Tony Kushner Tries to Explain What He Meant

Commenter Jim Bales points to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog, where Coates offers Tony Kushner’s attempt to explain his remarks on NPR that caused many people, including Coates and yours truly, to raise serious questions. You can visit Coates’s blog for the entire response: here I want to focus on a few themes.

Kushner opens with the following statement:

If I were to attribute the rise of Lost Cause mythology and the Ku Klux Klan to abuses suffered by the South at the hands of the North, that would indeed be, as you put it, bizarre and preposterous. I absolutely do not believe that Northern abuse or exploitation of the white Southern population after the Civil War was responsible for the birth of the Jim Crow South, lynch law, or the hundred-plus years of racist horror that followed. It was to the African-American victims of this horror, not to their white supremacist oppressors, that I was referring, in the interview, when I spoke of “unimaginable, untellable human suffering.”

Now, let’s recall what he said at the time:

….The inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way, without any question, was one of the causes of the kind of resentment and perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote-unquote ‘noble cause,’ and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies.

The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe, and helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering….

Hmmm. I don’t see a lot of sympathy for African Americans here. If we try to follow Kushner’s logic through his new filter, “the abuse of the South after they were defeated” (“they” being the Confederates, friends) led to them inflicting “unimaginable, untellable human suffering,” which still makes Reconstruction policy the reason why former Confederates behaved as they did toward African Americans. I don’t think so.

Kushner then tells us what was really on his mind:

I was vague and general when I spoke on NPR, which is always a mistake. The specific instance of a failure of compassion toward the defeated Confederacy to which I was attempting to allude in the interview was Congress’s decision, in 1866, to fund a massive effort to locate and bury the bodies of fallen Northern soldiers across the battlefields of the Civil War, and not to do the same for the Confederate dead. The government’s refusal to help the South in this regard led to the formation of private Southern burial societies. Some of the earliest formulations of Lost and Noble Cause Confederate nostalgia and bitterness can be traced to these groups.

Clearly someone pointed him to Caroline Janney’s Burying the Dead But Not the Past (2007), which offers that argument. However, it’s hard to tease that out from what Kushner said to NPR, which is worth repeating:

….The inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way, without any question, was one of the causes of the kind of resentment and perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote-unquote ‘noble cause,’ and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies.

Note that the KKK is a “self-protection” society. Really?

Kushner then tries to retain some of his argument:

I’m not willing to dismiss the discomfiting possibility that the North’s failure to pursue Lincoln’s charitable vision of reconstruction after his assassination may have made political solutions more difficult, although of course, we will never know, and that is, perhaps, a subject for another debate. I believe that Lincoln was a moral visionary as well as a peerless politician. That belief should be clear to anyone who’s seen the movie, as well as my complete rejection of pro-Confederacy revisionism.

This is a bit confused. Kushner really ought to do more reading on the first year of the administration of Andrew Johnson and the white South’s reaction to defeat. Indeed, he might consider that Lincoln, that peerless advocate of reconciliation, had no problem with Johnson as his running mate … although Johnson had a reputation prior to becoming president as a man who wanted to make treason “odious” and traitors “impoverished,” and who went after Robert E. Lee in June 1865, only to be stopped by Ulysses S. Grant.

Kushner ends on a hopeful note:

I understand why my careless language on NPR has been interpreted by some as an endorsement of an entirely discredited and pernicious version of the history of reconstruction. Your bafflement at that apparent endorsement implies a degree of respect for me for which I’m grateful.

And now the door is open to a reconciliation, right?

Some may see this as an honest conversation. I see it as a fumbling and somewhat troubling explanation. A real conversation would not conclude with accepting Kushner’s explanation at face value. Let’s see who’s really interested in having a real conversation.


17 thoughts on “Tony Kushner Tries to Explain What He Meant

  1. M.D. Blough December 3, 2012 / 2:19 pm

    Kushner’s still full of it. He appears to believe that what is sometimes called “Radical Reconstruction” was what the South faced in 1865. It wasn’t. Johnson imposed what is generally referred to as Presidential Reconstruction which was incredibly lenient, including granting pardons to most ranking Confederates who applied for one except Jefferson Davis (I’m not sure if Davis ever applied for one). The white Southern response, including the infamous Black Codes which were incredibly close to slavery without the auction block (and, in the case of black children involuntarily apprenticed under the Black Codes with no compensation, I believe that they were enslaved) so outraged Unionists that Congress started to resist Johnson’s actions and Radical Reconstruction was born.

    It takes two to reconcile and, just as antebellum slave state leaders rejected any discussion that might lead to emancipation, post-war Confederates, for the most part, rejected any role for blacks in the post-war South except that of voiceless, powerless, coerced labor.

  2. Lyle Smith December 3, 2012 / 3:49 pm

    It’s terribly unfortunate this conversation isn’t happening on a history blog between a historian and Tony Kushner.

  3. John Randolph December 3, 2012 / 5:30 pm

    Fumbling and troubling, indeed. Kushner’s original comments to NPR could just have easily been made by Thomas Dixon, Jr. circa 1915 and his subsequent “clarification” may be the best example of the old adage, “when you are digging yourself deeper, stop digging”.

    • rcocean December 7, 2012 / 12:48 pm

      “Kushner’s original comments to NPR could just have easily been made by Thomas Dixon, Jr. circa 1915 and his subsequent “clarification” may be the best example of the old adage”

      Some people like Guilt by Association. Me not so much.

