Poor Richard Nixon, just when it looked like the indelible tag history stamps on him as an arch racial bigot might fade into dim memory, a 1971 Nixon campaign document Dividing the Democrats the National Archives released has plastered the tag back on him. Nixon's freshly surfaced racial dirty trick scheme was to spread bumper stickers around the "ghettoes of the country" exhorting the Democrats to pick a black presidential vice presidential candidates in 1972. The idea was to stoke white fury and backlash at the Democrats.
But the latest Nixon racial revelation is relatively tame stuff compared to the batches of Nixon tapes the National Archives released in 2003. In one tape, Nixon sat mute when White House advisor John Erlichman ranted that blacks are sexually degenerate, have no family values, and live in filthy neighborhoods.
Nixon did more than simply sit by and passively listen to anti-black tirades by a trusted aide; he frequently spewed those same offensive racial epithets himself. In earlier tapes released by the National Archives, Nixon told Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, "Henry, let's leave the niggers to Bill and we'll take care of the rest of the world" while working on his first presidential address to Congress. Nixon repeatedly referred to blacks as "niggers" and "jigaboos" in other conversations with Kissinger. Nixon later complained to Erlichman that Great Society programs were a waste "because blacks were genetically inferior to whites."
Nixon's newly taped comments, campaign memos and a letter that Nixon henchmen thought no one would ever see are much more than one man's loose lipped, racial abominations uttered in what he thought was an unguarded moment. The remarks, the documents and the narrow racial mindset behind them fueled the Republicans Party's three decade full throttle bash of civil rights and social programs.
On the campaign trail in 1968, Nixon lambasted his Democratic opponent, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, for the failed Great Society programs and big government spending. Nixon told reporters that he resented anyone who said that law and order was a code word for racism. The majority of Americans, he explained, were decent, hard working, law abiding citizens. They were sick of the lawlessness and violence in the cities. They were furious at the courts for the perceived cuddling of (black) lawbreakers. Nixon claimed he was the candidate who spoke for white ethnics and blue-collar workers.
He accurately gauged the mood of the "silent majority." The urban riots convinced many whites in the south and the northern suburbs that the ghettos were out of control and that their lives and property were threatened by the menace of black violence. In speeches to northern suburban audiences, Nixon hammered on the twin themes of law and order, and Great Society permissiveness.
During the first year and a half in the White House, Nixon demanded that Congress pass a tough, omnibus anti-crime bill that contained controversial, and openly repressive, "no knock," stop and frisk and preventive detention provisions. It authorized the expanded use of wiretaps. Nixon received a further boost from the presidential commission appointed by Lyndon Johnson in June 1968 to study the causes of violence. It urged sharp increases in federal spending on weapons, training and riot preparation.
Police departments promptly went on the largest weapons buying spree, and personnel build-up in American history. Police power in America now became a dominant and ominous new political force.
Then there were the courts. Nixon instantly embarked on a radical remake of the federal judiciary starting with the Supreme Court. Under Chief Justice Earl Warren, the court was the target of unbridled white southern hatred for championing civil rights and civil liberties. Nixon appointed "strict constructionists" to the court. Subsequent GOP presidents have followed the Nixon game plan for the courts to the letter.
In the decades after Nixon's demise, the GOP had a chance to repudiate his repulsive racial legacy. It blew it badly. Nixon's racial bigotry influenced to one degree or another the administrations of Reagan, and Bush Sr. The racial digs, cracks, quips, and insults by GOP officials, and the always mute silence of top GOP officials at the racial offenses, has been well documented and criticized. Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, and GOP senators and officials screech at Harry Reid for the intemperate remark he made a couple of years ago about Obama and feign outrage over an alleged double standard between his remarks and the pillorying of Trent Lott. The outrage is laughable given the racial hatchet job against Democrats and civil rights the GOP turned into a fine political art for decades.
The crude, racist profanities that Nixon and his men spit out three decades ago in the cozy confines of the White House opened the door wide to three decades of racial polarization and mean spirited bigotry, much of which still lingers dangerously close to the surface today. Nixon's obsession with the ghettoes again tells that sordid tale.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book, How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press) will be released in January 2010.
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