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Richard Nixon is not having an easy time of late. The Washington Post alone has run at least three opinion pieces reminding us all that Nixon was a skunk who 40 years ago this month resigned the presidency and flew off to a short-lived exile in California. There the story of Nixon’s nefariousness supposedly ends. But it does not. He remains to this day a major political figure.
It was Nixon who devised and pursued what came to be called the Southern strategy. This was, in the admirably concise wording of Wikipedia, an appeal “to racism against African-Americans.” Nixon was hardly the first Republican to notice that Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights legislation had alienated whites both in the South and elsewhere — Johnson himself had forecast that Southern whites would desert the Democratic Party. But Nixon was the GOP’s leader and, in January 1969, the president of the United States. The White House, it seemed, would not do a damned thing for African-Americans.
Nixon was a complex figure — virtually a screaming liberal compared to today’s tea party types. He was above all a pragmatic, cynical politician. Johnson and the Democrats had wooed the black vote; Nixon would do the same for the white vote. Even-steven, you might say, except the Democrats were expanding rights while the Republicans wanted to narrow them or keep them restrictive. Nixon was being politically clever but morally reprehensible. That was, you could say, his MO.
This realignment did not exactly start with Nixon or end with him. Barry Goldwater had voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act (although he had supported other civil rights bills), but the GOP in general then was unencumbered by a Southern constituency and its leadership often favored civil rights. After Nixon, though, there was no turning back. In 1980, Ronald Reagan — ever the innocent — went to Mississippi and the Neshoba County Fair to tastelessly proclaim his belief in “states’ rights.” Nearby, three civil rights workers had been killed just 16 years earlier, protesting one of those bogus rights — the right to segregate the races. Reagan never acknowledged any appeal to racism. Racists took it as a wink anyway.
At one time a good many African-Americans voted Republican — the party of Lincoln, after all. Jackie Robinson initially supported Nixon (he later got disgusted), as did Joe Louis. The former heavyweight champion had even supported a Republican in the 1946 congressional campaign against Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas, a liberal civil rights advocate, whose district was substantially black. As late as the 1970s, there were African-American enclaves in Maryland that voted Republican. I was a political reporter back then, and it was like stumbling upon a racial “Brigadoon.”
The damage Nixon did to his own party, not to mention the rights of African-Americans and the cause of racial comity, has lasted long after the stench of Watergate has dispersed. It not only persuaded blacks that the Republican Party was inhospitable to them but it in effect welcomed racists to the GOP fold. Dixiecrats moved smartly to the right.
Excuse me for extrapolating, but segregationists are not merit scholarship winners. Racism is dumb and so are racists. The Democratic Party showed racists the door. The GOP welcomed them and, of course, their fellow travelers — creationists, gun nuts, anti-abortion zealots, immigrant haters of all sorts and homophobes. Increasingly, the Republican Party has come to be defined by what it opposes and not what it proposes. Its abiding enemy is modernity.
Along with some others, the GOP has managed to aggregate bigots and fools. (Of course, there are exceptions.) But its current hostility to immigrants, its repugnant rage against children who have crossed the border often running for their very lives, is an ember that still glows from the civil rights era. The worst thing Richard Nixon ever did was tell racists they had a point and welcome them into the party of Lincoln. The best thing he ever did for the Democratic Party is give its racists a place to go.
Nixon was virtually a cinematic creation, a man of such character flaws, resentments, hatreds and insecurities that it’s hard to keep your eyes off him. Watergate and the cover-up were his downfall and they were, no doubt about it, breathtaking abuses of power, as obscene as the language he so often used. But what was once drama is now history. Not so the Southern strategy. It fouls our politics to this very day.
Richard Cohen is a writer with the Washington Post Writers Group. He can be reached at email@example.com.