  4. Bummer December 4, 2012 / 11:32 am

    Bummer is going out on a limb here. Some folks believe that Johnson was a staunch Republican. He conned the folks in Tennessee with that for years. He was in the hip pocket of the Southern/Slavery machine in that state when he first started his political career. Bummer supposes that Lincoln didn’t know this, however the “fog of politics” and believing he tapped a southern republican blinded the party. Who would have dreamed that Andrew Johnson would ever ascend to the presidency.


    • Louis Burklow December 5, 2012 / 11:49 am

      Bummer, my understanding was that Lincoln wanted to prepare for war’s end and also to pull in people from the border states that did not secede. Who better for a running mate than the only Southern senator who refused to resign his seat when his state seceded? That’s why the Republicans changed their name to the National Union Party for the 1864 election, right? I always thought Lincoln’s argument in choosing Johnson was that the Union was more important than any party and he showed it by running with a Democrat. Tennesseans knew Johnson was not a Republican. I’m sure you’ve heard of William G. Brownlow, the first Reconstruction governor of the state. His policies were decidedly more radical than Johnson favored. When he was elected to a full term in 1866, he reportedly said, “Give my regards to the dead dog of the White House.”

      • M.D. Blough December 5, 2012 / 4:32 pm

        Excellent points The long and the short of it is that Lincoln wasn’t planning to die. No US president had every been assassinated. W.H. Harrison and Zachary Taylor had died in office but both were relatively elderly men who succumbed to disease.

        I don’t think anyone expected Johnson to be as favorable to the ex-Confederates, particularly the former slaveowners as he turned out to be. I think, as it turned out, he was of the segment, to which Hinton Helper belonged, that hated slavery and slaveowners primarily because slaveowners imported blacks into the US, not out of any feeling or concern for the enslaved.

        • M.D. Blough December 5, 2012 / 4:37 pm

          Sorry, that should read, “No US president had ever been assassinated up to that point.”

          • Brooks D. Simpson December 7, 2012 / 10:10 am

            Yet there had been a well-known attempt against Andrew Jackson and Lincoln had been the target of such plots, as he well knew. So it certainly was not beyond the realm of possibility. Just ask Ward Hill Lamon.

          • M.D. Blough December 7, 2012 / 11:33 am

            I know that, but I don’t think that, in terms of a relatively young and vigorous chief executive like Lincoln, anyone was really thinking in any serious way of Vice Presidential selections becoming President.

      • Bummer December 7, 2012 / 9:51 am


        If any one had any thought that Johnson would ascend to the Presidency, they would have never drafted him. Johnson was so warped by his youth, any recognition, power or wealth that was offered him could sway his political path. Everyone knew he wasn’t a Republican sure, he wasn’t a Democrat either, he was a con man leaning which ever way the power and money blew him. He was always the southern pawn that he became after Lincoln’s assassination. Johnson wasn’t impeached because of a $100,000 bribe, that resulted in a one vote margin. Johnson returned to Tennessee and resumed his confederate pork barrel ways. Bummer’s ancestor’s were heavily involved in elected positions of the day and have often referenced the machine politics of Tennessee and the regional embarrassment of Andrew Johnson.


        • Louis Burklow December 7, 2012 / 12:04 pm

          Have to disagree with you on Johnson there, Bummer. He wasn’t a con man (at least, not just a con man) but a racist hothead. His decidedly humble beginnings made him not only a self-made man but a bitter one. I’m sure his stance was for the Union,not slavery, but the fact that big slaveholders were people from polite society who would have looked down their noses at a self-educated tailor was enough to win his enmity. Unlike Lincoln he was not a good enough politician to realize he might have to deal with his enemies someday. You’re right, no one thought Johnson would become president but you can make that argument about every vice president who succeeded his boss except for Gerald Ford (and probably Harry Truman). Republican leaders in 1900 thought they were silencing that reformer “cowboy” Theodore Roosevelt for good in the vice presidency. JFK certainly didn’t pick LBJ for any reason other than to solidify his position in Texas and the South.

          • Bummer December 7, 2012 / 12:44 pm

            Bummer can understand where you are coming from. We will just have to agree to disagree.


    • Ned B December 5, 2012 / 12:26 pm

      1) Lincoln didn’t “tap” Johnson; VP candidates were picked by the party convention.
      2) I think everyone knew Johnson wasn’t a republican. It was an intentional move to create a Union ticket by pairing Lincoln with a democrat who supported the war.

      • 1864bummer December 6, 2012 / 8:23 pm

        A poor choice of words. If you don’t think that a President like Lincoln blessed the parties choice and agreed to the decision, please think again.
        Do you think that Johnson would have been chosen if they thought he would be Lincoln’s successor?

        • Ned B December 7, 2012 / 6:59 am

          Yes. The idea that a VP could become President wasn’t unknown. It had happened several times. Of the 15 VPs prior to Johnson, 5 had become president, 3 had died, and 7 had gone on to other things. In the summer of 1864 I don’t think it was anticipated that Johnson would be as much trouble as he was.

  5. Dan Weinfeld December 5, 2012 / 7:55 am

    OK, maybe the “government’s refusal to help the South” w/r/t burials could have caused resentment, but the War Dept’s Freedmen’s Bureau was certainly doing trying to help Southern planters by (1) quashing rumors among freed slaves that there would be land redistribution and (2) cooperating with Southern planters in strongly “encouraging” freed slaves to remain on the plantations and to get back to work raising cotton (albeit this time under contract and for some form of compensation). But even this wasn’t enough for Southern planters who resented mild attempts by Bureau agents to remind Southern whites that blacks should not be reduced to peonage, but actually have some form of legal rights, including recourse to courts. I’m not sure how more “charitable” Kushner wishes the federal govt to have be in the years immediately after the war.

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