Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe has written a book about the white nationalist march in Charlottesville two summers ago, and he’s not shy about what he thinks.
He calls President Trump a “white supremacist” and a “dyed-in-the-wool, unapologetic racist” and “a hater.” That’s just in the prologue. There’s still the rest of the book to go – and he returns to Trump again and again.
Keep in mind this was written long before Trump’s infamous tweet telling four minority members of Congress to “go back” where they came from. McAuliffe’s book would have been timely anyway; it’s even more so now.
The title is “Beyond Charlottesville: Taking a Stand Against White Nationalism” but it would be more accurately titled “Before and During Charlottesville.” On balance, it’s an important contribution to our understanding of what happened that awful day in August 2017 — the ramifications of which we’re still dealing with. We say “on balance” because in parts of the book McAuliffe quite naturally talks about other things he did while in office — such as his attempt to issue a blanket restoration of rights to convicted felons. Republicans won’t like those parts and can easily skip them. They won’t like him blaming Trump for emboldening white supremacists, either, although they’d be wise to pay attention to those parts. Something has stirred up these “knuckleheads,” as McAuliffe calls them. What is it?
The most interesting parts — the bulk of the book — recount what McAuliffe knew and did on his watch as governor as the rally unfolded. McAuliffe unloads on city officials in Charlottesville. He calls their handling of the permit request “pathetic” and “shocking.” He cites multiple examples of how Charlottesville officials wouldn’t cooperate with state authorities — either in planning or sharing intelligence. By law, the city was in charge of what went on within its borders, with the state in a support role. McAuliffe reprints three pages of notes he took on a phone call with Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer before the rally — listing advice that the city largely ignored. This might seem self-serving except that it tracks with the report issued by former U.S. Attorney Tim Heaphy. Heaphy called the city’s lack of coordination with the state as a “stunning failure.” McAuliffe simply explains how in a more dramatic style.
McAuliffe also singles out the American Civil Liberties Union. The city wanted to move the demonstration from Emancipation Park — site of the disputed Robert E. Lee statue — to the much larger McIntire Park. The city felt the larger park would better accommodate the size of the rally— and also make it easier to keep the protestors and counter-protestors separate. McAuliffe agreed with this approach, but the white supremacists did not. They were there to protest the planned removal of the Lee statue, and that’s where they wanted to be. The ACLU backed the white supremacists, and secured a ruling from the Roanoke-based U.S. District Judge Glen Conrad to prevent the move. “That to me was just unconscionable,” McAuliffe writes, repeatedly blaming the ACLU for “mishandling” the rally.
Those who like to know what’s going on behind-the-scenes will find McAuliffe’s book a fascinating read (and a quick one — it’s only 165 pages). There are briskly-written chapters giving an almost minute-by-minute account of what he and his staff were hearing and seeing throughout the rally weekend. Both Charlottesville officials and the University of Virginia had heard that neo-Nazis were planning to march on the Rotunda on the Friday night before the scheduled rally — but never passed that intelligence on to the state. Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran comes in for heroic treatment for daring to take the UVa Lawn to get a first-hand look at the Nazis. “Just after 10 p.m. he texted me a picture of these marchers with their torches and I couldn’t believe my eyes,” McAuliffe writes. “I couldn’t believe UVa police didn’t immediately arrest and haul off these thugs.” UVa President Teresa Sullivan knew enough about the march that she had asked political science professor Larry Sabato to stay in his home near the Rotunda to keep an eye on things. Moran ran into Sabato that night. “Let’s go back to my office and have a shot of bourbon,” Sabato suggested. Moran declined. “No bourbon tonight. I better keep my wits about me.”
On Saturday afternoon, after chaos had broken out, McAuliffe flew to Charlottesville. His usual state police helicopter crew was tied up monitoring the rally, so he flew in a Fairfax County police helicopter. He’d spent so much time talking and texting with officials that his phone died. “I had no way to charge it until I landed, so I was out of communication for about 50 minutes,” McAuliffe writes. You don’t think about a governor’s phone dying, but his did. It was just after he landed that a state police helicopter crashed — killing two troopers. McAuliffe’s staff and family in Richmond heard that a helicopter was down, but didn’t know which one — and couldn’t reach the governor because his phone was out. Some feared it was McAuliffe himself who had been killed. There are some truly touching passages about how the governor’s staff tried to keep his teenage daughter from watching the news. These are personal moments. Politically, McAuliffe zeroes in on Trump. In fact, that’s how the book starts — with his phone conversation that day with the president: “When I hung up with President Trump that day, there was no question in my mind that he was going to do the right thing.” McAuliffe writes about how he’d known Trump for years —golfed with him, dined with him — and thought he knew the man. He says after he briefed Trump on the situation, “Donald Trump gave me every reason to believe” he would condemn the white supremacists. Trump said he would immediately go on television. Instead, hours passed. When Trump finally went on television, he spoke of hatred “on many sides,” taking an even-handed approach to what other Republicans more plainly called “a terror attack.”
“I can’t account for the missing hours,” McAuliffe writes. “I’m sure we’ll read later in someone’s memoir about how one of the ideologues in the White House cornered the president and told him he couldn’t alienate the hard-core racists.” For now, we have McAuliffe’s memoir, and even those who aren’t his fans will find it worth reading.