Whatever goodwill Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy had built up during his widely publicized standoff with the federal government evaporated Thursday after his comments that blacks might be "better off as slaves" went viral.
In a sometimes awkward press conference, Mr. Bundy denied he was a racist.
Lawmakers moved to condemn Mr. Bundy's remarks, which were captured on video at a Saturday press briefing and first reported Thursday in The New York Times.
Many conservatives who had backed Mr. Bundy's defiance of the Obama administration over land rights and access to his family's ancestral grazing lands rushed to condemn his musings on race and social welfare programs.
Rep. Rob Bishop, Utah Republican and a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, told The Salt Lake Tribune that Mr. Bundy's remarks damaged his cause.
"His comments are inaccurate and degrading, and I think they are sad," said Mr. Bishop. "Unless I am missing something, I don't think it had any relevance to the situation he has, but the fact that he said them does not help his situation, does not help his case, does not help his credibility."
Others quick to condemn Mr. Bundy's remarks were Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Fox News host Sean Hannity.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, seized on the remarks to attack the rancher again. He has called Mr. Bundy and his family "domestic terrorists" for the way they defied a court order and the federal Bureau of Land Management.
"Today, Bundy revealed himself to be a hateful racist," Mr. Reid said in a statement. "But by denigrating people who work hard and play by the rules while he mooches off public land, he also revealed himself to be a hypocrite."
Mr. Bundy insisted that his remarks had been misinterpreted for political spin. "They made it sound like I was prejudiced. I wasn't prejudiced. I was actually inviting them to the party," he told radio host Alex Jones, but he didn't back away from his comments.
"If they think I'm racist, they're totally wrong," Mr. Bundy said. "Again, I'm wondering: Are you better off under the old system of slavery or are they better off under the welfare slavery that they're under now?"
He said at least one of the dozens of militia members helping guard his ranch is black, and "we love him and respect him the same as we do anyone else."
During his daily press conference at his ranch Saturday, Mr. Bundy said, "I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro," then recalled driving past public housing projects in North Las Vegas.
"[I]n 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. They didn't have nothing for their kids to do. They didn't have nothing for their young girls to do," Mr. Bundy said in recorded remarks reprinted in The New York Times.
"And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?" he said. "They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I've often wondered, 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."
Mr. Bundy became a national figure after armed federal agents swooped in to confiscate his cattle at his ranch in Bunkerville, Nev., in a dispute over grazing fees. The tense confrontations between BLM agents and armed Bundy supporters triggered a national debate over whether agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management were abusing their authority over landowners.
A number of lawmakers denounced the BLM's enforcement action as excessive use of force, but there has been less support for Mr. Bundy, who owes more than $1 million in fees and has lost several court decisions after refusing to pay for grazing rights for 21 years.
Mr. Paul released a statement Thursday saying, "His remarks on race are offensive and I wholeheartedly disagree with him."
A spokesman for Sen. Dean Heller, Nevada Republican, said in a statement, "Senator Heller completely disagrees with Mr. Bundy's appalling and racist statements, and condemns them in the most strenuous way."
Not everyone was abandoning the 67-year-old rancher as the media storm raged. A Thursday post on the Bundy Ranch Facebook page said there are "new rumors going around about Cliven."
"We all know that with the media, words are taken out of context, meanings are twisted, and they can take anything and turn it into what they want it to be. Cliven is a good man, he loves all people, he is not a racist man. He wants what is best for everyone."
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