Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Last Man Standing: The Resurrection of Richard Nixon

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." In this passage, I describe how Richard Nixon rode a wave of white racial resentments to capture the 1968 Republican presidential nomination.

For Richard Nixon, politics was about winning, and in pursuit of victory he proved willing to jettison any previously expressed belief. The one-time moderate Republican, even as he tried to shed his image as a dirty politician and promote himself as a mature, wise “New Nixon,” sought to market himself during the 1968 campaign as a better-educated, more reasonable version of segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace.

Frequently, he began speeches reminding audiences that he had embraced the Supreme Court’s 1954 'Brown v. Board of Education' school desegregation decision, and had backed Johnson’s 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Then he would subtly pivot as he denounced “riots, violence in the street and mob rule.” In spite of the overwhelmingly disproportionate rate of white violence against blacks, instead of vice versa, Nixon blamed bad race relations on “extremists of both races.”

Nixon mastered Orwellian doublespeak in 1968. Nixon said he opposed any “segregation plank” in the national Republican platform and even though, he insisted, he was personally opposed to Jim Crow, he criticized Washington dictating to the South what it should do on the issue. As biographer Rick Perlstein notes of Nixon’s new approach to racial issues, “The cleverness was sublime. He was ventriloquizing a generation of Southern Lost Cause speechifying about Yankees dictating to Dixie.”

At a Republican Party dinner, Nixon urged both major parties to stop talking about race but to focus on what he called “issues of the future.” Nixon spent much of 1966 wooing segregationist and former Democrat Sen. Strom Thurmond. Thurmond became the first of a wave of well-known Southern race-baiting politicians who switched parties after concluding that the national Democratic Party had become too liberal on civil rights and social programs.

Thurmond had run as a third-party “Dixiecrat” candidate for president in 1948 because of his opposition to a civil rights plank in the Democratic Party’s platform that year. “And I want to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there’s not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigger race into our theatres, into our swimming pools, into our homes and into our churches,” Thurmond said in speeches during his 1948 race. In 1957, Thurmond spoke for a record 24 hours and 18 minutes on the floor of the Senate as part of his filibuster to block then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act. The bill passed in spite of the filibuster.

Although he publicly dismissed the impact of a likely Wallace presidential bid, Nixon privately worried that he would lose the votes of white Southern conservatives to the former Alabama governor. Nixon saw getting the support of Thurmond as a key to winning over that Southern right-wing constituency. By the time of his party switch, Thurmond had moderated his language, but not his attitudes, on race, which gave Nixon an opening to stand side-by-side with the pro-Jim Crow icon.

“In the years after his 1948 presidential campaign, he modulated his rhetoric and shifted the focus of his grim maledictions to the ‘eternal menace of godless, atheistic Communism,’” historian Dan T. Carter wrote. “He had even learned (when pressed) to pronounce the word ‘Negro’ without eliciting grimaces from his northern fellow Republicans. But race remained his subtext: he continued to red-bait every spokesman for civil rights . . . For the traditional southern campaign chorus of ‘Nigger-nigger-nigger,’ he substituted ‘Commie-Commie-Commie.’”

At a 1966 press conference, Nixon said, “Strom is no racist. Strom is a man of courage and integrity.” Thurmond craved respectability among his new GOP comrades, and from that moment on the South Carolina senator campaigned enthusiastically for Nixon. “Almost pathetically grateful, the senator seldom wavered in his support for Nixon in the years that followed,” Carter wrote.

Nixon would have Southern Republicans in his pocket by the time of the 1968 party convention. He smartly spent 1966 campaigning for Republican congressional candidates in normally GOP districts that had voted Democratic during Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 presidential landslide. On election day 1966, 27 of the 48 freshmen Democratic congressmen were swept out of office. The candidates Nixon backed won, giving him an even larger slate of important allies in his campaign for the Republican nomination two years later.


