WASHINGTON -- David Barton, the Republican establishment’s favorite amateur historian, claims in tax records reviewed by HuffPost to be something of an expert on African-American history.
In filings with the Internal Revenue Service, Barton’s nonprofit, Wallbuilder Presentations, Inc., justified its tax-exempt status by highlighting among its "accomplishments" a video project “of the moral heritage and political history of African Americans."
It’s a curious claim for the Tea Party favorite, who has twice given speeches in front of white supremacist groups -- protesting later that he was ignorant of the groups' professed racist ideology.
But Barton can’t boast ignorance of his more controversial lobbying. The Texas-based former school principal once advocated that Thurgood Marshall be removed from the state’s text books and that Martin Luther King, Jr. got too much credit as a civil rights leader.
Barton has claimed that Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower was the powerful influence of the civil-rights movement. He argued that African-Americans couldn’t have had much impact since they weren’t the majority. “Only majorities can expand political rights in America’s constitutional society,” Barton has said.
“I call it historical creationism,” said Rob Boston, senior policy analyst with Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “All I can tell you is everything that Barton does is to promote ultra conservative politics and to persuade people to vote for extreme conservative Republicans.” It’s a strategy that has worked.
Barton’s selective editing of African American history hasn’t hurt his stock among the GOP elite and Tea Party favorites. In recent months, he has received the kind of backing not usually associated with amateur historians. Barton’s evangelical reading of history--arguing that the Founding Fathers never intended for a separation of church and state--and his trove of historical "documents" have proven catnip to the Tea Party generation light on history and policy experience. More established heads also find his right-wing document dumps credible.
"I think David Barton is one of the most knowledgeable teachers on American history," said Rick Tyler, spokesperson for presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich. “When he shares information about American history, it is more than likely that he held the actual document from [which] he got his research. We’ve done many things together over the years.”
Tyler added that Gingrich has sought out Barton’s advice and research. Barton serves as a board member in Gingrich’s evangelical nonprofit Renewing American Leadership.
Potential presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) championed Barton as a would-be Constitutional scholar for new members of Congress. Mike Huckabee and Glenn Beck have also given the man heavy rotation and book-blurb worthy endorsements.
In early May, the New York Times declared the 57-year-old former school principal had “built a reputation as a guiding spirit of the religious right.”
You can blame Barton’s guiding spirit for at least one recent Bachmann gaffe. Speaking before an anti-tax group in Iowa, the congresswoman claimed that the Founding Fathers worked “tirelessly” to end slavery. But she was merely channeling Barton’s own controversial and inaccurate writings.
There are, of course, more Barton ramblings on race that Bachmann and others have surely digested. On his Wallbuilders website, Barton devotes an entire section to African American history. In it, he disputes the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings and argues that Republicans deserve true credit for the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
His history lesson essentially ends there. "The material that I’ve seen that he puts out aimed at African Americans is typical Barton," explained Boston. "It’s almost as if Lyndon Baines Johnson never existed."
Barton’s African-American history work is just one of several eyebrow raisers found among his nonprofits tax records. From 2005 through 2009, he raised $5.5 million for his nonprofit, which has essentially acted as his personal PR machine.
In 2009, documents show that Wallbuilders raked in more than $1 million. $100,000 of that chunk went to Barton and his wife's salaries, and another $233,052 paid employees' salaries. The organization spent close to $50,000 on Barton’s travel expenses, and he claimed an additional $702,000 in costs for his speeches, brochures, and African-American history lesson videos.
All of this money gets very little oversight. The nonprofit’s six-member board is dominated by Barton, his wife and his mother. "That’s bad," said Ken Berger, president and CEO of Charity Navigator. "You want to have at least five independent board members. You generally don’t want any relatives of the CEO on the board. Their ability to make objective decisions on, say, CEO compensation is questionable to say the least...You are sort of in the catbird seat when you want to have your salary set."
Barton did not return calls seeking comment.