Editor's note: There is a significant error in this article. The author and editors deeply regret the error. See the author's correction to this article and apology for the error here.
Hillary Rodham Clinton recently said that the White House under George Bush has become "a plantation," and most of the black Democrats in Congress have endorsed her remark. Laura Bush, the presumptive mistress of the plantation, has called Senator Clinton's remark "ridiculous, just ridiculous."
Now what put it into Senator Clinton's mind to call the White House, where she herself was once the First Lady, a plantation? What is the basis of her analogy?
Southern plantations were known for two things, one good and one bad. Let's look at the good first.
Ante-bellum plantations were famous for their open ended hospitality to visitors and passing travelers. Anyone who came up to the veranda and said, "Howdy," was sure to be offered a mint julep, a fine dinner, and a month's stay. The people who lived on plantation, far away from city life, absolutely adored having guests drop in, with their collections of diverting stories, news, and gossip. It relieved their boredom and gave them something to look forward to.
Thomas Jefferson, when he moved into the White House, treated visitors to it in very much the same way he treated visitors to his plantation, Monticello. If a man came up to the door of the White House, knocked, and desired to chat with the President, he would be welcomed inside, where the President would be happy to discuss whatever issue was on his visitors' mind. Such hospitable behavior, for Jefferson, was part of what democracy was all about. How could you represent the people if you turned them away at the door to the People's House?
In 1800, at the beginning of Jefferson's term of office, Washington D.C. was a recently established city, with a sparse population, and it required a considerable rough journey to get there. So the early White House was, in effect, a bit like a plantation stranded in the middle of the wilderness, and Thomas Jefferson was no doubt often quite happy to have a diverting guest to distract him for an hour or two.
Needless to say, it has been a long time since a passing stranger could come up to the White House and ask to chat with the President with any prospect of being admitted -- a fact that would have certainly horrified Jefferson and made him despair of the future of the country he had worked so hard to make into a democracy. Indeed, Jefferson might well have noted that autocrats and even outright despots have often granted their subjects the right to approach them personally, in order to express their grievances and ask for remedy.
Today, however, no President, or First Lady, really has a choice about this matter. Even if we didn't need to worry about an assassin or a terrorist getting through to the President, there would still be the problem of far too many people seeking admission into his presence: he would quickly find himself swamped by the millions of people who would make an immediate bee-line to his door, eager to explain their crackpot schemes or to air their petty frustrations with the government. He would have time to do nothing else but listen and nod and say, "Yeah...yeah... sure...yeah...I understand."
Jefferson could run the White House as if it were a plantation whose doors were open to all, but the simplicity of that era is long gone. Increasingly during the last half century, the White House has come more often to seem like a bunker than a plantation -- a fortress designed to keep people out rather than to invite them in. Indeed, if Hillary Rodham Clinton had wanted to say something serious, she might have could have talked about the dangers of a bunker mentality developing in a White House under attack -- a danger about which she might be expected to speak with some degree of expertise, backed by firsthand experience.
So what on earth made Hillary Rodham Clinton describe the Bush White House as a plantation?
This brings us to what was bad about southern plantations: they used black slaves to do all the work. They degraded human beings to the status of beasts of burden, except for those privileged slaves who were allowed to work inside the house, as personal servants, butlers, and cooks. Now obviously, as Senator Clinton should know herself, the White House has no cotton fields requiring backbreaking labor, and employs no slaves for this purpose. But what about the house servants -- the relatively privileged slave elite? Any of those around?
Certainly not in the literal sense, which leaves us with two choices. Either Senator Clinton's remark was simply nonsense, or else it was a painfully ugly attempt to slander the most conspicuous black presence in the Bush White House, namely, the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, by implying that she was nothing more than a privileged house slave serving her master mint juleps on the veranda -- a slander so steeped in out-and-out racism that it is difficult to understand how black Democrats in Congress did not immediately demand an apology on the part of Senator Clinton for making such an innuendo, instead of rushing to defend her.
If this was Senator Clinton's way of trying to turn blacks against the black woman who may well be her opponent in the next Presidential election, then Laura Bush was being more than generous in characterizing the formerly First Lady's comments as "Ridiculous, just ridiculous." A less charitable response would have been "Obscene, just obscene."