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."
Ah good old politics.
Get in bed with unsavory types when it fits your agenda.
Quickly distance yourself when they say something horrible which makes you look bad.
Bundy is not the kind of many any politician with a lick of sense should throw there support behind.
Oh stay tuned to FOX. Bush #3 coming soon to a WHITE house in the neighborhood !!
fox news and the rest of the right wing media and talkers cares about the law when it applies to black and brown skin humans, when your are a racists and white and also a republican the law does not apply
Comments are amazing. If Bundy is so terrible with the land, then why has his family made a living off of it ( Nevada is a desert ) for more then a 100 years? Point 2: This man has worked is rear off all his life. He has not seen many black people. Some people believe that hard work is good for the soul. That is what he was saying about the "negro". I was raised myself as a military brat. My father instilled in me that work was rewarding. He has a valid point. Not just the "negro", the American indian and many white people living off government subsidize. This is not good for their soul. They lose respect for themselves when they are not contributing. I know how I felt when I was not able to find work for a while when I was young. Everybody wants to feel productive and a part of something. That is what he is saying, but if you turn it into twisted hate and call it racist, well – you are not trying to listen to what he was saying.
"doesn't necessarily mean that he is wrong about standing up for his rights."
What rights? What right does he have to use land owned by the federal government for free? What right does he have to not pay market rates for use of grazing land just like the most of the ranchers do? What right does he have to disobey duly enacted laws and regulations, or to simply ignore court orders and judgments against him after he was afforded the due process to present his own case? Hmmm? What right? Because he a white Midwestern rancher spewing all the right anti-gov't bircher-esque nonsense to tickle your Teatroll mania? Rights are DEFINED and DEFENDED by the very government he pretends doesn't exist and in the social contract codified in that government. He just thinks the social contract doesn't apply to him.
This man is a damn fool. That is all.
What Bundy says still does not make it right for the US Government to come in with force using snipers in the hills to forcible remove cattle only to be shot and dumped in some hole!
The fact is, Bundy grew up in a different time... a much less PC time and I understand what he meant... That people are worse off living off the government than being employed themselves or working for someone else.
Bundy also has the right to be a racist if he wants to... that is what America is about, like it or not!
A Welfare rancher calling the kettle black(pun intended)
Can't wait to hear how Hannity comes to his defense
While initially when few details were available I was siding with Bundy, now it seems that the initial information was not only unavailable but much of it was incorrect.
He talks about slavery but in reality he is a slave. He has spent his life living off public land and without them he can't survive. This environment always seems to create hate in most individuals. Look at towns who rely on colleges or military bases for their existance, the "locals" end up hating the out of towners they serve.
What he's saying is correct, he's saying something that a lot of people think but never say out loud, it's his opinion. It's not racist.
right or wrong a person is entitled to his or her opinion
Picking a choosing which laws to abide by doesn't make sense. Bundy lost 7 court cases, so he then decides to not believe in the federal government, all the while waving a U S flag. Wow. I find it hard to understand why Fox News feels this guy is a hero.
Does 1 wrong POV cancel out 1 right POV? He may be racist, but it doesn't necessarily mean that he is wrong about standing up for his rights.
What is the right POV? The guy is letting his cattle graze on federal land owned by the taxpayers of this country, and refusing to pay the grazing fees. He's a moocher. Mr. Bundy is not standing up for his rights, he is breaknig the law.
Chairman Reince Priebus is still showing his ignorance and insensitivity by using the term Beyond the Pale as that term in itself was one used by the English used to demean the Irish that lived outside the occupied Dublin area contained within a wall called the Pale. I am so tired to ignorant people hiding behind a facade of sophistication. Please read your history before you too fall into the same trap of ignorant hate filled rethoric.
I live in a neighboring state and have been following this story. I was shocked at how many prominent people came to the defense of this guy, and the militia members that went there to protest. This very easily could have become a very tragic situation. He has been breaking the law for 20 years, and should pay grazing fees like everyone else. Simply that.
My issue with this story is that CNN completely ignored it until race became and issue. Along with gun control and gay marriage, CNN can't resist highlighting one of their pet social "progressive" issues they love to promote.
Texas Governor Rick Perry is rushing to make him his running mate in his next Presidential bid..
There is so much that is wrong about this entire situation I could write 1000's of words but instead I will point out an observation many people probably missed. Mr. Bundy's basis for not paying the grazing fee is he does not acknowledge the existence of the United States government. So tell me , HOW IS HE A PATRIOT?? and WHY DOES HE RIDE HIS HORSE WAVING A FLAG THAT REPRESENTS THE VERY GOVERNMENT HE DENIES THE EXISTENCE OF?? The man simply does not want to pay the fee. He is a taker.....plan and simple.
What rights? do you mean the right to graze your cows on lands that's not yours does anyone have a right to to just take his cows then when he confronted the person or persons they pull their guns. Is this a stupid trend in America? Mr president you've brought out the racist Sir, and we did not go anywhere with race relations, and we did not come from anywhere with it also.
I find it ironic that Fax News defends the Welfare Cowboy stealing from the goverment. Maybe once it hit the $1M mark it was enough to back him as opposed to someone on food stamps for $1,000/year. Even more remarkable they call the executive order that Ronald Reagan signed, which require ranchers to pay for grazing rights, as a goverment overreach. It has done on for more than 20 years with multiple court cases. Time to man up.
"I find it hard to understand why Fox News feels this guy is a hero."
Affirmation Television = KACHING! Information Television = Naptime.
...and suddenly, all references to the Bundy story drop off of the Fuax news page, apparently replaced by an attention-grabbing article about a college banning selfies at their graduation ceremony.
It's such a mystery...
Bundy is hilarious! He is single-handedly mocking America for becoming the liberal pansies we have become. The comments have nothing to do with race. His entire fight is about not letting the government control his life. His comments show how the government HAS been able to control lives, and if being a slave or being controlled are any better than one another. It was an analogy spoken in redneck with a bunch of people who don't speak redneck listening in.
Yet, because Liberals have taken over this country, his comments are taken completely out of context like a person who speaks Zimbabwaen trying to tell someone who only speaks French how to get to the great wall of china. Not only that, but who he is and what he is fighting for are two separate things. If he is a racist, that shouldn't take away the lessons we can learn from his struggle and how best to not let the government control everything. Abraham Lincoln himself was an overt and outspoken racist who is quoted on record saying he could never see a black man as his equal, yet he understood that regardless of our personal feelings, what is best for the greater good is what is important.
So big deal. He thinks African Americans are enslaved to the federal gov through the welfare state, and he expalins this in a very non-PC way, how is that racist?
This man is a damn fool. That is all.
Oh absolutely. And to think it took 3 journalists to write this one article on him. Apparently FOX has devoted an entire staff to praise him 24/7.
Well, at least now we know why Bundy has been so popular with the Tea Party.