Thursday, October 20, 2011

Richard Nixon: The "Dirty Tricks" President

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 the ironic role that Richard Nixon, who harbored racist feelings towards African Americans, played in creating “Affirmative Action,” his problems managing the American economy from 1969 to 1972 and his “dirty tricks” campaign against the Democrats when he ran for re-election.


Nixon did pursue one policy that seemed, on the surface, to be friendly to the civil rights movement, supporting federally enforced guidelines regarding the hiring of African Americans and other “minorities” in private employment. This policy came to be known as “affirmative action.” Under affirmative action, starting in 1970, all federal agencies and contractors had to meet “numerical goals and timetables” in hiring a proportionally representative number of African Americans, Mexican Americans, women and other groups that had been historically discriminated against. Many on the right criticized this program as creating a quota system that would reward less qualified applicants with jobs based on their race or gender.

Nixon, according to Isserman and Kazin, liked affirmative action for several complex reasons. “Compared to job training programs, or public works, it was a low-cost strategy for the government to boost black employment,” they said. “It also fit in with his belief that ‘black capitalism’ would prove the solution to America’s racial problems; government regulations also required the ‘set-aside’ of a percentage of government contracts for minority businesses. The new black middle class, who were the beneficiaries of federal largesse, might decide that economic self interest dictated a vote for Republican candidates in the future.” Nixon also liked the prospect of forcing Democrats to choose between their white working class voters who would see affirmative action as an assault on the privileges of union seniority, and their African American supporters who might benefit from affirmative action. Democrats ended up supporting affirmative action, and by 1972 Nixon derided the concept as “quota democracy,” even though it was his administration’s idea in the first place.

Compared to later Republican presidents like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, much of Nixon’s domestic agenda was relatively liberal. In his first term, Nixon placed his name on legislation doubling the budget for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He proposed that the federal government guarantee a yearly income for all Americans. He signed laws increasing welfare spending in programs like Social Security, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and food stamps, and signed into law the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA.)

However, he implemented cost-benefit reviews of all environmental regulations, watering down their effectiveness, and tried to eliminate the Office of Economic Opportunity, which had been the agency charged with implementing President Johnson’s War on Poverty. Nixon also launched what he called “devolution” – passing authority over programs from the federal government to the states. In conservative states where the leadership did not desire to interfere with big business and did not believe in wealth redistribution, this meant that environmental and anti-poverty programs were half-hearted at best.


Nixon faced a major political challenge because of the economy. Lyndon Johnson’s high spending on domestic programs and the Vietnam War had sparked inflation in the Democrat’s later years in office. During the first half of the 1960s, through both the Kennedy and the Johnson administrations, inflation stood at a negligible 1 percent. By 1968, Johnson’s last year in office, inflation quadrupled to 4 percent. In Nixon’s first year in office, 1969, inflation rose to 7 percent.

While incomes for Americans improved steadily for 25 years from 1945 to 1970, the long boom began to ebb. To curb inflation, Nixon cut spending on both domestic programs and the military, which increased unemployment, which reached 6 percent by 1971. For the first time, the economy experienced both rising joblessness and inflation. Baffled economists combined “stagnation” and “inflation” to term the phenomenon “stagflation.”

Even worse for American workers, the European and the Japanese economies began to expand faster than the United States’ in the 1970s, and the United States started running trade deficits, meaning it bought more products overseas than it sold to the rest of the world. As Americans made fewer products for the international market, and Japanese cars and electronics took a larger share of the American market, the number of manufacturing jobs began a sharp decline that would continue in the early twenty-first century. One million American manufacturing jobs in the auto, steel, electronics and garment making industries disappeared between 1966 and 1971. A recession began in 1970. The American stock market became erratic, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropping from slightly under 1,000 to just over 800. More than 100 businesses with shares traded on the stock exchange went out of business.

Nixon believed in free-market principles, including the positive effects of reduced government regulation, but felt forced to change course because of the grim economic and political realities he faced. In August 1971, Nixon began to issue by executive orders a “New Economic Policy” that imposed a three-month freeze on wages and prices, a 10 percent tax on imports (a policy designed to boost sales of American-made goods), and took American currency off the gold standard. The White House also acted to devalue the dollar in order to make American goods more affordable to foreign consumers. At the same time, the Democratic-controlled Congress boosted spending on Social Security and military veterans while Nixon accelerated government purchases of goods such as trucks, office supplies, and even toilet paper. A mild recovery began. Unemployment dropped to below 5 percent by 1972 while earnings again rose by about 4 percent in both 1971 and 1972.