Nixon also benefited when his chief opponents within the GOP dithered or imploded. New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, the liberal who mounted the main challenge to Barry Goldwater in 1964, couldn’t make up his mind about entering the race, and his indecision undercut whatever support he might have received. For a time, Michigan Gov. George Romney ran as a substitute for Rockefeller. Considered handsome by many and a moderate elected in a Democratic state, Romney fatally wounded his campaign during a September 4, 1967 interview. Romney seemed to favor a negotiated settlement in Vietnam, but he hesitated to say so clearly for fear of being seen as soft on the Vietnamese communists.

Asked about his inconsistency, Romney commented on a tour he once had taken in Vietnam. “When I came back from Vietnam in 1965, I just had the greatest brainwashing that anyone can get when you get over to Vietnam,” he said. “Not only the generals, but also the diplomatic corps over there, and they do a very thorough job.” Romney had tried to describe the intense and dishonest salesmanship the military engaged in regarding the war, but as Perlstein observed, “What people heard was the word brainwashing.”

The word “brainwashing” had carried a devastating connotation since the Korean War 15 years earlier. “The term brainwashing had come into use after the Korean War to explain why some prisoners of war, supposedly insufficiently sturdy in their patriotism to resist, chose to stay behind in enemy territory and denounce the United States – what the ruthless did to the soft-minded,” Perlstein said. “Neither side of the association appealed to voters: the notion that the architects of Vietnam were ruthless, and the notion of a soft-minded president.” Once very competitive with Nixon, Romney was trailing Nixon by a 6-1 margin just before the New Hampshire primary in March 1968, the first contest in the Republican nomination process, and he dropped out of the race shortly before the casting of ballots.

Nixon saw Ronald Reagan as his chief obstacle. In California, Reagan had handily defeated Pat Brown, the man Nixon lost to in 1962, in the 1966 gubernatorial contest. As the top elected official in the state with the most electoral votes, he immediately became a presidential contender. During his gubernatorial campaign, he sounded many of the same themes as Nixon and Wallace, though in a more appealing, Hollywood star fashion. Always an advocate of tax cuts for the rich, Reagan still resonated with working-class audiences by appealing to their resentments against what blue-collar voters saw as spoiled and unappreciative college students who burned the flag and rioted rather than taking advantage of going to college and learning.

In one Reagan speech, he blasted student protestors at the University of California at Berkeley. “What in heaven’s name does academic freedom have to do with rioting, with anarchy, with attempts to destroy the primary purpose of the university, which is to educate our young people?” Reagan asked.

He attacked state welfare programs that he claimed brought migrants to California who only wanted to “loaf.” Reagan tacitly argued the government should do nothing about segregation, criticizing the California Supreme Court when it overturned Proposition 14, which had reversed a California law banning race discrimination in housing. “I never believed that majority rule has the right to impose on an individual as to what he does with his property.”

Within 10 days of his election as governor, Reagan gathered his advisors at his Pacific Palisades home and discussed a presidential campaign for the first time. Reagan’s first two years as governor, however, let the air out of his ambitions. Reagan proposed a state budget that cut every department by 10 percent. Reagan, Rick Perlstein noted, “didn’t even know that much of the budget was set by statute. He never came within a mile of his goal.” When tax cuts he pushed for created a deficit, he then presided over the largest tax increase in state history. Then a so-called homosexual scandal broke out. The newspaper columnist Drew Pearson revealed the presence of gays on Reagan’s staff, and in this intensely homophobic era the story tarred Reagan’s reputation. Reagan purged gays from the state government, but as journalist and author Theodore White wrote, “From this blow, the Reagan campaign never recovered.” In any case, Nixon’s alliance with Strom Thurmond insured that the Southern Republicans needed for Reagan to win the nomination would back the former Vice President.

Nixon won the nomination at the Republican National Convention in Miami on the first ballot, August 7, 1968, with the support of 692 delegates. The total was only 26 votes over 50 percent. Rockefeller received 277. Nixon’s nomination largely resulted from the failures of the other candidates. He nevertheless gave one of the best speeches of his career when he accepted the nomination the next night. “As we look in America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame. We hear sirens in the night . . . We see Americans hating each other, fighting each other; killing each other at home”

Little did Nixon know that night that his words could be describing the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, August 26-29. The nation would watch in horror as police rioted, demonstrators bled and a major political party committed suicide in front of television cameras.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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