Saturday, December 29, 2007

Isn't it nice to know that in the end Harry Dent, architect of the GOP "Southern strategy," sort of took it back? Never mind, Harry!


I think we're all familiar with the "Southern strategy," the concept by which Republicans took full advantage of Southern white resentment at the civil rights revolution and the minimal empowerment of blacks. It's what got Richard Nixon the GOP nomination for president in 1968 and then put him in the White House, and it was then used to turn the South into the Republican bastion it remains to this day.

I think too that anyone with memories of the Nixon White House knows the name of Harry Dent (seen above in 1969 with President Nixon in the background, back to the camera, talking to Rep. George H. W. Bush), a key Nixon adviser. But I for one didn't appreciate how the South Carolinian Dent and the Southern strategy intersected. Harry Dent was, more or less, the architect and living embodiment of the Southern strategy.

In the New York Times Magazine's annual "The Lives They Lived" issue, out tomorrow, our friend Rick Perlstein has a terrific piece on Dent and his role as the chief conceptualist and enforcer of the Southern strategy--first as right-hand man to South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond (he was, it seems, the man who persuaded Strom to bolt the Democratic Party for the GOP in 1964 in support of Barry Goldwater's candidacy) and later as Nixon's "Southern strategist."

The funniest touch is Rick's tribute to Dent's "gift for soothing the egos of powerful men": "On the Nixon Oval Office tapes you can hear him agreeing with whatever the president says almost before he's through saying it." The rest isn't funny at all.

Of Dent's White House service, Rick writes:
Most of Dent's days were spent working the back channels, assuring Southerners that the administration would stonewall federal court desegregation decisions. After Nixon's first Supreme Court nominee, South Carolina's Clement Haynsworth, withdrew under a cloud of corruption allegations, the president ordered Dent to "find a good federal judge further South and further to the right." Dent obliged him with G. Harrold Carswell, who once campaigned for the Georgia State Legislature with the credo, "I believe that segregation of the races is proper and the ONLY practical and correct way of life in our states." Nixon, following Dent's example, argued that the opposition to Carswell's nomination was mere regional bigotry against the South. Liberals, not without reason, regarded Dent, Time reported, as "a Southern-fried Rasputin in the Nixon administration."

Dent was apparently touchy about charges that his career was built on race-baiting, cultivating and politically exploiting racial animus. He seems to have been capable of great indignation at such imputations. But in the end, in a twist that falls somewhere between touching and stomach-turning, "he came clean," as Rick puts it:

The lay preacher in Dent suffered from a guilty conscience. In his 1978 memoir, "The Prodigal South Returns to Power," Dent wrote that his politics were never racist. "The aim of the Southern strategy," he claimed, was merely "to have the South treated just like any other section of the U.S.A." Three years later, when he retired from law to preach the Gospel full time, he came clean. Yes, he admitted, of course he had exploited race to aggrandize Southern power. "When I look back," he said, "my biggest regret now is anything I did that stood in the way of the rights of black people."

Well, thanks for setting the record straight, Harry. I guess, sort of like the late Gilda Radner's SNL Emily Litella character and her addlepated "Never mind," that's supposed to make it all okay.

[P.S.: Would you believe that there's a Wikipedia entry for "Never mind"?]

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At 1:30 PM, Anonymous me said...

"From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don't need any more than that... but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That's where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats." - Kevin Phillips

My point is that you can't blame it all on Dent. Southerners have a long history of backwardness, bigotry, and religiosity. In that sense, they are natural-born republicans, and for a long time had been Democrats only from inertia.

They were ripe for the picking, and it was only a matter of time until someone did it.

At 2:14 PM, Blogger keninny said...

Fair point, me. No doubt about it, the opportunity was there--the Southern strategists didn't invent it. Still, it took someone to figure out how to capitalize on it.

And, eventually, to feel bad about what he did. I guess that's the part that gets me.


At 4:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, look at all the repentant Bush voters, and Lieberman voters. What were they thinking??

At 4:54 PM, Anonymous me said...

Woops, that was me.

At 11:36 PM, Blogger keninny said...

Well, I guess repentant Bush and Lieberman voters are at least better than the unrepentant ones, no?

Perhaps that should make me feel better about Harry Dent's not-quite-deathbed conversion/confession. It doesn't, though. "You know how I kept saying I wasn't exploiting racial hatred?" he seems to have been saying to us. "Well, I was just kidding!"

At least there's a chance that the repentant Bush and Lieberman voters won't make the same mistake again. (Not the EXACT same mistake, anyway.) But everything old Harry did remains, well, DONE.


At 9:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Republican's Southern Stategy has ALWAYS been based on white fear/resentment toward blacks. It is the basic glue of Southern Republicans. I have lived in the South and worked for Republican and Democratic politicians my entire career. Nothing has really changed. It is the unspoken but understood undercurrent of Southern politics which I often refer to as the "they are not with me" rule. They don't have to say it, everyone just knows. Go ask some white male redneck with a pickup and gunrack and he will tell you very clearly why he is a die-hard Republican despite not having health insurance, a job with benefits, a mobile home he can barely afford, etc. How many black faces do you see at NASCAR?

The thing that MIGHT change this year, is that the average voter outside the hard-core South is more threatened by Bush and his henchmen then Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, assorted rappers and car-jackers, all put together. Quite an accomplishment, really. Good job Georgie boy.

The funniest thing I saw in this story about Dent, Thurman and the whole sorry bunch, was the discussion about Nixon's Supreme Court nominees. Suffice it to say, that one of his nominees (who didn't make it) proved to be of the Larry Craig School of Bathroom Etiquette. It was pretty funny watching this unfold since the R's were scared to death he would be confirmed and then pull a Larry Craig/ Mark Foley on them. Didn't happen since the D's, as usual, did the right thing and stopped it before the sorry mess destroyed a man and his family (not that his family was unaware of all this).

I remember sitting in a meeting listening to the rather unsavory details, thinking that the D's should let it go and let the R's twist in the wind when everything hit the proverbial fan (or men's restroom in this case). The D's fundamental problem boils down to the following. The R's only care about retaining power at all costs and would never let a man's reputation stand in their way. The D's just don't think that way and always throw in the equation some bleeding heart comments about doing the decent and honorable thing. This is why the R's continually kick their butts. It's unfortunate, but that is the reality of the situation. Have the D's learned their lesson yet? We shall see.

The stakes have gotten much higher. Let's hope the D's have finally grown some balls.


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