VA secretary praised Confederate president

CNN's KFile has discovered Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie effusively praised Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States during the Civil War. CNN's Joe Johns has the details.

Posted: Dec 9, 2018 9:00 AM
Updated: Dec 9, 2018 9:14 AM

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie praised Confederate States President Jefferson Davis effusively in a 1995 speech, calling him a "martyr to 'The Lost Cause'" and an "exceptional man in an exceptional age."

Wilkie, who delivered the speech in front of a statue of Davis at the US Capitol during an event sponsored by the United Daughters of Confederacy, also said that while he was "no apologist for the South," viewing Confederate "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."

Wilkie's speech, a transcript of which ran in the United Daughters of the Confederacy Magazine, reveals his belief in the "Lost Cause" theory of the Civil War, which portrays the Southern states who seceded as heroic and denies the central role slavery played as a cause for the conflict.

A KFile review also found Wilkie attended a pro-Confederate event as recently as 2009, giving a speech on Robert E. Lee to a Maryland division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

CNN's KFile found references to Wilkie while researching the neo-Confederate movement, which seeks to promote a more sympathetic view of the Confederate states during the Civil War, and obtained copies of the speeches from Edward Sebesta, a scholar on the neo-Confederate movement.

Veterans Affairs press secretary Curt Cashour did not address the content of Wilkie's remarks when asked by CNN but said in a statement that the events Wilkie attended "were strictly historical in nature, and as Secretary Wilkie said at his confirmation hearing in June, he stopped participating in them once the issue became divisive."

"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, who at the time was a staffer for Republican then-Rep. David Funderburk, said in the 1995 speech, according to the transcript.

Wilkie later said, "I must add, as the distinguished scholar and historian James I. Robertson of Virginia Tech did here last year, I am no apologist for the South, and I have never bought into what Penn Warren and his colleagues called the 'moonlight and magnolia school,' where the decorative past replaces the useable past."

"The South has many warts," he continued. "Chattel slavery and its aftermath is a stain on our story as it is a stain on every civilization in history. But slavery was a collective American tragedy. (President Abraham) Lincoln understood that there was enough guilt to be spread from Maine to Key West. 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."

Professor David Blight, a Civil War historian at Yale, told CNN in an interview that Wilkie's comments were "right from the neo-Confederate playbook."

"That is standard Lost Cause ideology circa 1890 to 1910," he said. "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."

Wilkie was confirmed by the Senate as the Secretary of Veterans Affairs in July. Prior to his confirmation hearing, the Washington Post reported that Wilkie was a formerly a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and attended memorial ceremonies for Confederate veterans. Wilkie told the Post that in a statement that the events had become "part of the politics that divide us" and that he no longer attended them.

'Their cause was honorable'

In his 1995 speech, Wilkie said Davis' life was the reflection of "a proud people" and that not all of "man's noble experiments succeed."

"In the case of Jefferson Davis, we must tell America the truth about the complicated man who carried with him the dreams of Southern independence," he said. "His life was the reflection of the simplicity and perseverance of a proud people; men and women who endured the horror of defeat and its equally hellish aftermath; men and women who through their Christian prism understood the fall of man and the imperfection of human institutions -- that not all of man's noble experiments succeed."

He also said Davis' "contempt for the radical abolitionists of the Republican Party" was not about slavery, but rather about out of fear "they would violate any law and abridge any freedom to impose their idea of the just society on others." Wilkie said the radical abolitionists in Congress were "as mendacious as the Jacobins of Revolutionary France" and called those who funded the abolitionist John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry "enemies of liberty."

Wilkie added Davis' "unbroken spirit" after the war served as a reminder to the southern people "that their cause was honorable and that all would be right in the end."

Wilkie concluded his speech by linking Davis' fight to the fights in the Congress at the time, shortly after Republicans won the majority in the House of Representatives in the 1994 midterm elections.

"Once again the halls of Congress reverberate with odes to rugged individualism, state sovereignty, and contempt for the centralized super-state," Wilkie said in closing. "These are bloodless battles Davis could never fight but, they are no less vital for the future of American civilization. As our cities decay and our standards and spiritual traditions deteriorate, America is searching for a better way. Walker Percy urged us to look South to recover community, stability, and sense of place in God's order which we have regrettably lost. That is a tall proposition but it is certainly one Jefferson Davis would understand and certainly one for which he would fight."

More recent pro-Confederate ties

In 2009, Wilkie spoke to a Maryland division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans -- Jefferson Davis Camp 305 -- which meets in the DC-area.

The group's webpage at the time featured a Confederate proclamation from 1862 calling Union occupation of Maryland "oppression" and "tyranny" and "terrible despotism." The head of that camp at the time, according to reports and archived web pages, was Richard T. Hines, a prominent member of the neo-Confederate movement.

Wilkie began his career as an aide to Sen. Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican known for criticizing Martin Luther King Jr. and opposing a holiday in his honor. Wilkie later worked for Sen. Trent Lott from Mississippi, who resigned as Republican Leader in 2002 after praising Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist presidential campaign. Wilkie later served in the Bush administration, working for Condoleezza Rice at the White House National Security Council and under Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon.

Wilkie's past work with Helms and Lott came under scrutiny at his confirmation hearing in June. Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono asked Wilkie, citing his past bosses and a Washington Post article, whether he would "welcome the scrutiny that you will probably face based on your past positions to make sure that you are treating women and minorities fairly and with respect as the head of the V.A., should you be confirmed?"

Wilkie responded, "Well, Senator, I will say -- and I say it respectfully -- I welcome a scrutiny of my entire record. The Washington Post seemed to stop at my record about 25 years ago. If I had been what the Washington Post implied, I don't believe I would have been able to work for Condoleezza Rice or Bob Gates or Jim Mattis."

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