How Haley Barbour Can Say No

If the Sons of Confederate Veterans want to honor Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, they can. Just don't ask the government to do it.

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It's hard to imagine that someone who was practically announcing his 2012 White House bid on Fox News Sunday last weekend wouldn't take the easy out on a hot-button issue when it's sitting right there for him, but so far, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour won't do it.

In the latest race-relations dustup over Barbour's unwillingness to "denounce" the Sons of Confederate Veterans for its proposal to honor Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest with a commemorative state-license tag, Barbour is passing up a prime opportunity to flex his small-government chops.

He should just blame it all on big government. States approve commemorative license tags all the time. It puts a little extra money in the transportation budget, and it gives the supporters of the University of (Your State Here), the Conservation Society of (Your State Here), or the brothers and sisters of (Sorority) Phi (Fraternity) a chance to show their civic pride.

But it's a little different when the state legislature is asked to green-light a tag in Forrest's honor. After all, he was Ku Klux Klan leader and general in the Army of the Confederate States of America, the breakaway nation that warred against the United States of America -- the republic to which Mississippi happens to currently belong.

If Barbour really wanted to dispense with the license-tag issue, quiet his critics and avoid alienating his political base -- one that bristles at anything that remotely smacks of "political correctness" -- he should just say that government shouldn't be involved in Civil War nostalgia. At all.

There's no doubt that many Confederate enthusiasts see it differently. And they have every right, under the First Amendment of the Constitution (of the United States of America), to celebrate Forrest's life and career -- even if that career includes what historians describe as the massacre of black Union soldiers at the 1864 Battle of Fort Pillow, Tenn.

But once they're asking the state government to put Forrest's mug on a license tag, or raise the "Stars and Bars" on public grounds, they're pretty much asking taxpayers to recognize a rogue state whose secession resulted in a war that cost more than 600,000 lives on both sides. And that's really not OK.

You're never going to see a Kuwaiti flying an Iraqi flag -- at least not at public expense. It's one thing for states and communities to spend public money maintaining statues and memorials all over the South that honor Confederate war dead -- it's part of our shared American history that shouldn't be swept away.

Southerners do take pride in that history: Last year I wrote about a friend -- an African American decorated for her service in Iraq -- whose Confederate Battle Flag tattoo is her way of honoring her Southern roots.

But asking Mississippians to co-sign a new memorial to a Confederate hero isn't just a political nonstarter. It's out of sync with the small-government mantra of the conservative wave that Barbour -- chair of the Republican Governors Association -- is hoping to ride.

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