animal against which he says he bears no grudge. That, too, is a relief. But, even as he deplores deadbeat dads, it doesn’t help his cause for him to act like a deadbeat rancher.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.