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."
I can't say I like bundys language but his comments were taken out if context. In addition he has historical claim to the use of the land. This issue was about his fight with the feds not his lack of political correctness or the fact he's an ass.
where i dont like the federal govt stepping all over people; racism has no place in the world
He's pretty much saying that whites/brows on welfare are no better than slaves. Ain't that right Bundy? I pretty much agree with him *cheers*
ok the guy obviously has some severe racial issues.
The thing is that has nothing to do with an over reaching agency using heavy handed tactics.
So how is telling the truth racist? That is what is wrong in this country. When a concerned person tries to point out a fact that certain people need help, he is labeled racist. He speaks the truth. Look at the gang that attacked that white guy in Detroit. Would this have happened if they were in school or working? You know, where they belong? No, because even the kid he hit wouldn't have been there. Well, as long as the people being criticized aren't white. It's OK to point out negative things about white people.
I was ready to defend the old man until he started to talk White Bigotry.
The real problem is that journalism is quick to hero worship or demonize people rather than simply reporting the news (it's meant to divide people). Who cares what this guy's view are or even who he is. It's far from what's really important. Shame on CNN and FOX.
If only my ancestors were alive to comment on this fool!!!! I can't I might lose my JOB. Just saying.
he's so right
Wrong! The amount of money spent on welfare programs is equal between blacks and whites. This is not right. Blacks only make up 15 percent of the population so the dollars they get should be somewhere around, Oh, I don't know, but I'll take a guess....15 percent of the total. Not 50 percent. It's not about the number of families or people. It is all about the dollars spent.
Well it's time for Obama to play the race card. One of his favorite tactics. Quite obvious they are just digging to find ANYTHING they can spin to make this guy look bad. Having another "We're bigger than Jesus" moment, compliments of the liberals.
This is not about racism or political preferences or any other serious subject. It is about a person who is either deranged, enjoying the notoriety, or taking advantage of the media focus to avoid having to pay up. The sole issue is about someone who has enjoyed the benefits of a valuable resource for free for an extended period of time. Is there even one reporter who would ask the obvious question? To wit: Under what authority are you suing this land?
This man should not be talking. He has been living off the goverment for the last 20 years.
Hey! This is a good, decent man and he speaks the truth. Now here's a theory that'll get you lit livered liberals diving for cover...we are ALL racist. Now, GET OVER IT and move along. Nothing to see here folks....
Yet, there is (some) truth in Bundy's comments. That's the ironic thing.
Bundy is unaware that there are black Americans that have risen to a far higher station in life than he himself has. Is he even aware that the President is a person of color? This guy is a pimple on the @ss of progress, feeding his cattle off of land that you and I own and paying nothing for it. Anyone supporting this guy is as pathetic as he is.
This man is a THIEF. He is stealing from you and I. It's that simple, when you do not pay your taxes for the services you get you are stealing. If people think in anyway he is on the right side they then just like to get fleeced.
The guy's cattle is smarter than he is - and cows are not very bright!
Anyone who thinks "Black People" have been conditioned not to work does not know Black People. Yes, there are some conditioned not to work of all races. However, Black People are hard working people and their history reflects it. No one has given them anything but a hard way to go. Anyone who has only seen Black people living in projects clearly has not had a true experience with Blacks. Blacks are American just like anyone else. They have had to overcome challenges, many of which were imposed upon them by others. Black People are strong, resilient, and hard-working people. It is the lie of the racists that would infer that Blacks are anything but good hearted, hard-working people. This man should be ashamed of himself with his welfare mentality.
Omg, it's hilarious to see the left latch on to this idiot rancher for all it's worth. Anything to distract from the lack of jobs, unemployment rate, labor force participation rate, obamacare, lack of anything positive this administration has going for it, etc. My goodness, a little girl literally handed the first lady her dads RESUME today things are so bad, yet here we are talking about a rancher.... The dems have NOTHING to tout going into the 2014 elections and the media and left know it, so the only strategy is going to be the same old " war on women" , "the GOP are all racists", etc. basically bash your opponent bc you've got nothing to promote. This no name rancher just gave the left a good months worth of material.
Arizona are more fun than the Beverly's. Affirmative action for rich white trash with nominal benefits for the poor cretins clogging at warp 8.2 to do their bidding. It worked "real good" in Vietnam, South Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, and even better at sending "your jobs" to Mexico, Bangladesh and China. Keep on a digging with your fond remembrances of pickin – ya'll hear now?
Be careful what you read he was on Alex Jones earlier and said that he did not say exactly that...they're trying to make him an enemy..because he stood up against the system. I heard him with my own ears. To my countrymen..be careful!
What he said defiantly isn't right but for cnn to use this to make the rancher look bad to take the heat of the land bureu is even worse
it's hilarious to see the left latch on to this idi o t rancher for all it's worth. Anything to distract from the lack of jobs, unemployment rate, labor force participation rate, obamacare, lack of anything positive this administration has going for it, etc. My goodness, a little girl literally handed the first lady her dads RESUME today things are so bad, yet here we are talking about a rancher.... The dems have NOTHING to tout going into the 2014 elections and the media and left know it, so the only strategy is going to be the same old " war on women" , "the GOP are all r acists", etc. basically bash your opponent bc you've got nothing to promote. This no name rancher just gave the left a good months worth of material.
Do you report any real news anymore?