Politics & Government

Witherspoon tries to put segregationist past behind him

WASHINGTON -- Illegal immigration isn't the only thing that Dr. Walter "Buddy" Witherspoon sees as a threat to the United States.

The South Carolina Republican primary opponent of U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham also fears plans for a North America Union (NAU), with its own currency -- the Amero -- and a "trans-NAFTA highway stretching from Mexico to Canada through the American heartland."

"It would be fashioned after the European Union," Witherspoon said in an interview. "It is a real threat to our sovereignty and to our Constitution."

Witherspoon, a retired orthodontist, suspects that the real reason the long-promised U.S.-Mexico border fence hasn't been built might well be because of the secret plans for the trans-NAFTA highway.

"We don't know what would be on those trucks" from Mexico, he said. "Would it be guns, would it be illegal aliens, would it be drugs?"

If elected senator, Witherspoon vows to stop the NAU plan in its tracks.

"Already, several components of an NAU have been proposed and are sneaking their way through Congress with very little attention," he says on his campaign Web site. "As senator, I will shine the light on such legislation and expose the attempts that are being made to create this NAU under the nose of the American people."

Graham pooh-poohs the threat of a North America Union as nonexistent. U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Wilkins, a South Carolina native and former state House speaker, has felt compelled to reject the notion.

Though he is seeking elected office for the first time, Witherspoon isn't a political novice: He served on the Republican National Committee from 1996 until earlier this year.

In that post, Witherspoon demonstrated his ability to take controversial stances and resist intense political pressure.

An outcry arose in early 1999 over published reports that the segregationist Council of Conservative Citizens had ties with prominent Southern politicians, including then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi and then-Rep. Robert Barr of Georgia.

Witherspoon, then the state Republican Party's national committeeman, acknowledged that he was a member of the group and had invited Barr to address a national council meeting in Charleston in 1998.

"They have always been people I have had no problem with," Witherspoon told the Washington Post.

Graham, then a U.S. House member, condemned the Council of Concerned Citizens.

"Extremism, whether left or right, is never good for the party," he said.

The council in 1999 endorsed David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, in his campaign for a U.S. House seat from Louisiana. A decade earlier, Witherspoon had declined to join other Republicans across the country in condemning Duke's election to the Louisiana House of Representatives.

After the scandal broke, Lott and Barr broke their ties with the council. Witherspoon refused to quit, even after Jim Nicholson, then chairman of the national Republican Party, made a personal appeal.

Witherspoon held on for six weeks, finally leaving the group in late February 1998 after enduring criticism from dozens of prominent SC Republicans.

"If I've offended anybody, forgive me at this time," he said in a tearful speech at a state party meeting.

With the passage of time, Witherspoon's account of his relationship has changed. He now says he never a member of the Council of Concerned Citizens.

"I'm telling you straight from my heart there's not a racist bone in my body," Witherspoon said. "There never has been. I've got friends in all races. In my (orthodontist) practice, I treated people of all races. And by the way, all teeth are white."

The group's current Web site carries alleged news items with headlines such as "Drunk driving in Mexico" and "Black mob brutally attacks whites near Detroit."

As of Friday evening, the Web home page of the Council of Concerned Citizens led with its plans to wage protests at Graham's campaign events Saturday in Columbia, Sunday in Mount Pleasant and Monday in Greenville.

Dan Herren, Witherspoon's campaign manager, said he learned of the planned Graham protests only Thursday and had no part in organizing them.

"We're actually concerned that some people might be waving our signs," Herren said. "We're afraid that might upset some people."

Witherspoon agreed that his campaign didn't help organize the demonstrations. But he defended them.

"I support free speech," Witherspoon said. "They have the right in this country as I understand it to protest as they will."

Related stories from McClatchy DC