The nominee to chair the Department of Veterans Affairs, Robert Wilkie, is a Confederate descendent who defended the actions of bigots such as Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms. A top aide to former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Wilkie is looking to replace David Shulkin as chair of the VA. His past views have raised some concerns, notably from Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who thinks he needs to show “he is loyal to veterans and not a partisan agenda.”
Wilkie was the acting secretary for VA before stepping down when the president nominated him for the permanent role to lead the VA. He took over for David Shulkin in March when he was ousted for using tax-payer money to fund a private trip.
Wilkie brings an embattled and controversial career background to his confirmation hearing. Earlier in his professional life he served as an aide for former Sen. Jesse Helms and publicly stood by him when he denounced Martin Luther King Jr. and made disparaging remarks toward homosexuals.
When Helms proposed an amendment to reinstate a patent for the United Daughters of the Confederacy logo that failed to pass, Wilkie attacked the only Black senator at the time, Carol Moseley Braun, calling her push “an attempt in the name of political correctness to erase entire blocks of our history. … The question is whether we’re going to wipe out the history of millions of Americans who trace their heritage to the losing side.”
After his stint on Capitol Hill, Wilkie ran the North Carolina Republican Party, where he defended his old boss Helms after a flier was circulated depicting his Black opponent, Harvey Gantt, alongside Eva Clayton, who was the first African American woman to represent North Carolina in Congress. The caption read, “Eva’s bad enough. Do you want Harvey too” Liberals accused Helms of using the ad to remind white voters to keep another Black person out of Congress.
Finally, the former member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans defended Trent Lott for praising former Senator Strom Thurmond’s presidential campaign which advocated for segregation.
Even with his questionable past Wilkie does have some supporters from either side of the isle. Both Rieckhoff and Jon Tester praise his character and say their decision will be based on what comes out of the nominee’s hearing. “That’s why we’re having a hearing. He’ll have an opportunity to answer some of those questions. Many of them happened 20 years ago,” Tester said.
Retired Marine Corp Major Gen. Arnold Punaro has known Wilkie for 30 years and claims he never saw “any of the leanings of Jesse Helms when it comes to the issues people were concerned about.”