BUNKERVILLE, Nev. — For a while, in certain quarters, Cliven Bundy was celebrated as a John Wayne-like throwback to the Old West: a plain-spoken rancher just trying to graze his cattle and keep the government off his back. But that was before he started sounding more like a throwback to the Old South.
Conservative Republican politicians and commentators who once embraced Bundy are stampeding in the other direction — and branding him a racist — after he suggested that blacks might have had it better as slaves picking cotton.
The furor has made it apparent how limited Bundy’s appeal ever was.
Bundy, 67, and his armed supporters thwarted an attempt by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) two weeks ago to seize his family’s cattle over his failure to pay $1.1 million in grazing fees and penalties for the use of government land over the past 20 years. A local land-use dispute soon turned into a national debate, with conservatives calling it another example of big-government overreach.
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But the rugged West that Bundy was said to represent has changed, becoming more urban and less concerned about federal intrusion than it was during the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion in the 1970s and ’80s. In the urban areas that dominate the West, there have been few stirrings of support for Bundy.
Even many fellow ranchers regard him as more a deadbeat than a hero.
“You’ve got hundreds of ranchers in Nevada who pay their fee regularly,” said Tom Collins, a rancher on the Clark County Commission. “On the grazing-fee issue, Bundy doesn’t have sympathy from the ranchers.”
At the Bunkerville Post Office, Chad Dalton, a lineman for a power company, said the case brought up important issues but that they should be addressed through laws, not with guns.
“It’s a fight to be had,” Dalton said from inside a car full of his children, “but I’m not sure he’s the one to lead it.”
The BLM claims Bundy’s cattle are trespassing on fragile habitat set aside for the endangered desert tortoise. Bundy says he doesn’t recognize federal authority over lands that his cattle have grazed on for years.
After the BLM called off the roundup and released about 350 animals back to Bundy, the rancher drew praise from many Republicans — most notably Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a likely 2016 presidential candidate — and condemnation from several Democrats.
Then, in an interview published Wednesday on The New York Times website, Bundy suggested “the Negro” might have been better off during slavery rather than on government welfare.
On Friday, Bundy defended himself by saying he is “trying to keep Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream alive.” At his regular afternoon address to the media and supporters at his ranch, Bundy apologized if he offended anyone.
“I might not have said it right,” he said, “but it came from my heart.”
Before the newspaper story broke, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and Sen. Dean Heller, Republicans who got their political start in the sparsely populated northern end of the state, issued statements backing Bundy.
Bundy’s racial comments, however, drew bipartisan condemnation. Heller’s spokeswoman said the senator “completely disagrees” with Bundy’s remarks.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, whose power base is in Las Vegas, said Bundy “revealed himself to be a hateful racist.”