Updated 9:29 p.m. ET 4/24/2014
(CNN) - What started out as a standoff over land rights may be turning into a controversy over race.
Racist comments from Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy - who earlier this month appeared to win a highly publicized standoff against federal authorities over his two-decade long illegal grazing of cattle on public land - are giving Democrats a new weapon to attack some top Republicans who earlier came to Bundy's defense.
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And the controversial comments also call into question moves by Fox News and some other conservative media that highlighted the story and painted Bundy as a hero in his battle against federal authorities.
Bundy, 67, won his standoff against federal rangers after armed militiamen came to his side. Even with the incident over, Bundy continued to talk to a dwindling crowd of media from his ranch, about 100 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
The comments that sparked the latest controversy came this weekend when Bundy recalled to supporters about a time he drove by a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, according to a report from The New York Times.
"I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro," Bundy said, "and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids - and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch - they didn't have nothing to do. They didn't have nothing for their kids to do. They didn't have nothing for their young girls to do.
"And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?" Bundy continued. "They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I've often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn't get no more freedom. They got less freedom."
What Cliven Bundy's comments on race reveal
In a press conference Thursday, Bundy defended and repeated his comments but emphasized he was merely "wondering" whether African-Americans were better off as slaves.
"And that's a question I put before the world: Are they better, or were they better then? I'm not saying I thought they should be slaves, or I wasn't even saying they was (sic) better off; I'm wondering if they're better off," he said.
Bundy said he questions whether those living under government subsidies are living as slaves to the state, but denied he held racist views.
"I might not have a very big word base or vocabulary, I guess, but let me tell you something: When I say slavery, I mean slavery...Slavery is about when you take away choices from people, and where you have forced labor," he said. "You think that's what I'm about, America? If it is, you're sure wrong, because I don't believe in any type of that stuff."
And Bundy didn't back down in an interview Thursday night with CNN's Bill Weir. He questioned whether blacks are better off now when "they don't have nothing to do with their children, their family unit is ruined (and) I don't think they have the life that they should have."
"I don't think I'm wrong," he told CNN, insisting that he'd spoken "from my heart." "I think I'm right."
Asked whether he was any more or less a "welfare queen" as those who get entitlement checks - since his cattle have been feeding off the government, literally, by eating grass on public land - Bundy said, "I might be a welfare queen, but I'll tell you I'm producing something for America and using a resource that nobody else would use or could use."
He said, "I'm putting red meat on your table. Maybe I'm not doing enough, but I'm trying."
'Comments are completely beyond the pale'
Thursday morning, hours after The New York Times story went viral, the Nevada Democratic Party put out a statement saying "These comments are reprehensible, and every Republican politician in the state of Nevada who tried to latch on to Cliven Bundy's newfound celebrity with TEA Partiers and the militia movement should be ashamed of their actions."
"Every Republican elected official who risked inciting violence to gain political capital out of Cliven Bundy now owes the people of Nevada an apology for their irresponsible behavior of putting their own political future ahead of the safety of Nevadans," added the Nevada Democrats.
Some top national Republicans quickly condemned the remarks.
Sen. Rand Paul, who originally supported Bundy's case, issued a statement Thursday morning decrying Bundy's racial comments.
"His remarks on race are offensive and I wholeheartedly disagree with him," said the Kentucky Republican, who's seriously considering a 2016 presidential run.
GOP Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, who earlier called his supporters "patriots", also "completely disagrees with Mr. Bundy's appalling and racist statements, and condemns them in the most strenuous way," according to his spokesperson, Chandler Smith.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who had not previously weighed in on the land dispute, said in a statement that "Bundy's comments are completely beyond the pale. Both highly offensive and 100% wrong on race."
Democrats had already been on the attack against Bundy before his racial comments. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid – Nevada's senior senator - last week blasted Bundy's supporters as "domestic terrorists," saying they were arming themselves with automatic weapons and positioning "snipers in strategic locations."
One man, former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack told a reporter the militia were considering putting "all the women" on the front lines.
"If they're going to start shooting, it's going to be women that are going to be televised all across the world getting shot by these rogue federal officers," he said.
Questions about media coverage
Some conservative-leaning pundits painted Bundy as an anti-goverment hero. Fox News' Sean Hannity was criticized by liberal media outlets for frequently hosting Bundy on his television program and appearing to defend the rancher.
Hannity said Thursday on his radio show that Bundy's "comments are beyond repugnant to me."
"They are beyond despicable to me. They are beyond ignorant to me," he said, adding that his interest in Bundy's case was entirely about government overreach.
He also chided what he called the liberal media, arguing that they ignore racist comments by Democrats and only focus on Republicans.
"Every conservative I know does not support racism, period," he said.
Another Fox News host, Greta Van Susteren, wrote on her blog Thursday morning that she condemns Bundy's comments.
Others had previously warned fellow conservatives not to get too fired up about the Nevada dispute. Conservative host Glenn Beck said on his show that "10 or 15 percent" of the people who were defending Bundy online were saying things "that are truly frightening."
"They don't care what the facts are," he said. "They just want a fight."
Tucker Carlson, founder of the conservative news outlet the Daily Caller, said on Fox that he sympathizes with the Bundys, but "it's important to point out that this land does not belong to them and that's not a minor distinction, it's the essence of private property."
For his part, Sen. Paul had also cautioned both sides, including Reid, to calm their rhetoric.
"Let's try to have a peaceful resolution to this," he said last week on Fox News.
While Republicans are now trying to distance themselves from Bundy, that's not stopping Democrats from going after them for supporting Bundy in the first place. And the Democratic National Committee says the incident is "more evidence of the shallowness of the GOP's outreach efforts."
"Remember Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson? His racist comments last December were in the same vein as Bundy's. Yet GOP leaders from Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, Lindsey Graham, and others rushed to defend (Robertson's) comments against a liberal assault. Republicans even invited the Duck Dynasty stars as their guests to the State of the Union!," wrote DNC Communications Director Mo Elleithee.
"And therein lies the GOP's problem. If you ever want to be taken seriously for your outreach efforts, you might want to start by not defending racists," Elleithee added.
Battle over land rights
The Bundy standoff is emblematic of the larger anti-government sentiment around the country that has been amplified with the creation of the tea party movement in 2009. But the latest move in a two-decade-long tug of war between Bundy and the federal government is bringing to light the delicate balance that has lasted between citizens in the West and the federal government over the use of federally owned land for generations.
What made Nevada rancher fight the feds?
One protester from neighboring Utah, Stephen L. Dean, 45, called the Bureau of Land Management's actions "tyranny in government." And a banner at the protest site blared: "Has the West been won? Or has the fight just begun!"
In the western states, public lands are a big deal. Almost everyone uses them or depends on them. They are key to people's recreational hiking, fishing, hunting and skiing. And they are critical to people's livelihood, as they are used to cut timber, drill oil, mine coal and ranch cattle.
Vast swaths of the land in the West are predominately public. In Nevada, for example, 87% of the state is owned by the federal government, and the Bureau of Land Management oversees 245 million acres of public lands mostly west of the Mississippi River, not including the lands overseen by the National Forest Service and half a dozen other federal agencies.
In Nevada, ranchers depend on the federal lands for their livelihood. The government began allowing the use of the land in 1877 to promote the economic development of dry, difficult-to-cultivate desert areas. So it offered land for dirt cheap. Bundy says his family has owned the ranch since about the time the Desert Land Act passed.
A version of the law still exists today, allowing ranchers to graze their cattle on public lands for a nominal rate. The fee is cheaper than what the rancher would pay the state or a private land owner, but the tradeoff is that the rancher has to share the land with the public.
After the desert tortoise became a protected species in 1993, the Bureau of Land Management rebuked or phased out the permits of ranchers in the designated area in southern Nevada.
Bundy is the last remaining rancher, refusing to leave and refusing to pay more than $1 million worth of fines. Bundy lost all efforts at appeal and litigation. In an effort to enforce the law, the BLM attempted to round up Bundy's cattle and was met with a clan of armed defenders, leading to the current stalemate between the government and Bundy.
The Nevada Democrat had already been on the attack against Bundy before his racial comments. Last week the state's senior senator blasted Bundy's supporters as "domestic terrorists," saying they were arming themselves with automatic weapons and positioning "snipers in strategic locations."
"When did they take control of it? Before Bundy's family used the land? "
Yes, before they were even there. That's already been proven. Moreover, this is all covered by the federal Constitution he claims to love and is certainly covered by Nevada's constitution, which contains a "paramount allegiance" clause declaring the state's and its residents' paramount allegiance (i.e., allegiance above ALL else) to the USA and federal Constitution. Every time this guy opens his mouth, cowpies fall out.
Why is this a surprise? The man stole from every one of us – lost several court hearings – still refuses to pay for using our lands. And then points to others and calls them 'takers' in society?
Walks like a Republican, Talks like a Republican – This is the New GOP folks!
Get used to it or go vote and change it!
Politicians crying foul but then are silent as the internet is handed over to private corporations. This is a messed up country
... actually, I'd be more surprised if there weren't anymore racist rednecks in the GOP...
they don't even know what they're fighting about.. they disregard facts ... all the GOPtards want is a fight
Ya know, it always amuses me, who the GOP/Tea Party hold up as their next....'hero' of the common man??
First it was the violent Zimmerman.
Now, it is a racist thief named Bundy.
Next, it will be an ex-concentration camp guard from Bavaria, who while driving under the influence, ran a red light and hit a van full of black nuns....killing 3 of them.
Don't forget Joe the (unlicensed) plumber.
As far as "Nun-Killers", Reagan already supported the Contras- and called them "Freedom Fighters" like our own "Founding Fathers.
So RepubliCons believe that fighting Federal Authorities with Guns and gangs of "Militia" is the way to resolve disputes – Not Courts or the Ballot Box.!??
Way to go Fakes News – You make a Hero out of Outlaws!!
Nothing New, Yous did that for 8 years of Dubya!!
FREEDOM OF SPEECH..
He said what he believes.. What's wrong with that."
What's wrong with that = what he believes.
Free speech =/= the right to be free from any criticism of or counterargument to what you say and believe.
Here is the "Hero" of Amerikkka! If this is truly what Amerikka is all about, it needs an upgrade worst than a Beta max.
Republicans are the lowest form of political human life in this country. They're all racists, they hate America so much they're willing to destroy the whole country, then try to blame it on the democrats, and they only follow the Constitution when it suits them.
Their leaders are all as ignorant as this racist throwback moron Bundy and the only difference between Bundy and the GOP leadership is that Priebus & Co. know better than to openly talk about how they really feel in public.
Remember in November, folks, the GOP has given up on attacking the ACA because so many Americans defended it and now they're desperately scrambling to find another way to attack this country from within. Don't let the GOP continue to do to America what they've done to their own party. We deserve better.
So, WHY were Negroes mentioned at all? I thought this dispute was over some freeloader not paying his grazing fees to the U.S. taxpayer!
Typical rightie - complain about handouts all the while taking them without looking back.
Also, Whiskey Rebellion, look it up. George Washington crushed it; too bad he's not here today to take care of this moron.
I can't believe this rascal isn't in jail! He's like the Lindsey Lohan of welfare ranchers! I prefer tortoises to his profit margin. Get off my land you jerk!
Bundy revealed himself to be a hateful racist and all while he mooches off public land he also revealed himself to be a hypocrite. Thank you GOP.
so why is this guy still walking around? why is he not in jail for not paying the fines he leagaly owes.(he fought them in court and lost according to the story)
and why do the politians care? enforce the laws on the books and stop trying to outdo each other!
Its too late...you have people on your staff to find out information about people so you won't have to eat crow after the fact. If you can't even utilize your own basic resources, then why is the tax payer paying your salary when there are better options.
And There is your hero republicans, Bundy is exactly the type of person you support. White moocher and racist and oh so bigoted.
You got to admit, there is a problem that many, many white men have, and its a feeling of being "supreme" .. its born into them.. Accepted in even a simple matter of fact way..
I wonder sometimes if it isn't genetic and nothing will ever alter that opinion.But it sure seems much of the problems in the world today, seems directly attributed to this feeling of supremacy.
Anybody who has attempted to understand the black culture knows Clive Bundy's remarks are based on reality, not racism.
Wait, am I the only one that is amazed that he thinks that slaves had a family life? Does he not know that children were sold off once they became "useful", and families were torn apart? That's what he thinks is better off?
No, but the fools who prattle on about how Blacks are somehow enslaved by the Democrats are certainly failing to grasp the damage slavery did to Black family structure. In any event we just got a nice look into the heart of the Right. It's a very dark heart.
It's funny how you put him up in front of a microphone and the first thing out of his mouth is something racist. Says a lot about the Tea Party!!
Round up this clowns cows (cattle) and sell every last one of them.
Those that are in too poor shape to sell we can barbeque and sell them in that form.
I realize that the government was trying to avoid a Waco type of situation with Bundy's militant back-up but I detested the fact that they backed down.
Come in the middle of the night and get the herd.
You certainly would come in the middle of the day to reposess my home if I owed you money for over 20 freakin' years.
The cows have got to go and you have to take a chunk of this sharecropper's land then go right the hell ahead.
he's being persecuted for speaking he truth!
the truth will set you free!
he's stuck in a time long since past
They should have ran away from this weeks ago. It's too late now.
Free speech is a great thing. Let 'em keep on talking and eventually the truth comes out. In this case the "anti government hero" the conservative media, tea baggers and republican main stream politicians have been rallying to has proved himself to be exactly what he is – a hypocritical racist. Wonder why the republicans keep loosing elections???