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."
Being racist will not get you anything in the long run. If it makes you feel good, great. But it blinds you to the view that your life isn't any bed of roses. You live in a country where a few banks can cook up some get-rich scheme that throws millions of people out of work, devalues their savings and pensions, then forecloses on them, after you the taxpayers have been forced to rescue them.
Then you have some nut in Nevada who rationalizes away the fact that he's getting by from living off the the govt tea, pimping cows, and that makes him superior to the "Negro."
Consider that this month, you were forced to fork over an additional $75 for gas by companies that get billions in tax-free monies from your labor paid as taxes. Consider that most of your homes lost equity because the banks, in their zeal to profit at all costs, over appraised most of them and came up with some derivative scheme, sold to your IRAs and pensions, that crashed the economy.
But be racist if you want to, which is what Banks & Corporations want you to focus on rather than the real problems. Sure, work to give money to the Ukrainians or Karzai or the NSA, while veterans die waiting for an appointment to see the doctor. It'll give you your high, but it won't get you a darn thing or help you afford college for your kids.
“He was wowed by Obama's oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama – a ‘light-skinned’ African American ‘with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,’ as he said privately.
"as he said PRIVATELY". In other words, someone leaked his comment to the media. Meanwhile, welfare queen rancher made his comments in front of the media for the ENTIRE WORLD to hear. Can you say apples to oranges?
"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."
If he is a racist, his credibility is shot to hell and he can be summarily ignored.
Can we PLEASE use the phrase "playing the race card" in the appropriate context!!!? Playing the race card means that a person is attempting to make race an issue in a situation where it is NOT an issue. How can anyone, those of you who agree with him included, honestly say that race is NOT an issue here!? Look ,if you are racist and you agree with him, be big enough to own that; it's detestable, but be brave enough to say it.
What a HYPOCRITE! This teabilly jerkwad uses federal land for his own ingratiation and he talks about others doing it. Funny how these teabilly gop politicians keep putting their dumb feet in their dumb mouths. LOL
I hope the feds go get his hindend now. Go in shooting and donate all the cattle to be butchered and donated to homeless shelters.
Bundy doesn't own the land that he's been grazing his cattle on. Hasn't been paying the grazing fee. Took his case to court twice and lost twice, and when the courts ordered him to stop grazing his cattle on public land he refused to follow that order.
Why any politician would back such a man is beyond me, and if such a politician would back someone like Bundy they shouldn't be surprised when it turns out that his opinions are racially biased is well.
The United States of America needs more people like Bundy that will stand up and actually say what is correct! More power to him!
Just yesterday, justice Sotomayor called for an open dialogue on race. But, when someone levels a criticism of the behavior of members of a particular racial subculture, then everyone jumps in a labels the person a racist. It's a bit of a double standard. So, when members of a particular American subculture murder a couple of hundred people and rob several hundred in a year in every large American city, we dare not say anything. We blame guns.
IBundy should be able to graze for free. Provided, he uses a pooper scooper to clean up after his animals. Everyone else has to clean up after there animals and Bundy is no exception.
This is why the Republicans are having a hard time convincing voters that they are not as many perceive them. They attract the likes of the Bundy's of this country and they simply cannot be trusted. At their core is racial divide and discourse for authority.
Harry Reid started this whole fiasco. He's already promised that land to some green project he has up his sleeve.
yeah, except even faux newz debunked that lie.
WOW – The spin is unreal. He's old and his comment was taken out of context but hey that's what politicians and government does. Tell you something and who cares if it's true or not as long as more believe that not.
They are simply trying to paint him as a bad person so that their next move will be blessed by fools.
Translation –> He was saying the blacks would have been better off if the government wouldn't have started giving them everything for doing nothing........ I agree! but it's not just blacks anymore, it's everyone. We the people need to stick together and force government to keep jobs in America, teach ethics and values of taking care of yourself. People who do are much happier people EXCEPT when they try to steal from us to support a public that they have create not to work, not to care and hate others that do. It's a joke and fools believe it.
So think what you want about the old man but your playing right into what they want you to think. They know your fools and they know they'll eventually win, and more importantly vote.
I never thought people in general would be so helpless and ignorant. I had hope you would all get smart and eventually make our government work for us instead of letting them manipulate every thought your capable of having.
The federal government should have arrested him and all his supporters on the spot and if one of these freak militia guys would have raised a weapon they should have been gunned down right where they stood.
The old farmer is a traitor and a racist and the world would be better off without his type of people or thinking.
He should appreciate welfare since he has been using public land for his own profit all these years.
Who could have ever predicted that the moocher rancher also is a flaming racist?
This man has been grazing his cattle on Public Land for 20 years, but doesn't feel that this is some form of public assistance? He some how feels better than those people he saw in North Vegas because he is watching cattle chewing their cud.
I read everyone's comment. The only thing I didn't see was anyone saying they disagreed with that he said.
Racist comment yes. Is what he said true or false?
How noble of these GOPrs "condemning his remarks"... sickenating. This moron DOES realize that out of all the people on welfare, almost half of them are "his people?"
Can't. fix. stupid.
This Government freeloader has the nerve to say blacks are freeloading, what a joke and a Clown.
Liberal rule #4: When you fail to defeat your opponent in the debate call them a racist.
Putting women in the front of a shooting battle?
Sounds like Sadam Hussein and his "human shields."
In America, the government is of the people, by the people and for the people. When someone stands up as anti-government, he is spitting on all of us. If you love this country, you see the problems and try to fix them in cooperation with others who also have a say, you don't use violence to attack the agencies put in place by a democratically elected government. Our forefathers built in ways for proper dissent and dispute resolution.
Bundy's cause did not succeed using those methods because he was in the wrong and trying to take over land belonging to someone else and managed to benefit all of the people. His attempts to stir up armed violence against the individuals that protect our freedom should be considered more than criminal, it seems like treason to me.
Bundy's language, however blunt, is nothing compared to the BEHAVIOUR of such democratic luminaries as Senator Bob Menendez the pedophile, Senator Reid selling influence to the Chinese, Senator Feinstein feeding her husbands corportation with government contracts, etc. If the opinion of a rancher concerning racial politics gets your gander up what does the wholesale abuse of power by the Washington elite do for your blood pressure?
I'm a Black woman living in WV and know that many White people look at Blacks and feel this way. They are entitled to their opinion just as I am entitled to mine. One thing for sure if it is a negative story the media & politicians will always spin it to be the problem of Blacks but never the problem of Whites. There are White people dropping dead each & every day from drug overdose due to pills, meth & heroin, yet the general public is told that the drug problem is the fault of Blacks. Yea keep sipping the tea party tea.