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Confederate Flag Debate Is Historic Test for Boehner

Boehner has made himself clear on Confederate flag imagery. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

When things get particularly rocky, John A. Boehner sometimes tries to assert control by reminding people he is “speaker of the whole House,” meaning his responsibilities as institutional steward can trump his role as Republican-in-chief.  

If there were ever an important opportunity to stand firmly behind that part of his job description, this summer’s extraordinarily raw debate about legacies of the Civil War is that time. Boehner has a rare opening to transform lemons into lemonade. Having permitted his party to come off as profoundly insensitive to the main modern meaning of the Confederate flag, he has created a moment for orchestrating some collective public self-examination and repentance.  

Making that happen would not only benefit the Republican Party, which is desperate to do better with minority voters, but also stands to prop up the beleaguered reputation of the entire Congress. It also would also assure a lasting boost to Boehner’s legacy in the leadership, regardless of whether this is his final term. And it might even help the American people gain a better understanding of the complexities of their history.  

Last week, after the House got stopped dead in its tracks by a surprise GOP proposal to protect the display and sale of the Confederate battle flag in national cemeteries, the speaker decided to raise the stakes significantly. The best way to recover from the moment, he said, would be for Congress to review all references to the Confederacy under its most direct purview — in the paintings, statuary, flags and other memorabilia on display at the Capitol. And he announced he would convene a bipartisan group to take on the task.  

Boehner, whose home state of Ohio was central to the abolitionist movement and then the Union’s prosecution of the war 150 years ago, also made plain his view that the “Southern Cross” deserves no place of honor either in veterans’ burial grounds or other federal properties.  

“In my view, this issue is settled. The flag should be gone,” he said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”  

Because of the way Congress governs the Hill, and also because of the limits of his own influence over the House, Boehner is incapable of imposing his version of history on the Capitol corridors. To make good on his commitment he will need to enlist Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who as the most prominent congressional GOP champion of civil rights will be inclined to have senators cooperate. And in the House, the speaker will need to obtain buy-in from Republicans from the South, anxious about their heritage being airbrushed into oblivion, as well as members of the Congressional Black Caucus, fearful about a backsliding from recent triumphs over icons of past oppression.  

If those things happen, the difficult but vitally important work for Boehner’s panel will begin with an understanding of the Capitol’s three distinct functions — workspace, civic shrine and museum — and how the same symbol plays different roles that will be difficult to reconcile.  

The Hill is the principal place of business for the legislative branch. It is the place where House members and senators welcome their constituents to Washington and represent their states’ interests to the rest of the nation.  

So members can make a strong case that they should have carte blanche to display whatever they want in their own offices. (While Rep. Bennie Thompson, the only Democratic or black member from Mississippi, has proposed banning his state’s flag from common areas of the Hill so long as it features the Confederate battle banner in the upper left quadrant, he would permit his delegation colleagues to decorate their suites however they wish.)  

The Capitol is also celebrated in our culture as a shrine to democratic ideals and republican objectives. It is a place self-consciously constructed and decorated to provide constant reminders about American first principles — among them commitments to liberty, freedom, equal protection under the law and the goal of e pluribus unum.  

So it is totally discordant, to say the least, whenever images designed to evoke such aspirational national qualities share space with symbols now understood by most Americans as standing for separation, subjugation and assertions of racial superiority.  

Finally, the place exists as a sprawling collection of galleries for exhibiting United States history. It is where tourists from around the world marvel at how the rich collection of art and artifacts illustrate the many failings as well as the myriad triumphs in the American story — often by highlighting people who shaped the country while exhibiting knotty mixtures of political acumen, policymaking reach, situational ethics and human shortcomings.  

So most historians would find it inappropriate to exile figures from the Capitol because of their now-discredited views about race. A roster of important 19th century leaders wouldn't be complete without John C. Calhoun, many would argue, because he was central to the growth of a strong federal government as secretary of War and vice president in the 1820s before leading the pro-slavery movement as a South Carolina senator in the 1830s and 1840s.  

The best national museums don’t erase the inconvenient or uncomfortable parts of the past. Instead, they embrace the cliché about those ignoring history being doomed to repeat it. They offer venues where relics like the Confederate flag are never venerated but can nonetheless be appreciated in context — a visual aid to accompany unsentimental, but also unflinching, explanations about why behaviors that seem so wrong today were once embraced by so many.  

On the sesquicentennial of the Civil War’s end, the nation is not collectively over it yet. If Boehner and his promised bipartisan working group can come up with a plan for tinkering with the Capitol’s iconography so that the Confederate side is remembered, without being given tribute, the speaker will have played a part in history arguably as great as any legislative advance on his watch.

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