Richard Nixon’s bigotry
By Lee A. Daniels
If only Richard Nixon had kept the bitter promise he spat out to reporters the day after losing the California gubernatorial election in November 1962.
His pledge that day, destined to become one of the most famous lines in American political history, was vintage Nixon: full of bitterness – and completely false.
That fundamental part of the character of Richard Milhous Nixon is on display again in the newly-released batch of recordings, courtesy of the Nixon Presidential Library and the secret taping system he had installed in the Oval Office when he became President.
In them he exhibits a peevish disregard for a large swath of American population, snapping off disparaging remarks about Jewish Americans, Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans and African-Americans.
For example, speaking to his longtime loyal secretary, Rose Mary Woods, Nixon refers to the relatively enlightened view of blacks held by William P. Rogers, then his Secretary of State: “Bill Rogers has got somewhat – and to his credit, it’s a decent feeling – but somewhat, sort of, a sort of blind spot on the black thing because he’s been in New York. He says, well, ‘They are coming along, and that after all, they are going to strengthen our country in the end because they are strong physically and some of them are smart.”
Nixon, however, makes it clear that he’ll have none of it. “My own view is that I think he’s right if you’re talking in terms of 500 years. I think it’s wrong if you’re talking in terms of 50 years. What has to happen is they have to be, frankly, inbred. … that’s the only thing that’s going to do it, Rose.”
The vehemence and breadth of Nixon’s bigotry, which was widely suspected in the years when he occupied the White House, no longer has the power to shock. It was first proved in the backwash of material that came flooding out of the White House during the Watergate scandal, and has been deepened by the Library’s periodic releases of other Nixon tapes through the years.
But the newly-available tapes are no less important, because Nixon’s harsh language and harsh views underscore something we should never forget: the persistence of bigotry.
Richard Nixon came of age during the middle decades of the twentieth century, the era indelibly marked by the cataclysm of World War Two. America’s literal and rhetorical fight in that war against Germany’s and Japan’s versions of the Master Race theory substantially destroyed the respectability in America itself of discrimination against white-ethnic Americans – and it helped prepare American society for black Americans’ all-out challenge to legalized racism that would burst into the open in the 1950s and 1960s.
As vice president for 8 years under Dwight Eisenhower, and as a partner in a white-shoe New York law firm during the mid-1960s, Nixon had easy access to the “ best and the brightest” of American society at a time when it was abundantly clear that the old prejudices were just that: prejudices.
He, however, preferred to cling to stereotypes – against Irish- and Italian Americans that were staples of the anti-immigrant fervor of the 1800s and early 1900s and stereotypes against blacks and Jews that were much, much older.
Considerable progress has been made in reducing the power of prejudice in American society since Nixon’s terms in office. But prejudice still exists. It still has an impact, not only because racial bias remains ingrained in the American system, but also because some significant number of individuals ignore, as Richard Nixon did, the reality of American society in order to cling to their prejudices.
One need only compare to Nixon’s rants many of the blogged reader responses to Edward Schumacher-Matos’ Washington Post column a couple of Sundays ago on the Dream Act having hit a snag in the Senate. And, on the same day, blogged reader responses to a Washington Post news article on the settlement of the black farmers’ discrimination claims against the federal Department of Agriculture.
The illogical thinking and the callousness that consume some of the respondents underscore the point: In some people, bigotry is impervious to logic or the experience of living in a multiracial society.
Now, as in Richard Nixon’s time, that affliction can grip those at all levels of the society, right up to the very top.
Lee A. Daniels is director of communications for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.