Nixon’s last­ing dam­age

The Covington News - - OPINION - RICHARD COHEN COLUM­NIST Richard Cohen is a writer with the Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group. He can be reached at co­henr@wash­post.com.

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.

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