Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Richard Nixon and the "Southern Strategy"

I am coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled “American Dreams and Reality: A Retelling of the American Story.” Here, I describe some of the personality quirks of President Richard Nixon and how he built a political following by appealing to white racial resentments.

Richard Nixon preferred to work in solitude. He hated the handshaking, the backslapping, and the give-and-take essential to any political career. Nixon once described himself as an introvert in an extrovert’s business. “Most politicians, good and bad, are men who can’t stand to be alone,” presidential biographer Richard Reeves said. “Nixon did not like to be with people.”

Much of his discomfort came from his embarrassment over economic hardships during his childhood, the trauma he shared with his parents when two of his brothers died of tuberculosis, and his resentment at what he saw as easier life enjoyed by others, such as the family he came to obsessively hate, the wealthy and glamorous Kennedys. Nixon’s father had been withdrawn emotionally, and so was the president. He left nothing to chance and memorized what he was going to say when he was going to meet people. Even as president, Nixon wrote daily messages to himself to overcome his feelings of inferiority. Describing the image he wanted to project, he wrote notes to himself filled with phrases like, “Compassionate, Bold, New, Courageous . . . Need to be good to do good . . . The nation must be better in spirit at the end of term. Need for joy, sincerity, confidence, inspiration.”

Henry Kissinger, who served as Nixon’s national security advisor and then as his secretary of state, did not have the kindest of words for his former boss after both men had left public office. “He was a very odd man,” Kissinger said. “ . . . He is a very unpleasant man. He was so nervous. It was such an effort for him to be on television. He was an artificial man in the sense that when he met someone he thought it out carefully so that nothing was spontaneous, and that meant he didn’t like people. People sensed that. What I never understood is why he became a politician. He hated to meet new people. Most politicians like crowds. He didn’t.”

Elliott Richardson, a longtime Nixon associate, said of the 37th president, “He wanted to be the Architect of his Times.” In fact, he was to a large degree a product of his times. One of the most perceptive politicians of his era, he quickly recognized shared grievances. “In his [1968] campaign, Nixon spoke about healing the nation’s wounds,” the author Mark Hamilton Lytle said. “As president, he tended to exploit them. On the domestic front he sought to forge a new Republican Majority . . .

Nixon’s new majority would include such traditional Democrats as white Southerners, blue-collar unionists, and what he called the ‘silent majority.’ In the wake of the Civil Rights Act and Great Society affirmative action programs, many conservative Democrats were ready to switch parties. Nixon [cracked] . . . down on protest, pot, pornography, and permissiveness in favor of a ‘law and order’ agenda popular with unionists and Middle Americans. He would also turn loose the forces of law and order on his enemies in a campaign that would be noteworthy for its lawlessness.

The Nixon coalition brought together those, as author Rick Perlstein notes, who resented “condescending and self-serving liberals ‘who make their money out of plans, ideas, communication, social upheaval, happenings, excitement,’ at the psychic expense of the great, ordinary . . . mass of Americans from Maine to Hawaii.” Nixon began to call such culturally conservative Americans the “silent majority,” a group involving “millions of people in the middle of the American political spectrum who do not demonstrate, who do not picket or protest loudly.”

Nixon and his aides sought to walk a tightrope, wanting to appear moderate compared to explicit racists like Alabama segregationist governor and presidential candidate George Wallace, while still appealing to Wallace’s resentful Southern white constituency. This approach came to be known as the “Southern Strategy.” During his career in the United States House and the Senate, Nixon acquired the reputation of a racial moderate, so much so that for a time he was seriously competitive for the African American vote in his presidential race against John Kennedy. While vice president, Nixon supported the United States Supreme Court decision “Brown v. the Board of Education,” a step further than President Eisenhower was willing to take. He backed civil rights bills introduced in the Congress in the 1950s and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and met publicly with Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1957. Nixon, nevertheless, “thought, basically, they [African Americans] were genetically inferior . . . He thought they couldn’t achieve on a level with whites,” said John Ehrlichman, White House counsel and assistant to the president for domestic affairs.

Audiotapes Nixon made in the Oval Office when he was president revealed he frequently used the word “nigger” and other slurs to refer to blacks. Nixon told his personal secretary, Rosemary Woods, that it would take 500 years for African Americans to catch up with whites. Nixon claimed, according to biographer Reeves, “that there had never in history been a successful or adequate black nation. ‘Africa is hopeless,’ he told Ehrlichman. ‘The worst is Liberia, which we built.’” Nixon also said that the Irish were mean drunks as a “natural trait,” and that Italians “just don’t have their heads screwed on right.” Nixon, in particular, harbored a deep distrust of Jews, whom he described as “disloyal” and out to get him. “The Jews voted 95 percent against me,” Nixon complained. Even the Jews he was close to, such as his Kissinger and speechwriter William Safire, had to deal with the president’s anti-Semitism. Nixon would contemptuously refer to Kissinger as “my Jew-boy” while the senior diplomat was in the same room.

Nixon, however, to a large degree kept these prejudices close to his vest. “When Nixon embraced a ‘southern strategy’ that involved turning his back on the civil rights movement, his actions were dictated more by a cool calculation of political advantage than by any personal racial animosities,” historians Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin write. “Once in the White House, Nixon’s handling of racial issues continued to be dictated by political considerations. He hoped to head off or blunt a possible Wallace electoral challenge in 1972, while extending Republican inroads into formerly Democratic constituencies in the South and the white working class North.” Seeking the support of angry whites in 1969, Nixon and Attorney General John Mitchell asked the courts to delay enforcement of the desegregation of Mississippi schools. “Do only what the law requires,” Nixon wrote in a memo. “Not one thing more.” When expiration of the 1965 Voting Rights Act approached in 1970, Nixon unsuccessfully urged Congress to allow the law to lapse.

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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