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History on Line 1, sir

December 17, 2010 12:35 am

ULYSSES S. GRANT said that the Civil War could have been avoided but for "a poor set of politicians." Like the poor generally, they will always be with us. But some Virginia politicians have behaved virtuously in the matter of Walmart's lust for land important in the Battle of the Wilderness, where Grant and Robert E. Lee first tangled.

Virginia's senior U.S. senator, Democrat Jim Webb, has urged Walmart to find another, nearby Orange County location for its planned superstore, which preservationists and others are legally contesting. Gov. Tim Kaine (D), and House of Delegates Speaker Bill Howell--the only prominent state Republican to chastise Walmart--vainly offered state assistance in such a re-siting. Disappointingly, however, current Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) has not joined this chorus, which sings a song of remembrance for the 30,000 men who shed their blood in the hellish three-day battle that--though it was unperceived at the time--sounded the death knell for the Confederate States of America.

Mr. McDonnell's lapse, one surmises, stems from inattentiveness rather than the hots for elephantine retail or some ideological petrification. The governor has a commendable capacity to see where he is wrong, admit it, and change course. Ironically, the perfect example involves another Civil War issue--his April Confederate History Month proclamation that ignored slavery. He not only made amends, but did so publicly at Norfolk State University, where he called the lacuna "[m]y [italics ours] major and unacceptable omission." Solid fellow.

A public McDonnell challenge to Walmart to find another Orange County site would weigh heavily in several respects. Politically, for example.

In recent years, many Republicans have repeatedly appealed to the discriminatory impulse in American society--against newcomers, homosexuals, federal workers, and so on. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Republicans insist on retaining the Bush tax rates for the wealthiest Americans (a position we support, as part of an overall extension) while viewing the renewal of jobless benefits for workers idled by the Great Recession as a bargaining chip to gain Democratic concessions. (Some Republicans argue that more benefits would erode the toiling class's work ethic, as though anyone is getting fat and sassy on a few hundreds dollars a month.)

Thus, many rank-and-file Republicans, embarrassed by the rabble-rousing and plutocratic exhibitions of their party's political-entertainment complex, crave a reaffirming demonstration of high-mindedness from their party leaders. Mr. McDonnell could supply it by politely calling out Walmart.

Economically, too, there's no reason for the governor to tug his forelock to the Bentonville, Ark., mega-corporation, a destroyer of good American jobs. (Walmart's chief of purchasing is based in China, where many U.S. vendors, forced by product-gobbling Walmart to cut prices, have turned for cheaper labor.) The Walmart Effect runs counter to Mr. McDonnell's "Bob for Jobs" campaign theme, which he has executed with some success.

MORE WALMARTS, FEWER JOBS

In addition, just last month the governor backed a "Small Business Saturday" movement, urging Virginians to support local merchants, which, he noted, generate 75 percent of new jobs. Walmart is a famous slayer of such businesses. A 2007 study by David Neumark of the University of California-Irvine found that each new Walmart store costs a U.S. county an average of 150 net jobs.

Mr. McDonnell's current position, in essence, is that the disposition of the planned Orange Walmart is a local matter (though he urges historical sensitivity). Of course that's true, in a narrow legal sense. But the consequences of what happened in those woods and fields 146 years ago are hardly of just parochial interest. The Wilderness clash marked the beginning of Grant's long grind-down of the Army of Northern Virginia, a process that would end militarily at Appomattox Courthouse and politically with a reunified nation, primed for a century of greatness, and the expungement of the stain of slavery from America's skirts. The site Walmart covets is not just some place where passing blue bellies spat tobacco juice and war horses left hoof prints, but, says Pulitzer-winning historian James McPherson, a Union administration center crucial to the battle.

The governor is a lot more than the über-mayor of Orange. He represents Virginians--perhaps more of them than he knows. G.K. Chesterton called tradition "the democracy of the dead. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about." Before the trial on the citizens' lawsuit begins Jan. 25 in Orange, let's hope that the governor casts a strong proxy vote, if only rhetorically, for all those Civil War players he named in Norfolk as worthy of remembrance--"free and enslaved; Union and Confederate."

They can't thank him. But we can. And future Virginians, their heritage intact, will.





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