Books May 2002

A Surprise, but not a Success

Though Richard Nixon meant to do the right thing, his actions were at odds with his principles
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Few Americans know it, but in fact Richard Nixon, even more than John Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson, shaped the civil-rights landscape we inhabit today. Nixon broke the will of the South, making school desegregation, long on the books but largely unimplemented, a reality for millions of children black and white. He presided over the nationalization of the Voting Rights Act, extending it beyond the South to cover all Americans—including Latinos. He oversaw the birth of bilingual education and averted the death of historically black colleges. Most important, for better or worse, he and his aides created affirmative action as we know it, turning a vague idea about a leg up at the starting gate into a vast national web of "goals and timetables" at colleges, corporations, and government contracting agencies.

Nixon's Civil Rights: Politics, Principle, and Policy tracks this momentous record in dense, revealing detail. The story begins in the 1950s, with Nixon's early friendship with Martin Luther King Jr., and ends with his last acts in office, as—even under the shadow of Watergate—he made time to meet with black college presidents. Dean J. Kotlowski, an assistant professor of history at Salisbury University, in Maryland, has combed scores of archives and interviewed key participants to construct a fascinating meeting-by-meeting account. This is an authoritative but also readable volume that will surprise just about everyone who picks it up.

Kotlowski is an old-fashioned liberal: he never met a civil-rights remedy—not even busing or municipal set-asides—he didn't like, and Kotlowski doesn't hesitate to be critical of Nixon when he feels that criticism is due. His tribute is thus all the more credible. But unfortunately, his views also obscure his story at times, making it hard for him to enter into Nixon's mind—and harder still for readers ultimately to judge the President's accomplishment.

Though more scholar than storyteller, Kotlowski nevertheless manages to bring Nixon alive; the picture he paints of life in the White House in the late 1960s is telling if not exactly pungent. (The book refers repeatedly, for example, to Nixon's penchant for racist slurs, but we never hear anything even remotely damning.) He captures not just the man in charge but also a host of Nixon's lieutenants: Spiro Agnew, John Ehrlichman, Leonard Garment, George Romney, Maurice Stans, and others. Kotlowski's most important point—not exactly a new idea about Nixon, but probably, as the book claims, the key to his civil-rights policy—has to do with the sympathy, shared by the President and all his aides, for America's proverbial "little guy."

No matter how much power he wielded, Nixon saw himself as a beleaguered outsider, fundamentally at odds with the nation's well-born, well-educated elite. Kotlowski explains,

On racial issues, such resentment saddled Nixon with the same prejudices [as] the middle-class whites whom he claimed to represent. Yet it also instilled an aversion to artificial barriers that prevented people from rising as far as their talents permitted.

The thirty-seventh President may or may not have seen black people as the equals of whites—he probably didn't, according to Kotlowski. But the scrappy contender in him was as strong as, if not stronger than, the bigot, and he was deeply committed to equal opportunity. Of course, like all his beliefs, this impulse was tempered by political calculation: Nixon never did anything without considering how it would look to voters, particularly the southern and white-ethnic voters who increasingly formed the core of the Republican Party. But politic or not, Kotlowski says, Nixon's sympathy for the struggling outsider drove him to try to level the playing field—even when that meant helping blacks at the expense of whites.

Not that Nixon was a conventional civil-rights liberal—far from it. He loathed protest and protesters. He had nothing but scorn for big government and its dependents. And he didn't believe in integration for integration's sake. Not only would such a goal be unpopular and sure to cost him votes if he pushed for it, but he found it antithetical to freedom and, in the long run, trivial. He was willing—even determined—to remove racial barriers, but reluctant to force people to mingle, whether at school or in their neighborhoods. Far more important, in his view, was creating opportunities for black economic development. The Democrats were "token-oriented," he claimed, whereas the Republicans focused on "results."

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "African-American Education" (December 1995)
A sampling of Atlantic articles from the 1890s to the 1990s that have discussed the education and empowerment of African-Americans.

What this meant in practice was making jobs available and, even more important, encouraging blacks to start their own businesses—the surest way, Nixon believed, for them to get on the escalator that automatically moves most Americans up into the middle class. It was an old Republican strategy, but also a time-honored black path—the avenue advocated by Booker T. Washington (and scoffed at by W.E.B. Du Bois and other progenitors of the civil-rights movement). By creating black capitalists—with government loans, set-asides, and other means—the Administration hoped to encourage bourgeois values and the spread of black Republicanism. In effect Nixon and his aides sought to create a black America in their own image: a new class of scrappy, small-time entrepreneurs, determined despite the disadvantages of their birth to make it on their own.

It wasn't a bad idea. The question is, where did it go wrong? How did it spawn the rigid, color-coded double standards we know today as racial preferences? If Nixon's Civil Rights will surprise liberals by revealing how much their favored policies owe to Nixon, it will be even more surprising (and disturbing) to racial conservatives—those committed to the goal of racial justice but concerned about conventional liberal means of realizing it. For these readers, Nixon's principles are thrilling but many of his policies are anathema. And Kotlowski, whatever his other strengths, is a poor guide to understanding how the nation might have applied Nixon's insights to achieve a better result.

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