Mr. President Plays the Bones: A New Book on Richard Nixon
April 26, 2000
Nixon's Piano By Kenneth O'Reilly. 525 pp. New York: Free Press. $27.50.University of Alaska Anchorage history professor Kenneth O'Reilly has produced a magnum opus of sorts in his recently-published book, Nixon's Piano: Presidents and Racial Politics from Washington to Clinton.It might be fittingly described as a set of variations on a theme: Faced with a recalcitrant racism amongst a large segment of white American voters, each president from George Washington on has played a slightly different harmony to the general tune of "white over black."O'Reilly's fourth book on American politics, Nixon's Piano was a finalist for a 1996 PEN Literary Award, given for works of outstanding merit by writers in the western United States. The book documents in detail the attitudes and actions that formed each president's record on the politics of race. In an interview, O'Reilly described his motivation for a study of race and the presidency.Growing up in a volatile 1960s perforated by Vietnam, race-riots, and the Black Panthers, O'Reilly found race relations at the heart of his era's social upheaval. "We were just becoming adults during a time when all these race issues exploded," he explains. "I became interested in political power."Besides the opportunity to break some new ground in the investigation of racial politics, the author cites a desire to contribute what he can toward a more egalitarian social order. "I can't cure cancer," he says, "but I tried to find something that's important that I can do. Race is a big, divisive issue."Indeed, "Nixon's Piano" powerfully demonstrates that race informs all aspects of social, political, and economic life. "Race is connected to everything from hiring practices to interest rates," O'Reilly says. The author argues persuasively that from the time of slavery to the present day, race has remained a decisive economic issue.How does race impact the economy? The basic idea runs thus: For the capitalist economy to function properly, there must be a surplus labor pool. That is, with a modest percentage of unemployment, employers can keep wages low, and profits high. With the increasing abandonment of race-based hiring practices like affirmative action, minorities are forced out of jobs, while white people stay employed. In other words, the system thrives upon the unemployment of blacks.Besides being sacrificed for white economic power, blacks have also served historically as political pawns. "Every president has been tempted to use race to get votes," O'Reilly says, and Nixon's Piano is dedicated to showing how each administration manipulates racial voting blocs in order to protect its interests. If it sounds like politics as usual, it certainly is. Only, no author has perhaps offered more evidence that it's time to change the tune of presidential racial politics.The book's title refers to a 1970 incident in which Nixon appeared at the Gridiron Club, a favorite gathering of politicos where they routinely performed humorous skits at the expense of "coloreds." At this particular event, Nixon took the stage with Vice President Spiro Agnew, both seated at black pianos. The duo proceeded to spin out an unabashedly racist routine with Nixon beginning to play a great American tune like "Home on the Range," only to have Agnew (playing the "darky") break in each time with a frenzied "Dixie," to the great hilarity of the crowd. It was somewhat less amusing to Roger Wilkins, an African American guest at the affair.O'Reilly's careful scholarship reveals an unvarying pattern in presidential attitudes on race throughout the office's history, from the day Washington took office in 1789. "Of the forty-two presidents of the United States," writes O'Reilly, "only Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson stand out for what they ultimately did on the matter of civil rights for all."What becomes apparent from the archives of presidential communications is that in most cases, presidents were not blatant racists, but were instead subject to intense moral struggle and misgiving. Washington, for instance, made it known that he felt slavery to be a blight to the nation, yet agonized about setting free the slaves he himself owned, writing that "it behooves me to prevent the emancipation of them, otherwise I shall not only lose the use of them but may have them to pay for." Facing a private economic loss, America's first president could not quite reconcile human freedom with his own ledger books.Up against such a moral impasse, many presidents have entertained fantastic delusions in their attempt to rectify both personal and national honor. The man who drafted the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, could think of no alternative but to deport the blacks en masse from American soil. "Whether to the West Indies, Latin America, or Africa," writes O'Reilly, "Jefferson never stopped thinking, like [Presidents] Madison and Monroe, of sending blacks 'beyond the reach of mixture'."The tune of racial discord becomes equally brash when played by recent presidents, who seem to bear none of the brooding remorse felt by some of our country's earlier leaders. O'Reilly quotes the often inscrutable Reagan on issues of, for instance, de-segregation school busing ("it isn't a racial issue") and the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King ("if the Negroes don't cool it, Martin Luther King will have died in vain").President Clinton, while promising to be the most racially sensitive holder of the