Less than a week ago, Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy's standoff with federal authorities over unpaid grazing fees was treated as political gold by some conservative politicians and media personalities. The figure of the rugged Westerner standing up to armed agents of the state seemed a perfect opportunity to highlight long-standing complaints about the size and scope of the federal government.
“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” Bundy said during one of his daily press conferences. “[B]ecause they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do? 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.”
After the story quickly went viral, Bundy was forced to address his remarks during a press conference on Thursday afternoon. Bundy said he is opposed to slavery. "I don’t believe in any of that type of stuff," he said, but he also used the word "Negro" or "Negros" at least a half-dozen times during his brief remarks. "They’re not slaves anymore," Bundy added. "But they seem to be slaves to the welfare system.”
"It really don’t matter to me if you twist my words out," Bundy said at the end of his press conference. "It matters that my heart goes out to the people of this world, and they understand what I stand for."
Bundy initially denied the comments in an interview with radio host Alex Jones. But after video of his full comments surfaced, he doubled down on his remarks on Thursday, saying in a radio interview with Peter Schiff:
“That’s exactly what I said. I said I’m wondering if they’re better off under government subsidy, and their young women are having the abortions and their young men are in jail, and their older women and their children are standing, sitting out on the cement porch without nothing to do, you know, I’m wondering: Are they happier now under this government subsidy system than they were when they were slaves, and they was able to have their family structure together, and the chickens and garden, and the people had something to do? And so, in my mind I’m wondering, are they better off being slaves, in that sense, or better off being slaves to the United States government, in the sense of the subsidies. I’m wondering. That’s what. And the statement was right. I am wondering.”
After a week of accusations that the federal government had overplayed its hand by sending armed officials from the Bureau of Land Management to seize cattle from Bundy’s property in the dispute, critics of Bundy and his armed supporters seemingly seized the upper hand.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, resumed the offensive, calling Bundy a “hateful racist” in a statement released on Thursday and urging Republican leaders to distance themselves from him.
“For their part, national Republican leaders could help show a united front against this kind of hateful, dangerous extremism by publicly condemning Bundy,” Reid said in the statement.
A number of Republican officials, including Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, have begun doing exactly that, the Washington Post reports.
“I wholeheartedly disagree with him,” Paul said in a statement, calling Bundy’s remarks “offensive.”
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus also condemned the comments, saying, "Bundy's comments are completely beyond the pale. Both highly offensive and 100% wrong on race."
A spokesman for Republican Nevada Sen. Dean Heller echoed Paul’s comments, saying, “Sen. Heller completely disagrees with Mr. Bundy’s appalling and racist statements, and condemns them in the most strenuous way.”
Bundy explained his comments by saying he was just trying out a Glenn Beck-style thought experiment. Later in the same press conference, he praised the family lives of workers, presumably Latin American, who are living illegally in the U.S.
“Now, let me talk about the Spanish people. You know, I understand that they come over here against our Constitution and cross our borders. But they are here and they are people. And I’ve worked side by side with a lot of them. Don’t tell me they don’t work and don’t tell me they don’t pay taxes," Bundy said. "And don’t tell me they don’t have better family structures than most of us white people. ... We need to have those people join us and be with us, not not come to our party.”
In addition to the story's national political fallout, the furor over Bundy’s comments could have implications for the land policy movement in the American West. A group of 50 political leaders from nine Western states met over the weekend to discuss strategies for reclaiming lands currently under federal management. The meeting was scheduled before Bundy’s story made national headlines, but it drew heightened attention in the wake of the Bundy Ranch debate.
Follow Eric Pfeiffer on Twitter (@ericpfeiffer)