- The Washington Times - Friday, February 18, 2000

John McCain was supposed to faint when Salon magazine confronted him with the disclosure that (gasp!) his great-great-grandfather owned 52 slaves in antebellum Mississippi.

Earlier in the week George W. was subjected to hazing by the usual suspects because he spoke at Bob Jones U., which bans, along with beer, dancing, squeezing pretty girls and other youthful pleasures, interracial dating.

Neither man blinked, and the South Carolina presidential primary did not melt down, though Bill Bradley, who has never quite gotten over the thrill of the group showers he took in the National Basketball Association, parachuted into the state to do a little race-baiting even though he is not even on a ballot in South Carolina.

"I did not know that," Mr. McCain said on being confronted with the documentation that his great-great-grandfather, W.A. McCain, owned slaves to work his plantation in Mississippi.

He was supposed to flay himself for several days on learning this, but he merely declared the information "fascinating" and a "surprise" because he had always pursued his family history through the military exploits of his father and grandfather.

He knew William Alexander McCain had fought with honor and distinction with Mississippi horse soldiers, driving Yankee interlopers out of the neighborhood, but he had never heard of the family slaves. "I guess when you really think about it logically, it shouldn't be a surprise," he said. "They had a plantation and they fought in the Civil War, so I guess it makes sense."

Mr. McCain's Confederate forebears were unusual, however, in that they owned slaves. Only about 1 in 20 of the men who fought for the South owned slaves, and most of the Confederate soldiers like my grandfathers were Jefferson's yeomanry, men grubbing out a living and not much else on a few acres of stringbean cotton. Scarlett O'Hara was authentic enough, but for every Tara, with the columned mansion and dozens of black servants to fetch, cook and carry, there were thousands of primitive farm houses in the wilderness not much more than shacks by our modern standards where the only slave was the man of the house and a pot of collard greens flavored with a piece of sow belly and a skillet of cornbread was reckoned to be a good supper.

This doesn't conform to the myth, of course, of regiments of Southerners marching off beneath the Stars and Bars, whistling "Dixie," to preserve "the peculiar institution," as John C. Calhoun called it. In our present climate, where we discard our actual history and make up whatever new stuff is needed to make the ignorant feel better about themselves, nobody is interested in facts.

George W. has no slave secrets in his family; his New England forebears were more likely to have sold slaves than to have bought them. But his crime, of speaking to students at Bob Jones U., was reckoned to have been far worse than having been born to descendants of slave owners.

In the event, George W. did not talk about interracial dating, nor is there any reason to believe he even knew about the dating ban. As mean and goofy as such a ban may be, the enforcement dean at Bob Jones U. is hardly a racist in the class of, say, the Rev. Al Sharpton, who made up the evil Tawana Brawley story, that she had been raped and her body mutilated by a mob of cops and prosecutors, in hopes of starting a riot. Exposed as a liar, a charlatan and a shyster, he is nevertheless romanced by Al and Bill and Hillary, who court him with the reverence they might have shown Billy Graham or Martin Luther King. Mr. Gore even arranged a meeting with the famous divine at the Manhattan apartment of his daughter, the better to elude the reporters, and then denied it.

All the talk of Confederate flags and slave-holding grandfathers could serve a useful purpose, even though it's difficult to see what any of it has to do with choosing candidates for president of the United States. A lot of Americans know very little of the history of their country, and this could be an occasion to learn some of it. Southerners have heard a lot of lecturing about their flag, but there has been no rational discussion of why Southerners hold it so dear.

The history of slave-holding is a fascinating one, and a history with many surprises for those who actually want to learn a little of the real thing, beginning with the fact that there could have been no slaves but for the black slave-catchers who exploited the ferocious tribal hatreds of Africa to collect their quarry. It's a sorry chapter in our history and it should be learned by all.

But without the lectures, without the phony piety, and without the myths. And without the illiterate blabbermouths.

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