Bill Cotterell: Democrats Twist Byron Donalds’ Words

Here’s a little campaign quiz.

Which, if any, statement is true?

A) When New York needed a financial bailout, President Gerald Ford told the Big Apple to “drop dead.”

B) As a presidential candidate in 1968, Richard Nixon touted his “secret plan” to end the Vietnam war.

C) Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore said in 2000 he’d invented the internet.

D) U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds claimed Black Americans were better off in the days of Jim Crow segregation.

The correct answer is “none of the above.”

Each of those four stories was spread by the media, a shorthand distillation of what the men really said. But they sounded like something those guys would say and fit the popular narrative of the time, so that’s close enough.

Ford said he’d veto a congressional bailout of profligate New York spending, so a Daily News headline writer penned, “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” The barb became history, although Ford never said it.

Nixon wanted to “Vietnamize” the war, turning it over to our allies in Saigon. But he couldn’t divulge details, he said, for fear of affecting the Paris peace talks — so the press called it his “secret” plan.

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And Gore said he’d worked on projects in Congress that funded research and development for parts of the Web. A handy term for that was “invented the internet,” so that’s what the media called it.

Donalds is being liberally slammed for comparing the status of Black families now and prior to President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” 60 years ago. Here’s what the Black Republican congressman from Southwest Florida said:

“You see, during Jim Crow, the Black family was together. During Jim Crow, more Black people were not just conservative. Black people have always been conservative-minded. But more Black people voted conservatively and then (the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare), Lyndon Johnson — you go down that road, and now we are where we are.”

U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., drew criticism after he spoke about Black families during the Jim Crow era. Colin Hackley/File

If he’d been writing an essay or a commencement speech, Donalds probably would have been more specific. But with the backlash he’s drawn, it’s necessary to consider what he did not say.

Donalds didn’t say civil-rights laws, education programs, voting rules, public accommodations, open housing and employment legislation were all wrong. He didn’t say we should go back to the 1950s, when politicians ran openly racist campaigns that promised — as Alabama Gov. George Wallace so memorably put it — “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

He just stated his opinion that Black families were stronger in the old days. He didn’t say their strength derived from racist laws of the era.

PolitiFact, the Poynter Institute’s highly respected fact-checking agency, took a look at his remarks and wrote, “There is some statistical evidence to support Donalds’ claim about Black marriage rates being stronger during the Jim Crow era.” But PolitiFact researchers said experts they interviewed felt Donalds left out a lot of other factors, like broader social, educational and economic trends.

Major Democrats had a much simpler spin on it all.

President Joe Biden’s re-election campaign tweeted, “A lot of people are offended that you would repeat Jim Crow … as if to suggest that was a time period to be nostalgic for.” Vice President Kamala Harris said, “It’s sadly yet another example of somebody out of Florida trying to erase or rewrite our true history.”

U.S. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., claimed that Donalds had said “Black folks were better off during Jim Crow,” and the Congressional Black Caucus demanded he apologize “for misrepresenting one of the darkest chapters in our history for his own political gain.”

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Democrats, who claim that Florida’s 30 electoral votes are within reach for Biden in November, are wise to worry about Donalds. The Democratic Party needs to shore up Black support nationwide, which has fallen from 87 percent for Biden in 2020 to 69 percent in a recent CNN poll.

The Wall Street Journal quoted Donalds on the matter last week. He’s not backing down.

“Strong Black two-parent households are a great thing for the Black community and our nation,” he said. “It is an empirical fact that President Johnson’s Great Society was debilitating to the institution of the Black family. Democrats who maliciously twisted my words last week are gaslighting you because they know their policies have been destructive to Black families.”

Bill Cotterell is a retired capitol reporter for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He can be reached at [email protected]

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