oval office in a decade, has nonetheless used race issues in a calculated way to further his political ends. When, during his presidential campaign, Clinton needed to prove to white America that he was no friend of Jesse Jackson, he found a golden opportunity at a conference for Jackson's Rainbow Coalition.At the conference, Sister Souljah, a black rapper invited by Jackson, had made some remarks to the effect that black-on-black violence might be more productively aimed at whites. Whether or not such comments were made in earnest, Clinton seized the moment to disparage both Souljah and Jackson, bluntly telling Jackson that he would not be the Democratic Party's vice-presidential candidate.In this case candidate Clinton, well aware that he would only suffer in the eyes of white voters if he endorsed Jackson's "radical" civil rights program, used the Souljah affair to drive a wedge between his campaign and any semblance of black power. The brilliance (or mere good fortune) of the political move is that he was able to take the moral high ground against violence, all the while demonstrating the repugnant "racism" of black America. It was a move certain to endear Southern white voters.Clinton's record is marred more severely by the death of Rickey Ray Rector, an African American who was executed by lethal injection in Arkansas during Clinton's presidential candidacy. Rector had killed a police officer, then attempted to shoot himself in the head. The suicide attempt went awry, leaving Rector with the functional equivalent of a frontal lobotomy and, O'Reilly notes, "the understanding of a young child."Despite the dubious legality (and clear moral contempt) of killing a man who according to O'Reilly was of such unstable mental condition that "while he was given his last meal he saved his dessert pie until after the execution," Clinton merely busied himself with campaign affairs during the last moments of Rector's life. In effect, Clinton let the state execute Rector in order to turn around his "soft-on-crime" image and gain favor with Southern voters.While such incidents may seem trifling on the level of global politics, O'Reilly makes it clear that with race so often a non-issue in public policy, these incidents only confirm the worst about our elected leaders. O'Reilly observes, "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 a racial calculus in politics and policy."Indeed, if Nixon's Piano deserves any criticism, it is perhaps not the fault of its writer. What is most objectionable about the book is simply the relentless monotony with which our nation's presidents have skirted, exploited, and bungled the question of race. Presidential self-interest at the expense of morality makes for an all-too-predictable scenario.Having documented our nation's disgraceful history in thorough detail, O'Reilly can offer a future hope only in general terms. When asked about the possibility of reforming racial politics he says, "We need to eliminate race as an electoral consideration in our political system, but we haven't yet figured out a way to do it. It's not a real healthy situation."Nixon's Piano shows that leaving race reform in the hands of state government is a sure way to protract the injustice. When weaker presidents like Andrew Johnson or Rutherford Hayes let loose the reigns on the states, progressive legislation for civil rights invariably stalled. In more modern times, with the rise of militia violence and even the return of David Duke to the political right, it is clear that nothing less than strong federal leadership can protect the rights of minorities.One possible way out is to convince all Americans that racism is good for nobody, black or white. O'Reilly recalls that Lincoln was able to sign the Emancipation Proclamation only by convincing white America that slavery served to enchain them as well. "You need to have someone do what Lincoln did," he says. "He made white people see that slavery is a threat to free white labor."O'Reilly argues that Lincoln acted primarily out of white America's own economic interests, because slavery drove the value of white labor alarmingly low. And in other moments of his career, Lincoln earned the title "slave-hound of Illinois" for his slave-catching fervor. Even so, Lincoln's foresight brought our nation a momentous step clearer of the disastrous effects of race prejudice.If racism ultimately degrades both white and black labor, then as during the civil war era it threatens to topple our nation as a whole. As O'Reilly argues, "Racism prevents this country from living up to its promise, and from producing at its optimum level. We'll find that because of racism, we're becoming an underdeveloped country." How ironic that the institution of slavery, once the buttress of a thriving American economy, now leaves its legacy of racism to undermine the productive capacity of all American labor.Poised on the brink of another presidential election in November, America seems even more caught in the crushing paradox of race relations than ever before. With Clinton backpeddling rapidly on social welfare, and Dole fixated on the "problem" of black behavior, we can count on little direction from the White House. It turns out that the mock-Dixie tune played on Nixon's piano has remained the anthem of a nation wracked by race prejudice. The song's familiar refrain has accompanied the long program of racial injustice from slavery to the war on welfare, and "aside from a few unscheduled breaks," O'Reilly concludes, "it rates as the nation's saddest and longest running show."