Archive for the ‘richard nixon’ tag
It is a sad commentary on where we stand as a nation 130 years after slavery, thirty years beyond Jim Crow, and twenty-five years since Nixon played his piano at the Gridiron Club that our current chief executive, arguably the least prejudiced of the forty-one men who preceded him, sees fit to include racial calculus in politics and policy. — Kenneth O’Reilly, “Nixon’s Piano,” 1995, on former President Bill Clinton((1))
The story of race and the American Presidency is one in which, almost without exception, the 42 white men who led the United States prior to Obama’s election courted the white vote at the expense of minority interests and civil rights, so much so that not only did the early Southern economy stand on the shoulders of black folks, the highest office in the land did as well.
Kenneth O’Reilly in “Nixon’s Piano: Presidents and Racial Politics from Washington to Clinton,” doesn’t quite make it to that far-reaching conclusion, but this is the impression I got after giving some thought to this studiously researched and chilling look at how our American presidents dealt with issues of race while in office.
From the outset, readers find out how the early presidents, many of them slaveholders, recognized that the peculiar institution would eventually have to fall or that blacks would have to be colonized elsewhere (a ludicrous notion) — vanquish the thought that the two races could ever co-exist as free people — but they largely had neither the courage or the will to set the process of emancipation or civil rights in motion.
John Adams, the second president and one of the more pragmatic and close-reasoning Founders (He was the British’s defense lawyer following the Boston Massacre when no one else would take up the cause because he adamantly believed every [white] man deserved a fair trial) was probably ahead of his time when he said,
I shudder when I think of the calamities which slavery is likely to produce in this country. You would think me mad if I were to describe my anticipations. If the gangrene is not stopped I can see nothing but insurrection of the blacks against the whites.((2))
As it turns out, he had it precisely the other way around, with a white man, John Brown, pulling the grenade pin that would eventually explode into war and white slaveholders seceding to protect their precious institution. Regardless, Adams, unlike many of his co-Founders, held no slaves, but nonetheless, the thought of freeing black people chaffed him with the thought of widespread chaos. He was for the preservation of his beloved nation if he was for anything. As O’Reilly quotes Adams about a state proposal in Massachusetts:
The Bill for freeing the Negroes, I hope will sleep for a Time. We have Causes enough of Jealousy Discord Division, and this Bill will certainly add to the Number.
Abigail Adams, the rock-steady engine that fueled John’s heart, was probably even more progressive than her husband, calling slavery a “most iniquitous Scheme” which caused the “daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have.” Again, another Adams ahead of her time.
John’s personal views aside, the president was silent on the issue in public, and like his predecessors and many successors, was hamstrung on how to proceed.
The only complaint I have of O’Reilly’s book at this point is that it seems to spend too little time on the early presidents, devoting only one chapter to a cursory look at the record of the first 24 presidents, then vaunting readers all the way to the start of the 20th century by page 63. This is understandable in one sense given the fact that, aside from Lincoln and John Adams, the early presidents were mostly indistinguishable in regard to their views or actions on race while in office. Still, although more discussion on the early presidents would have taken this 400-page book closer to 1,000 pages, I think it would have given more credence to the book’s subtitle.
In the 20th century, readers see the rise of the progressive movement, first as represented by the Republican Party, still under the banner of Lincoln, and later, by the Democratic Party and Lyndon Johnson in his attempts to loose the nation from its Jim Crow and Black Code shackles. And even then, Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 1968 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 seemed to be motivated as much by political pressures as any moral yearnings to finally award blacks their hard-won political and social freedom. For O’Reilly, Lincoln and Johnson’s civil rights records were tainted by other considerations:
Of the forty-two presidents of the United States only Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson stand out for what they ultimately did on the matter of civil rights for all. But even they brought baggage to their great accomplishments: Lincoln with his white supremacist caveats, closet dreams of sending the slaves he freed back to Africa, and faint Reconstruction notion of building a decent Republican party home for the South’s poor white trash at the expense of any freedman he could not ship to Liberia; and Johnson with his surveillance state (that gave the FBI et al. free run at an entire race by ranking blacks alongside Communists and criminals) and Vietnam draft boards (that always came first for the people at the bottom he otherwise seemed so intent on helping).
On the latter, Johnson once said that young blacks were best served in the armed services rather than by the social programs and civil rights acts he had created.
Johnson once told Roy Wilkins (a civil rights activist), while still vice-president, that all mothers want the same thing for their children. But he never quite understood that no mother, black or white, wanted her son to fight and die in a Southeast Asia jungle (Vietnam) for a reason that the president himself could not articulate. “I’ve seen these kids all my life,” he (Johnson) told his cabinet two months before (the) Tet (Offensive). “I’ve been with these poor children everywhere. I know that you can do better by them than the NYA (National Youth Administration) or the Job Corps. Defense Department can do the job best. Go to it.”
