The Nixon Tapes, Racism and The Republicans
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Millions of Americans vilify Richard Nixon as a power-obsessed megalomaniac whose presidency sank in the mire of Watergate, or memorialize him as an historic icon and world-class statesman. Few remember Nixon as a bigot who cynically fanned racism, manipulated white voters and prepared the ground for the conservative assault on civil rights, affirmative action and social programs. That Nixon resurfaced again with the release of more batches of Nixon House Nixon tapes by the National Archives. In one tape, Nixon is stone silent when White House advisor John Erlichman rants that blacks are sexually degenerate, have no family values, and live in filthy neighborhoods.
Nixon did more then simply sit by and passively listen to anti-black tirades by a trusted aide; he frequently spewed those same offensive racial epithets himself. In previous tapes released by the National Archives, Nixon told Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, "Henry, let's leave the niggers to Bill and we'll take care of the rest of the world" while working on his first presidential address to Congress. Nixon repeatedly referred to blacks as "niggers" and "jigaboos" in other conversations with Kissinger. Nixon later complained to Erlichman that Great Society programs were a waste "because blacks were genetically inferior to whites."
Nixon's newly released taped comments were much more than one man's loose lipped, racial abominations uttered in what he thought was an unguarded moment. Those remarks and the narrow racial mindset behind them fueled the Republicans party's opening bash of 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 any one who said that law and order was a code word for racism. The majority of Americans, he explained, were decent, hard working, law abiding citizens. They were sick of the lawlessness and violence in the cities. They were angry at the courts for cuddling lawbreakers. Nixon claimed he was the candidate who spoke for white ethnics 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 some charged openly repressive, "no knock," stop and frisk and preventive detention provisions. It authorized the expanded use of wiretaps. Nixon received a further boost from the presidential commission appointed by Lyndon Johnson in June 1968 to study the causes of violence. It urged sharp increases in federal spending on weapons, training and riot preparation.
Police departments promptly went on the largest weapons buying spree, and personnel build-up 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 white southern hatred for championing civil rights and civil liberties. Nixon appointed "strict constructionists" to the court. One of the four conservative appointments Nixon made was William Rehnquist, and as chief justice he continues to wreak havoc on civil rights and civil liberties protections.
President Bush had a once in a lifetime chance to repudiate Nixon's repulsive racial legacy that influenced to one degree or another the administrations of Reagan, Bush Sr. and Republican strategy in the presidential campaigns against Clinton, and change the perception that the Republican Party is nothing more than a cozy, good ole' white guys club. But Bush proved that he is more than fit to wear Nixon's racial cloak. During the campaign he spoke at racially archaic Bob Jones University, ducked the confederate flag fight, and the issue of racial profiling. As president, he refused to support tougher hate crimes legislation, took nearly a week, despite the firestorm of public outrage, to condemn Senate majority leader elect Trent Lott for his tout of segregation, backed the lawsuit by white students against the University of Michigan's affirmative action program, and nominated -- and has gone to the barricades to support -- racially controversial borderline federal appeals court judges.
The crude, racist profanities that Nixon and his men spit out three decades ago in the cozy confines of the White House not only opened the door to racial contention and mean spirited bigotry but continue to shape and mold Republican party politics, and American public policy today. The tapes tell that sordid tale.