One place it does not appear to be working this time is in Mississippi, where a nice lady with a gift for saying graceless things, Cindy Hyde-Smith, is locked in a run-off with a former member of Bill Clinton's Cabinet for a seat in the United States Senate. The Democrat is Mike Espy, a former Mississippi congressman who is also a former secretary of Agriculture. Mr. Espy is further a black man, and this opens delicious possibilities for Democratic strategists, activists, opportunists, influence peddlers and other campaign camp followers.
Mrs. Hyde-Smith, following a tradition of Republican Senate candidates who can't keep a talking point straight for stepping on it with their size-12 wingtip brogans (the shoe size does not apply to ladies) made a little joke in thanking her host at a campaign event the other night. "If he invited me to a public hanging, I'd be on the front row."
This was tasteless if anyone took it for more than a casual exaggeration posing as wit: "I appreciate my host so much I'd be grateful for anything he gave me, even a ticket to a hanging."
The Democrats thought they had an unexpected killer issue now, and they have tried to paint Mrs. Hyde-Smith as a fan of a lynching black folks. This was Mississippi, after all, where even the most upright business and professional man keeps a coil of seagrass rope in his briefcase just in case he sees a black man on the run. He could organize a modest public hanging and still make it home on time for supper.
There is no evidence that Mrs. Hyde-Smith ever proposed attending a public hanging, of a black man or a white man, either, though someone could no doubt make a killing, so to speak, by staging hangings of white men, perhaps on Boston Common, in Central Park or in any of the places where tolerance, sisterhood and even brotherhood are practiced and appreciated. Neither is there evidence that Mrs. Hyde-Smith is a racist or a bigot or a woman of heinous character, beyond the fact that she is of the white persuasion and might have had a relative, like many Southerners, who wore the gray. (Bill Clinton does, and so does Barack Obama, even if he is not a Southerner.)
The hue and cry, code language on the left for demanding a lynching of Mrs. Hyde-Smith, was heard even in far-away Kalispell, Montana, by the editor of the morning newspaper. "You could certainly make the case that it was a foolish thing [for her] to say, but that does not make it racist," writes Frank Miele, the retired editor of the Kalispell Daily Inter Lake. "â€˜Public hanging' generally refers to a lawful execution, not to lynching, and there is ample evidence that public hangings in the late 19th and 20th centuries were indeed attended by those who had received a written invitation." Such invitations usually came from the sheriff or other public official.
Allison Meier, who writes about capital punishment and the etiquette of a hanging, observes that "the extreme refinement of the invitations [of that era] seemed to be trying to take some of the barbarism out of death.
The opening scene of Charles Portis' classic novel "True Grit" and two movie versions of the book, opens onto a public hanging of five men on a gallows erected on the lawn of the Sebastian County Court House in Fort Smith, Arkansas. When the doomed men are asked for their last words they gave testimonies of regret and repentance as if they were the central attraction of a frontier revival meeting. The spectators included men and women, some of them black and Indian in a curious melting pot of what we would be obliged today to call "diversity."
No state has done more to make public amends for its past history of slavery (a custom introduced by slavers largely from Massachusetts) and lynchings, Jim Crow and other barbarisms. Cindy Hyde-Smith's remark is innocent except to those who think there is no innocence among those who disagree with them about politics, culture and American values.
The high crimes and misdemeanors attributed to Mrs. Hyde-Smith only grew when it emerged that she once allowed herself to be photographed wearing a replica of the hat of a Confederate ranger. Together with an admiring word for the memory of Robert E. Lee, this would have been evidence enough for a public hanging.
These are hard times for the sane. Ignorance is enshrined, folly and illiteracy reign all around us. But we're a resilient nation, and this, too, shall pass. It must.
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