BUNKERVILLE, Nev. – For a while, in certain quarters, Cliven Bundy was celebrated as a John Wayne-like throwback to the Old West — a weathered, plainspoken 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 for standing up to Washington 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 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.
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 now 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 that 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.”
Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, said Bundy was made into a hero by conservative activists and journalists in New York and Washington “who did not understand how extreme Cliven Bundy is … even among Sagebrush rebels and Nevada ranchers.”
In fact, the remote area outside Las Vegas where Bundy and his supporters made their stand is represented by a black Democrat, Rep. Steve Horsford.
The congressman said Friday that many of the people in the small towns in the region, which has drawn an increasing number of retirees and tourists seeking to enjoy its open spaces, are upset with Bundy, who “does not reflect Nevada or the views of the West.”
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 in Thursday’s New York Times, he suggested that “the Negro” might have been better off during slavery rather than on government welfare.
In a statement 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.”
John Rosenberger, 76, who said he had gone 25 years without paying federal taxes because he did not believe in Washington’s authority, came to the ranch from Las Vegas after watching Bundy’s supporters stare down the government.
“The stuff that I grew up with, the cowboys, the good guys with the white hats, today it’s the ranchers being harassed by the government,” said Rosenberger, a 9 mm revolver strapped to his waist. “They’re the black hats.”
Before the newspaper story broke, Gov. Brian Sandoval and Sen. Dean Heller, Republicans who got their political start in the sparsely populated northern end of the state, issued statements supportive of 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, home to most of Nevada’s Democrats, said Bundy “revealed himself to be a hateful racist.”
“But by denigrating people who work hard and play by the rules while he mooches off public land,” Reid added, “he also revealed himself to be a hypocrite.”
At a conference of Western Republicans in Salt Lake City on Friday, several conservatives reiterated their long-held complaints about federal control of vast swaths of the West. The federal government owns more than 80 percent of the land in Nevada.
Republicans complained that the federal holdings prevent development that could generate tax revenue for public services, and that environmental restrictions hinder ranchers and others who want to use some of the region’s scenic spaces. They distanced themselves from Bundy but said they hope his racial remarks don’t overshadow their concerns.
“This is bigger than one rancher in Nevada,” Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory said.