So the two best civil rights presidents we ever had were only marginally courageous in their deeds. In total, I thought O’Reilly presented a devastating critique of the more conservative presidents on the issue of race (Most of their records on the matter are utterly disgraceful, after all), but of the more progressive presidents, O’Reilly showed how they either tempered how far they were willing to go on the question of race or scaled back their civil rights efforts once elected.
Bill Clinton would be an example of the latter. As O’Reilly noted, Clinton the teenager once told his mother that segregation was a sin and that he admired Martin Luther King. He even memorized King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, helped himself to a seat at the “black” table in 1971 at Yale Law School and performed volunteer work for a New Haven, Conn., lawyer working on civil rights cases. As president, however, he played a different tune, but not the one that vaulted him to presidential coolness as the sunglass-wearing sax player on “The Arsenio Hall Show.”
Other than appearances in black churches, where he was at home, like Jimmy Carter … Clinton emphasized race as a nonissue from the primaries forward. He kept black advisers in the background, made no promises, accepted the nomination at a Democratic National Convention that had two hundred fewer black delegated than in 1988, and timed his rare appearances at black events so that they would be too late for the evening news or overshadowed by other events.
If only O’Reilly would or could have written an updated version of his book to include the administration that led for eight years after Clinton. If he had, O’Reilly’s modern edition would have surely mentioned George W. Bush and FEMA’s woeful 2005 response to the hurricane in New Orleans. Like Reagan before him, Bush was labeled a racist. For Reagan, because of his general policies (For instance, poor folks need not concern themselves with capital gains tax cuts, as O’Reilly notes), and for Bush, because of the response to Katrina. I’m sure there were other accusers, but most notably, rapper Kanye West made the charge in the wake of FEMA’s response and Bush’s delayed trip to New Orleans, which has a black population of about 70 percent. Later, Bush described that moment (West labeling him as a racist) as the worst part of his time in Washington. Here’s a brief exchange from the “Today” show:
MATT LAUER: You remember what he (Kanye West) said?
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Yes, I do. He called me a racist.
MATT LAUER: Well, what he said, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: That’s — “he’s a racist.” And I didn’t appreciate it then. I don’t appreciate it now. It’s one thing to say, “I don’t appreciate the way he’s handled his business.” It’s another thing to say, “This man’s a racist.” I resent it, it’s not true, and it was one of the most disgusting moments in my Presidency.
Later still, Kanye, in not so few words, said he was sorry in November 2010 on the “Today” show:
I would tell George Bush in my moment of frustration, I didn’t have the grounds to call him a racist.
And Bush back across the bow on another episode of “Today”:
Asked if he forgives West, Bush said “absolutely.”
“I’m not a hater. I don’t hate Kanye West,” he said. “But I was talking about an environment in which people were willing to say things that hurt. Nobody wants to be called a racist, if in your heart you believe in the equality of race.”
There’s much more to be said, of course, and O’Reilly says most of it in the eras in which he was dealing. Ronald Reagan had one of the worst records on race and so did Richard Nixon, hence the piano symbolism, which stems from a racially mocking song Nixon performed at a Gridiron Club event while president. The analogy was later — consciously or not — turned on its head by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder’s “Ebony and Ivory.”
If O’Reilly had the chance to cover the election of the first African American to the presidency, his ultimate conclusions might have taken a slightly different tone, for, the more progressive among us would like to think that we as a nation are finally turning the corner on race. But, like the Reagan appointment of Republican lackey Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, we today can see some of the same conservative tactics astir of putting black people in high places only for political gain. Current Republican National Committee head Michael Steele immediately came to mind as I read the portion on Thomas. Of course, black folks are free to lean whichever political way they choose, but we know which party, since the 1960s has, implicitly or explicitly, done the most for civil rights and black communities, even though affluent black leaders may overlook that fact and politically betray their historically subdued brethren. Modern Republicans leaders, in turn, betray themselves when they refer to their party as the party of Lincoln, for it is such in word only.
In all, “Nixon’s Piano” was an intriguing, but challenging read, given the many politicians, aides and activists of which one must keep track. The book moves quickly, with clearly written but tightly packed text, providing a near fly-on-the-wall look at each president’s approach to race from Roosevelt to Clinton, with private conversations, leaked and even wire-tapped exchanges, all of which culminate in the numbing conclusion that a scant few, if any, of our presidents felt that civil rights or racial, social and political equality for all was an outright moral imperative.