In our youth, some of us played the game “telephone” where we whispered something to the person next to us, and that person whispered it to the next, and so forth and so on — and then we waited to see how the message got completely turned around by the time it got to the last person.
Today’s version of “telephone” might well be called Twitter — except that would be too narrow a definition for the malady we’re about to describe.
Last Friday, one of the many Democratic candidates for president did what the others haven’t had much interest in doing: South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg appeared on the radio show of conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt.
Buttigieg — the surprise contender of this presidential cycle — cuts an interesting figure, and not just because he’s a small-city mayor, or because he’s so young (37), or because he’s gay, or because he’s a military veteran of Afghanistan, or because he makes a point about talking about his Christian faith, perhaps more so than any Democrat since Jimmy Carter. Buttigieg is fascinating because he hasn’t shied away from the conservative news media. Some Democrats have urged a boycott of Fox News; Buttigieg held a town hall meeting on Fox, used that forum to criticize two Fox News hosts and still got a standing ovation. Fox News political analyst Brit Hume called Buttigieg “the most impressive candidate I’ve seen since the emergence of Barack Obama.”
Buttigieg explained his decision to go on Fox this way: “Even though some of those hosts are not there in good faith, I think a lot of people tune into this network who do it in good faith.” Those viewers, he said, ought to hear the Democratic agenda and “they will never hear it if we don’t go on and talk about it.” So he did.
It’s in that context that Buttigieg also went on the Hewitt show. In the course of that interview, Hewitt asked the Indiana politician about the decision by Indiana Democrats to rename their annual fund-raising dinner. Once, Democratic parties in many states held an annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner, named in honor of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, the two politicians to which the party traces its political lineage. In recent years, there’s been a trend among Democrats to shed the names on the grounds that both owned slaves and Jackson was keen on exterminating Native Americans. Indiana Democrats now call their event the Hoosier Hospitality Dinner.
Here’s what Hewitt asked and how Buttigieg answered:
Hewitt: Should Jefferson-Jackson dinners be renamed everywhere because both were holders of slaves?
Buttigieg: Yeah, we’re doing that in Indiana. I think it’s the right thing to do. You know, over time, you develop and evolve on the things you chose to honor and I think we know enough – especially Jackson. You know, you look at what basically amounts to genocide. Jefferson is more problematic. There’s a lot, of course, to admire in his thinking and his philosophy, but then again if you plunge into his writings, especially the Notes on the State of Virginia, you know that he knew slavery was wrong, yet he did it. Now, we’re all morally conflicted human beings. It’s not like were’ blotting him out of the history book or deleting him as a Founding Father. But naming something after somebody — there’s a certain amount of honor.”
Not long afterward, the headline on Fox News declared: “Buttigieg backs far-left idea of erasing Thomas Jefferson’s name: ‘It’s the right thing to do.’” The New York Post went further: “Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg called for everything honoring Thomas Jefferson to be renamed.” Umm, ideally even the ardent Jeffersonian sees the problem here —a misleading headline on Fox and an outright error in the New York Post. Buttigieg did not call for “everything honoring Thomas Jefferson to be renamed.” Hewitt’s question — and Buttigieg’s answer —dealt with a single event, a function held by a political party. There’s a big difference — a very big difference — between the actions of a private organization and the actions of a government. What Democrats call their events is their business; what they’d do as stewards of government is everybody’s.
Buttigieg said that Democrats should rename the remaining Jefferson-Jackson Day functions; he didn’t propose renaming the many places named after the author of the Declaration of Independence. You can argue, of course, that the first position is just a step away from the second — except it’s not a step he’s taken. The “slippery slope” argument is often a weak one because it favors sweeping generalizations over details and nuance. We’d call it intellectually lazy except that’s a generalization, too. In any case, it’s worth noting that Buttigieg’s home city has a Jefferson Boulevard and, as mayor, he hasn’t proposed to change that. Indeed, his campaign office is located on that very same thoroughfare.
Buttigieg cites this flare-up as “a great example ... of how the media noise machine on the right wing takes things out of control.” He’s right about that, although incomplete: Left-wing media can be just as bad, too. Buttigieg, though, did make a point that both sides ought to be able to agree on: “Nuance doesn’t do great on cable or on Twitter.”
It’s that nuance we’re particularly interested in. As Virginians, we have a keener interest that most in this whole question of how historical figures should be regarded today. After all, many of those historical figures in question were Virginians, and we see their names all around us — from the name of the main street in downtown Roanoke (Jefferson Street) all the way up to the name of our nation’s capital. We think the standard should be what historical figures are most known for; others weigh the scales of history differently. In his full answer on the radio show, Buttigieg showed more appreciation of that nuance than many do — Jefferson was a man of moral shortcomings who nonetheless did great things. Yes, that means Jefferson is problematic. So, too, though, is almost every historical figure who ever existed — some more so than others. Someday, our leaders today will likely be viewed as problematic as well, just for different reasons.
It would be interesting to know just how Buttigieg thinks Americans should view those figures. Conveniently, he has a perfect forum in which to do so.
On June 15, he’ll be the keynote speaker in Richmond at Virginia Democrats’ Blue Commonwealth Gala — a fund-raising event that was, until last year, called a Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner.