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."
Has the IRS audited this Bundy character recently?
Wow!! You have to love these guys. Former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack wanting to put women in front and hide behind them. What courage. What patriotism. The Republicans can really pick them.
Sen.Reed called Bundy supporters domestic terrorist and CNN gave a s#*t! Bundy puts his foot in mouth and all of sudden every representative thats a republican and supported him thinks this way and should apologise and lets not forget who the party of the KKK really is...."Democrats".
Cali-Girl, Bundy has the right to say what he thinks, but the rest of us have the right to denounce him. Freedom of speech goes both ways.
He is totally right. All one has to do is drive thru a black neighborhood. It is what we all are thinking.
Yes, Bundy's anti-government protest and racism makes him a big hero. Not quite a hero like the anti-government Boston Marathon bombers, but he is almost as good a man as Osama Bin Laden or Hitler or Putin – the other Republican hero's.
Oh, I understand now.... so the man who was held a slave for centuries, then "freed" only to be treated like less than an animal for the next 100 years, only to then be upgraded to, in many cases, slightly better than an animal to this day... he should be ashamed that he has to take government handouts because his options, to this day, are limited... unlike the man whose ancestors bought and sold those slaves while making him rich, passed down from generation to generation, gets to choose what he takes from the government and then gets backed up by more thugs when the government dares to impose rules. Cliven, you sir are the true racist filth of this Earth... here's to hoping your future generations start mating with humans they are not related to and who have an IQ above 50... or better yet, maybe your seed will dry up and blow away, the world would be a better place. You are a pathetic coward who hinds behind guns and finger pointing.
Gee, so it turns out the gun totting hick, who refuses to aknowledge the federal governement, yet proudly waves the American flag, turns out to be a racist?! What a shock!
Too late to back away now. That's the GOP's hero lol.
Just another racist liberal looking for his free stuff and his Obama iPhone.
All these suddenly law-abiding progressives apparently never heard of Martin Luther King and were against Occupy and believed sodomy should be prosecuted and slaves should be returned to their owners.
Well, I am glad to hear at least some Republicans distancing themselves from these racist pigs. Nobody on either side of the political spectrum needs to associate with total idiots like Bundy. He needs to pay his bills and stop judging other people.
Is this about race or is it about trying to make Fox News look bad?
He is just speaking for all republicans in the house!
It was the NEW YORK TIMES reporter who decided on the questions to ask a Nevada rancher unsophisticated in the way some members of the news media can program the outcome of a story based on the questions they ask. I doubt that Clive Bundy started out the interview by making statements about black people, since his issue had nothing to do with blacks and everything to do with the U.S. Department of Interior and an oppressive federal government. The TIMES should have been ashamed of blindsiding this rancher.
is he related to Ted Bundy – Dad maybe??
"Clearly Bundy's racist views that blacks are better off with jobs are grounds for him to drawn and quartered."
Way to mischaracterize what he said to give yourself an argument. He said better off AS SLAVES. Do you consider slavery to be a "job"? Hmmm? His sentiment was NOT that THEY would be better off. It was that HE would be better off because "at least then THEY would be useful."
Aha So now the reason he doesn't recognize "The Government" comes out... Jon Stewart has summed this whole thing up very nicely. And these people are wackos.
Though I disagree about his slavery remark, much of what he said about the current state of black America is true. The democrat social engineering has destroyed the black family. The current out of wedlock birthrate or 70% is bad enough, but the majority of these "fathers" never stay around to raise the kids. This is indeed the new "plantation" of government dependence with little or no hope for the future.
Another Arpaio in the making...God save us from those who "defend" liberty
Everyone believes this is one guys opinion.. did you see his supporters.. they all believe that black people are no good and that's what happens in hr departments and in employee reviews. As soon as your black your fired or not hired.. its the truth.. if you are black your poor I'll educated and a lazy person. Can't change this in america
Pretty sick when a politician, from either side of the isle, chooses the words of a relatively disinterested party to paint all holding a different political view with the same brush and even worse when the news media ans the flames. Bundy's thoughts are his own. Bundy's actions are his own, BLM assault troops are under government guidance and none of the aforementioned are acting in the best interest of this country.
Richard Mack gives "womern and children first" a whole new meaning.
The Republican fools and their Fox Commentaries just pushed Hillary one step closer to the White House. They just cant seem to keep their ignorant and racist comments from their daily comments. ah! I love it, no greater friend has the Democrats than those at Fox News .
" the federal government has no business "owning" it."
Why? Because that part of the Constitution is in convenient for you and your ideology?
"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."
I appreciate the military tactics of this true American patriotic hero. By adopting the strategy used by Al-Quaeda and Hezbollah cowards and making a brave stand instead.