In a 1995 speech delivered at an event sponsored by the United Daughters of Confederacy, Robert Wilkie, who is now President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs, praised Jefferson Davis, calling him a “martyr” who fought for “the Lost Cause,” according to speech transcripts obtained by CNN.
More specifically, Wilkie, who was confirmed as secretary in July, called Davis an “exceptional man in an exceptional age.” His speech promoted the “Lost Cause” theory, a revisionist history of the Civil War that lionizes the Southern states that seceded and denies the central role slavery played in the war. Civil War historian and Yale professor David Blight told CNN that this “Lost Cause” ideology comes “right from the neo-Confederate playbook,” a movement that seeks to promote sympathetic narratives about the Confederacy.
From Wilkie’s 1995 speech:
Today marks the 187th anniversary of the birth of Jefferson Davis; planter, soldier, statesman, President of the Confederate States of America, martyr to ‘The Lost Cause,’ and finally the gray-clad phoenix—an exceptional man in an exceptional age...For decades, distinguished Southerners have stood before the bronze caped figure [of Davis] behind me and recounted with encyclopedic certitude the highlights of Davis’ life. But facts without truth to inform them are meaningless. Robert Penn Warren opined, ‘History is not truth, truth is in the telling.’ In the case of Jefferson Davis we must tell America the truth about the complicated man who carried with him the dreams of southern independence. His life was the reflection of the simplicity and perseverance of a proud people; men and women who endured the horror of defeat and its equally hellish aftermath; men and women who thought their Christian prism understood the fall of man and the imperfection of human institutions—that not all of man’s noble experiments succeed.
In another speech reviewed by CNN, Wilkie spoke about Robert E. Lee to a Maryland chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans at a Christmas party in 2009:
We always come back to Lee. There he sits; frozen in time, the iron gray general on the iron gray horse—the inscrutable patrician, born commander of men. What else can be said about a soldier so smothered by the worship that his very soil seems lost to posterity? The answer is plenty. It is past time to resurrect what informed Robert E. Lee the Man and why understanding his culture is essential to preserving freedom today.
The Washington Post also published a story about Wilkie’s history of praising and defending the Confederacy in June, just before his Senate confirmation hearing:
Wilkie grew up visiting U.S. battlefields with his father and developed a lifelong fascination with military history, including that of his ancestors, who fought for the Confederacy. He was, as recently as 2005, a fixture at the annual memorial ceremonies in Washington held by descendants of Confederate veterans around the birthday of Jefferson Davis. Wilkie also was a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group that defends public displays of the Confederate symbols.
CNN’s reporting on Wilkie’s two speeches from 1995 and 2009 paint a clearer picture of the kind of views he’s previously espoused about the Confederacy and the Civil War.
While he stated in his 1995 speech that “the South has many warts,” he went on to describe slavery as a “collective American tragedy” for which the South cannot solely bear the blame:
The South has many warts. Chattel slavery and its aftermath is a stain on our story as it is a stain on every civilization in history. But slavery was a collective American tragedy. [President Abraham] Lincoln understood that there was enough guilt to be spread from Maine to Key West. To view our history and the ferocity of the Confederate soldier solely through the lens of slavery and by the slovenly standards of the present is dishonest and a disservice to our ancestors. We can’t surrender American history to an enforced political orthodoxy dictated to our children by attention-starved politicians, street corner demagogues, and tenured campus radicals.
The Department of Veterans Affairs did not address the content of Wilkie’s speeches in a statement to Splinter: “The events were strictly historical in nature, and as Secretary Wilkie said at his confirmation hearing in June, he stopped participating in them once the issue became divisive,” VA Press Secretary Curt Cashour said.