In the decades following the national convulsion over Watergate, Richard Nixon has had not only something of a fond revival but a near rehabilitation. He is revered in some circles as an enlightened, even visionary statesman, a savvy, pragmatic politician, and the Republican who showed the party how to win. At the very worst, Nixon is considered a historic anomaly. Forty years after Nixon's resignation and the Watergate scandal, his star seems to have even less tarnish.
A poll found that nearly 50 percent of Americans say that Watergate was not a serious matter but just politics as usual, the kind of politics that both parties engage in. This deep collective amnesia, along with the kindly reassessments of Nixon, excise the memory of the profoundly destructive Nixon. He cynically fanned racism, manipulated white voters and prepared the ground for the conservative assault on civil rights, affirmative action and social programs that, in the years after his plunge to disgrace, the GOP has honed to a fine art.
This Nixon has been on display repeatedly with the periodic release of batches of the Nixon tapes by the National Archives. The tapes reveal Nixon to be a deeply paranoid, deeply bigoted misanthrope. Nixon had the greatest fun spewing offensive racial epithets about blacks. While working on his first presidential address to Congress, Nixon told Henry Kissinger, then his national-security advisor, to leave Africa policy to Secretary of State William Rogers, saying, "Henry, let's leave the niggers to Bill, and we'll take care of the rest of the world." Nixon repeatedly referred to blacks as "niggers" and "jigaboos" in other conversations with Kissinger. Nixon later complained to another aide that Great Society programs were a waste because, according the aide, he thought blacks were genetically inferior to whites.
Nixon's taped comments were much more than one man's loose-lipped racial abominations uttered in unguarded moments. Those remarks and the narrow racial mindset behind them fueled the Republicans Party's nascent willingness to bash civil rights and social programs and laid the groundwork for the repressive national-security state.
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 term appealing to racist sentiments. The majority of Americans, he explained, were decent, hard-working, law-abiding citizens who were simply sick of the lawlessness and violence in the cities. They were angry at the courts for coddling lawbreakers. Nixon claimed he was the candidate who spoke for whites and blue-collar workers.
Nixon 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, some charged -- "no-knock," stop-and-frisk and preventive-detention provisions. It authorized the expanded use of wiretaps. In June 1968 Nixon received a further boost from the presidential commission appointed by former President Lyndon B. Johnson to study the causes of violence. It urged sharp increases in federal spending on police weapons, training and riot preparation.
Police departments promptly went on the largest weapons-buying spree and personnel buildup 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 hatred from Southern whites for championing civil rights and civil liberties. Nixon appointed "strict constructionists" to the court. Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush followed the Nixon judicial script to the letter and appointed the succession of justices, from Antonin Scalia to John Roberts, who have wreaked havoc on civil-rights and civil-liberties protections.
The GOP's callous and calculated bigotry and cynicism has had its harshest impact on President Barack Obama. There has not been a moment during the six years of his presidency that he has not been subjected to a torrent of racist digs, slurs, and insults from bloggers, websites, talk-show hosts, and more than a few wisecracking GOP officials. It's no surprise that, on the 40th anniversary of Nixon's resignation, American's trust in government ranks somewhere between its trust in a used-car salesman and its trust in a circus pitchman.
Watergate and Nixon did more than change the way Americans view government. The crude, racist profanities that Nixon spit out four decades ago in the cozy confines of the White House opened the door to the racial contention and mean-spirited bigotry that continue to shape and mold Republican Party politics and American public policy today.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent MSNBC contributor. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.