Commentary Magazine


Contentions

What Was Perry Supposed to Do?

Here is what accusations of racism in America have come to. According to a column by Jonathan Capehart in this morning’s Washington Post, Rick Perry is “associated” with a hunting camp “widely known” as Niggerhead — he “had no problem” with it, you see — and that is “beyond troubling.” End of his candidacy. End of his respectability.

True, there is no evidence at all — none whatever — that Perry ever used the term, ever referred to the camp by it, ever spoke the word aloud, or ever did anything other than painting over the name and laying flat the rock on which it appeared. You might think the efforts to obscure the name suggest that Perry did have a problem with it. You’d be wrong. To be contaminated with racism, all Perry needs is to be “associated” with a name that doesn’t even appear on U.S. topographic maps.

No journalist can write like Capehart and be taken seriously. The first responsibility of a writer is to be as clear and exacting as possible. Capehart, though, intentionally resorts to vagueness, because he knows for a fact he cannot specify the nature of Perry’s offense. Perry did not name the camp, he did not own the camp, and he cannot travel back in time to change the name before his family leased it. The most Capehart can charge Perry with is being “associated” with the name, although he never takes the trouble to spell out exactly what that means or why it is so terrible. If it is found that Perry once borrowed a copy of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the Cushing Library at Texas A&M University, is he then “associated” with Mark Twain’s use of the word nigger throughout the book?

The truth is Capehart’s irresponsibility is far worse than anything Perry is accused of. If nothing else, Capehart forgives himself from asking the basic question. What exactly was Perry supposed to do? To ask the question, though, is to answer it. Short of repudiating his father for signing the lease and refusing ever to step foot on the property — easy things to ask of someone else — there is nothing more Perry could have done. When a journalist avoids asking a question out of fear the answer will sink his story, he has crossed the line and become a propagandist.

“[I]t is crucial that Perry address the issue forthrightly,” Capehart huffs — but the truth is he owes an explanation to the readers of the Post. And an apology to Rick Perry.