For those of you who've been vacationing on the other side of the planet, Orange County endured another embarrassment in recent days when a Republican Party official distributed an email with an image depicting President Barack Obama and his parents as chimpanzees, and then, at least temporarily, angrily defended the stunt as non-racist.
For decades now, OC has been an incubator for grotesque political ugliness. For some reason, this is where the darker side of right-wing American politics routinely emerges in gloriously shameful fashion. A brief, partial history:
Back in the '80s, OC Congressman Robert K. Dornan celebrated AIDS as God's answer to eliminating gay Americans.
Dick Nichols, a Republican city councilman in Newport Beach, gleefully shared in 2003 the motive of a local public-policy stance: to keep Latinos away from ritzy Corona del Mar beaches.
And in 2009, Los Alamitos Republican Mayor Dean Grose welcomed the inauguration of the first black U.S. president by sending out an image of the White House lawn planted with watermelons.
This takes us to current OC Republican Central Committee member Marilyn Davenport, who sent to fellow conservatives on April 15 the Obama-is-a-chimp image along with the words, "Now you know why no birth certificate." She thought the picture was hilarious in light of New York billionaire Donald Trump's recent musings on the issue of the president's birthplace.
After being tipped about the email, I contacted Davenport, an elderly grandmother who lives in Fullerton and counts Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater as her heroes. She honestly did not consider her act as racist, as best I can tell. But it didn't help that among her defenses was a demand for the "coward" who leaked the story to come forward and her suggestion she couldn't be racist because she has black friends.
The Orange County Republican Party usually celebrates its national status every four years when GOP presidential candidates take turns flying in to collect massive campaign contributions from the local party's overload of gazillionaires. Local chairman Scott Baugh isn't a perfect leader, but he has been laudably aggressive whenever bigoted stances or events threaten to smear his organization. He was also the first person to confront Davenport, telling her privately that her email had been tasteless, racist and detrimental to the party.
As hundreds of thousands of people around the nation read my original story and a majority of the 1,000-plus comments on that story labeled Davenport a bigot or worse, Davenport and her husband, Dick—a tall fellow with polite manners and an easy smile—watched their lives change before their eyes. The couple stopped answering the door because Los Angeles television news crews were demanding on-camera interviews. A local political website published the Davenports' home address and telephone number, which made them fear for their safety. They had to take their phone off the hook because callers from as far away as Michigan, they said, were leaving "vulgar" voice-mail messages. They were forced to lower their window shades because the media were camped out on their street in a gorgeous, hilly part of Fullerton.
In hopes of preventing the media from blaming the local Republican party for the scandal, Baugh and his longtime ally, Michael J. Schroeder—former chairman of the California Republican Party—demanded Davenport apologize and resign as an official representing Fullerton, Brea, La Habra, Placentia, Orange, Anaheim and Yorba Linda. She has refused to do so; others, such as party activist Tim Whitacre, a Baugh nemesis and former U.S. Marine, jumped into the fray to defend her. Still other local Republican activists argued that while the email image is racist, they didn't think it warranted a resignation. There's even a camp blaming Baugh and Schroeder for the mess.
Said one veteran OC GOP activist who spoke on condition of anonymity, "The thing I am most mad about isn't the email. I don't like it. I think it was racist. But what really upsets me is that Baugh and Schroeder threw her under the bus. It's them who embarrassed the party. They should have kept their mouths shut and not let the media ever see that email."
Within the local GOP, there is talk that Davenport was targeted for public ridicule simply because she isn't a Baugh fan. In an exclusive interview in her home on Day Three of the scandal, she admitted to me that she'd opposed the chairman on issues over the years, but, she concluded, "I don't know why he would come after me." She wondered aloud: Had it been because she'd argued for him to release $10,000 in party committee funds for a Republican youth day at the Nixon Library?
"She put the target on herself," said Schroeder. "She did something she shouldn't have done, and she risked smearing all of us Republicans. I know she is seen as a sweet grandmother, but she still has to own her actions."
One-on-one, there is nothing frightening about Davenport. I sat with her in her dimly lit living room. There was a brown sofa, beige carpet, a ceramic duck on a coffee table and a lone, framed rural scenic painting on a beige wall over a credenza displaying family photos. A piano sat in the corner of the room.
I asked for her reaction to the scandal. Her shoulders slumped. She sighed, shook her head slowly and said, "I understand why everyone is contacting me. I wasn't wise in sending the email out. I shouldn't have done it. I really wasn't thinking."
But, I asked, are you really repentant?
"Yes. . . . Before I sent that email, I should have stopped to think about the historical implications [of depicting a black man as an ape]," she said. "That can be offensive . . . and I am so sorry."
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The scandal certainly isn't earth-shattering. Yet, if you are looking for evidence of progress in OC, here it is: In the long list of right-wing kooks who have turned the county into a political punch line during the past 50 years, none of them ever apologized and asked for forgiveness. Indeed, most of them shamelessly reveled in their nastiness. For Davenport, conceding that her email could have offended people—even if it appears she doesn't quite understand why—makes her footnote in the annals of the 2012 presidential campaign perhaps slightly less damning.
This column appeared in print as "Evolution of a Scandal: How Marilyn Davenport's racist Obama-family-chimpanzee email has driven the OC GOP apeshit."