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Nikki Haley's remarks about the Confederate battle flag haven't changed. Her stage has.

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Haley shares her grief, insight and focus on S.C. healing (copy)

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley signs the bill to remove the Confederate battle flag into law. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Nikki Haley’s remarks about the Confederate battle flag haven’t changed, but she has.

When she told conservative radio host Glenn Beck that mass murderer Dylann Roof hijacked the meaning of the flag after he killed nine black people in Charleston, the clip went viral.

"People saw it as service and sacrifice, and heritage. But once he did that, there was no way to overcome it," Haley said. 

Twitter users and the national press condemned her. One Twitter user accused her of "pandering to racists." A piece in The New York Times declared, "Oh, Nikki. You’re so wrong."

The world at large treated her remarks as though they were new, even though none of them were.

For the past four years, the former South Carolina governor has carefully navigated the South's most divisive symbol, and has even more carefully explained her role in its 2015 removal from the Statehouse grounds.

The June 22, 2015, press conference, where she called for the Confederate flag to come down, would serve as her blueprint for comments in the years that followed.

"The hate-filled murderer who massacred our brothers and sisters in Charleston has a sick and twisted view of the flag. In no way does he reflect the people in our state who respect and, in many ways, revere it," Haley said at the time.

"Those South Carolinians view the flag as a symbol of respect, integrity, and duty. They also see it as a memorial, a way to honor ancestors who came to the service of their state during time of conflict. That is not hate, nor is it racism," she said.

Others in the state, she acknowledged in that same speech, view the flag as a painful reminder of brutal oppression. In 2016, Haley said the Charleston church shooter "hijacked" the flag.

So what changed?

In tweets, and later in a Washington Post op-ed, Haley would blame the "outrage media" for twisting her words. She said it was a consequence of living in a deeply polarizing time.

"Sadly, I’m not sure that in today’s political climate we would have been able to remove the flag," Haley wrote.

But what the national press — and what even Haley, herself — has failed to recognize is that it wasn't what she said that made it land differently.

It was who it came from, and what Haley stands for now as the political ground beneath her begins to shift.

Haley: The healer

Four years ago, Haley was the Republican governor who had just led South Carolina through what was then one of the worst hate crimes the United States had seen in decades.

To most of the nation, this was their introduction to Haley.

When Haley was first elected to the governor's office in 2010, there was some national buzz after her ceiling-shattering ascension to the governor’s mansion.

But, aside from her historic debut as the state’s first female governor, Haley was an otherwise uneventful leader during her first term. She focused her efforts on economic development and natural disaster response.

It was Haley’s response to the 2015 Emanuel AME Church shooting that changed her political stock.

She received an award from Harvard for her leadership after the shooting. Time Magazine put her on their "10 politicians to watch" list, along with then-House Speaker Paul Ryan and Hillary Clinton.

The following January, Haley was chosen to deliver the GOP response to then-President Obama's State of the Union address. And during the 2016 Republican presidential primary, Haley became a sought-after endorsement and a rumored vice presidential pick.

State Sen. Tom Davis, a Beaufort Republican who supported Haley's call to bring down the battle flag, said this week that the backlash Haley is facing now comes with the territory as Haley’s profile rises.

"This is all about people who are trying to tear her down, and are trying to take away a compelling leadership moment. That flag had been up there since 1962, and it was raised in opposition to civil rights legislation. For her to lead the charge to bring it down is huge," Davis said.

But now, Haley is navigating new political waters. She is no longer a South Carolina governor. She is a presumed 2024 Republican presidential candidate.

The clip that went viral on Twitter came from a researcher at Media Matters, a left-leaning opposition research group.

"Seems like she's talking more like someone running in a Republican primary, connecting herself, than the person she was in 2015 who was reaching across the aisle," said College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts.

State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, a Charleston Democrat whose district includes Emanuel AME, said Haley's latest comments about the flag offended him. He said her motives have morphed.

Kimpson tweeted his frustrations, characterizing Haley as a "sideline Mon(day) morning cheerleader at best."

The point he was trying to make, Kimpson said, was that the decision to bring down the flag was not unilateral. It required a vote in the Senate and a two-thirds majority vote in the House.