The year 1972 did not bring a return to boom times, but for a while the economy improved enough to no longer be a major political handicap for Nixon. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party had maintained clear control of the United States House and Senate and most state legislatures and could claim most governorships. However the Democrats still suffered from a “credibility gap” because of Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam War and the gathering white male backlash against the black and brown civil rights movements and feminism.

Nevertheless, Nixon approached his re-election campaign with dread. An unknown factor was the Twenty-Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, which gave the vote to 18-year-olds and had been ratified in 1971. Revulsion that young Americans had been considered old enough to kill and die in the Vietnam War but not old enough to select their leaders propelled passage of the amendment. The youth vote was assumed to be anti-war, a distinct disadvantage for the president. Nixon had other worries. “He began seeing 1972 in apocalyptic terms,” Perlstein said. “Any imaginable Democratic candidate was ‘irresponsible domestically’ and ‘extremely dangerous internationally.’ He had come to understand something profound in his two years as president, in all those afternoons brooding alone in his hideaway office in the Executive Office Building – the kind of profundity too deep to share with the mere public: ‘America has only two more years as the number one power.’ America had either to ‘make the best deals we can between now and 1975 or increase our conventional [military] strength. No Democrat can sell this to the country.’” This sense of doom led Nixon to believe he was justified in doing anything to guarantee that he won re-election.

Chaos within the Democratic Party made Nixon’s task easier. After the disastrous 1968 presidential nominating convention in Chicago, liberals (led by presidential contender and South Dakota Sen. George McGovern) rewrote party rules to ensure that women, young people, African Americans and other traditionally disenfranchised constituencies would get fair representation in the 1972 convention to nominate the party’s presidential ticket. These changes would prove to be a big advantage for McGovern in that year’s Democratic nomination contest. The leading Democratic contender, the environmentalist but moderate Sen. Ed Muskie of Maine (who had served as Hubert Humphrey’s running mate in 1968), collapsed due to his poor performance in the New Hampshire primary. When polls in New Hampshire predicted Muskie would win two-thirds of the state’s votes, the Nixon campaign focused early on destroying Muskie’s presidential bid.

Aiming to sow bitter division within the Democratic Party, the Nixon campaign sent a fake “Citizens for Muskie” letter to Florida Democrats that accused candidate Sen. Henry ‘Scoop” Jackson of being arrested for “homosexual activity” and of having a secret love child. The letter also falsely stated that former Vice President Humphrey had been arrested for drunk driving while visiting a prostitute.

The highly conservative Manchester (New Hampshire) Union Leader newspaper printed two harsh articles that accused Muskie of using an anti-French-American slur, “Canuck,” on one occasion. The Nixon re-election campaign faked the evidence for that charge, an explosive accusation in a state with a large French-American community. The newspaper also accused Muskie’s wife, Jane, of heavy drinking, and falsely accused her of challenging the press to a dirty-joke contest. Just before the New Hampshire primary, Muskie held a press conference in front of the Union-Leader offices, called the publisher, William Loeb, a “gutless coward” for attacking a woman, and then appeared to break down in tears. (Muskie later said that the moisture on his cheek was melting snow). New Hampshire voters questioned whether Muskie was tough enough to be president. Muskie won the primary, beating McGovern by 46 to 37 percent of the vote, but he was expected to do much better in a state next to his native Maine. The press interpreted Muskie’s numerical win as a strategic loss. Later, when Muskie finished a disappointing fourth in Florida, the man many believed to be the strongest Democratic candidate against Nixon in November, dropped out of the race.

Nixon, meanwhile, worried that George Wallace, an outspoken segregationist, would take enough votes away from him as a third-party candidate in 1972 to deny him re-election. The president apparently convinced Wallace to seek the Democratic nomination instead of another quixotic third-party bid as he had in 1968. Behind the scenes, Nixon apparently arranged to have a tax-fraud case against the Alabama politician’s brother, Gerald, dropped.