That her comments were made while she was trying to sell her book, he said, changed how he heard her words.

"I don’t really care what she runs for. I'm not in that business of prognosticating what her future is," Kimpson said. "But it's obvious when you're not in office that you no longer have a platform. Maybe her words over the past few months have intensified because of the need to stay relevant."

Haley: The heir apparent

When President Donald Trump appointed Haley to be his U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, it forever tied Haley to Trump.

It was not an expected political pairing.

During the 2016 GOP primary, Haley endorsed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and said Trump was "everything a governor doesn't want in a president."

When she called for Trump to release his tax returns, he called her an "embarrassment to South Carolina." She countered with the Southern slam, "Bless your heart."

Once in the administration, Haley avoided similar public clashes with the president. When Haley resigned, she became the only Trump administration official to leave on their own terms and with a gracious blessing from the president.

But in her book, "With All Due Respect," Haley detailed how there were times when she did not always agree with Trump and his choice of words.

She wrote she was "deeply disturbed" by the president’s comments that there were "very fine people on both sides" at the 2017 white nationalist rally and counter-protest in Charlottesville, Va.

She saw the parallels to Charleston, but she said that he did not.

"The response to these attempts at division had to be crystal clear. Moral clarity was essential and the president's words were not providing that," Haley wrote.

But just last week, Haley found herself facing backlash for her own words about the Confederate flag and its meaning.

The Confederate battle flag has long been a lightning rod issue in South Carolina.

In 1996, Republican Gov. David Beasley had called for it to be removed from atop the Statehouse dome. It was a career-ending calculation. Beasley lost his 1998 reelection bid, largely due to his stance on the flag.

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In the month before the 2014 gubernatorial election, Haley’s Democratic opponent Vincent Sheheen called for the flag to come down.

At the time, when asked whether the flag had the potential to harm the state's economy, Haley said the flag wasn't an issue because "not a single CEO" had complained about it.

Former state lawmaker Bakari Sellers, who in the 2014 contest ran for lieutenant governor and campaigned with Sheheen, said he believes Haley misspoke during the Beck interview. She knows the pain, he said. She knows what the flag means.

"But if it's going to be part of your political currency, which it should not be, that's the first problem. Secondly, you can't dance around the hate it represents," he said.

Sellers would prefer that no one use the flag coming down as political currency. Still, he refused to criticize Haley.

"There's no way I have the audacity to tell Nikki Haley how to be a better public official. She has reached heights that no public official in South Carolina has reached since Dick Riley," Sellers said, referring to the former Democratic governor who served as secretary of Education under President Bill Clinton.

"But with that rise, comes greater responsibility."

Haley's reckoning

On Monday night, after a weekend of largely negative press about her latest flag comments, Haley began the final leg of her national book tour.

She waved to the audience who had paid $70 to $89 to hear her speak at the Richard Nixon Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, Calif.

During the question-and-answer session, Haley repeated her stories about the flag and her role in bringing it down.

She again said the shooting victims loved their church, loved their community and loved their family.

She again sought to explain the cultural dynamics in her home state regarding the flag in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.

"The next day, the killer's manifesto comes out. And there he is, in multiple pictures holding the Confederate flag," Haley said. And then she paused.

Three seconds of silence passed.

"And," Haley said. Another three seconds passed. Someone coughed.

This had been where Haley had told Beck the church shooter had "hijacked" the meaning of the Confederate flag. This was where she had said the flag to many means "service and sacrifice and heritage."

She shifted.

"I knew at that point something had to be done," Haley said.

In Haley's Washington Post op-ed, which included a reminder of what she said in 2015 when she called for the flag to come down, her own words were incomplete.

She left out three sentences about the state residents who respect the flag:

"Those South Carolinians view the flag as a symbol of respect, integrity, and duty. They also see it as a memorial, a way to honor ancestors who came to the service of their state during time of conflict. That is not hate, nor is it racism."

Haley spokeswoman Chaney Denton said the lines were removed from the piece for space, but noted Haley supported everything she said in the 2015 address.

Haley, through her spokeswoman, declined requests for comment about her personal views on the flag. Haley has never shared her own views on the flag.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.

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