A would-be assassin’s bullet cut short Wallace’s Democratic Party insurgency. Arthur Bremer shot him during a campaign stop at a shopping mall in Wheaton, Maryland, on May 15. Bullets also hit three other people. The attack left Wallace paralyzed. He would be a paraplegic the rest of his life. Upon hearing about the shooting, Nixon and his staffers discussed whether they could plant left-wing political literature, or even pro-McGovern and Edward Kennedy campaign materials, in Bremer’s hotel room in order to make it look like the president’s political opponents had inspired the shooter. Law enforcement agencies, however, had already secured the hotel room. Charles Colson, a special counsel to Nixon, expressed regret he hadn’t thought of the idea earlier.

The false stories about Muskie’s wife and the proposed planting of literature in Bremer’s room constituted part of what Nixon’s re-election campaign called “dirty tricks.” According to an October 10, 1972 article by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Committee to Re-elect the President (or, as it was called, “CREEP”) dirty tricks included spying on other candidates, forging inflammatory letters to supporters and newspapers using the letterheads of other candidates and stealing confidential campaign files. These dirty tricks would culminate in the wiretapping of the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., causing a scandal that would come to be known as simply as “Watergate.”

The result of the Democratic primary campaign pleased Nixon operatives as the candidate the Republicans regarded the weakest potential Democratic nominees, McGovern, won the nomination. Seen as sincere and idealistic, McGovern certainly was the favorite of those new Democratic voters between the ages of 18 and 21 who were drawn to his strong opposition to the Vietnam War. Unfortunately for the Democrats, the McGovern campaign fell apart almost as soon as it was clear that McGovern would be the nominee. Sensing that McGovern’s presidential quest was doomed, the best-known and most popular Democrats, such as Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, Humphrey, and Muskie turned McGovern down when he asked them to serve as his running mate. McGovern eventually went through 24 names of possible running mates before finally selecting the little-known freshman Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri.

The Democrats’ platform, adopted by the convention, called for an immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, abolition of the draft and a minimum guaranteed income even as McGovern himself proposed legalization of marijuana and abortion rights. To many working class white voters, this agenda leaned too far to the left. Almost immediately, McGovern’s nomination was overshadowed by the news that, unknown to McGovern, Eagleton had received repeated electroshock therapy as a treatment for chronic depression. Even though Eagleton had concealed his health issues, McGovern declared that he was behind his running mate “1,000 percent.” Behind the scenes, McGovern pressured Eagleton to step down. It turned out later that Eagleton had been the source of an anonymous quote reported by conservative columnist Robert Novak that the Democratic nominee was “for amnesty [for Vietnam draft dodgers], abortion, and legalization of pot.”

The Nixon campaign picked up on this phrase, and McGovern was labeled the candidate of “acid [LSD], amnesty, and abortion.” Eagleton would be replaced on the Democratic ticket by Kennedy in-law Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps. After this incident, voters doubted McGovern’s competence. Following the Democratical National Convention, Democratic mayors, governors and members of Congress often refused to campaign at McGovern’s side. Nixon also would not agree to debates with the Democrat. McGovern probably made his already hapless campaign hopeless when he made a speech in October promising the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam without even setting as a pre-condition the return of hundreds of American prisoners of war from North Vietnam.

Shortly before Election Day, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger announced that “We have now heard from both Vietnams and it is obvious that a war that has been raging for ten years is drawing to a conclusion . . . We believe that peace is at hand.” Nixon later admitted that he delayed peace talks with North Vietnam because he knew that Americans would be reluctant to hand presidential power to what was perceived as a weak Democratic candidate while the war was still going on.

Election Day 1972 resulted in one of the biggest landslides in American history, with Nixon winning 61 percent of the vote and losing only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia in the Electoral College. Nixon even won 35 percent of Democratic voters. Young people did not turn out in the numbers expected and were not as solidly Democratic as many had predicted. In spite of Nixon’s overwhelming success, the president had no coattails. Republicans lost a pair of seats in the Senate, giving the Democrats a 57-43 majority, and picked up only 12 new seats in the House of Representatives, where the Democrats still claimed a commanding 243-192 edge.

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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