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A Review of Dean Kotlowski's Nixon's Civil Rights


Friday, Dec. 07, 2001

Dean J. Kotlowski, Nixon's Civil Rights (Harvard Univ. Press 2001)

Second only to the man himself, it was Herblock, the recently deceased Washington Post political cartoonist, who fixed our cultural impression of Richard M. Nixon. The hollow cheeks, the cleft of black hair, the menacing jowls set like a bat's wings. Could such a man have given a hoot about civil rights?

The Nixon Civil Rights Record: Better Than Many Remember or Believe

With the departure of Lyndon Johnson from the White House, the civil rights movement in this country looked to be entering a fallow period. Richard Nixon's much-chronicled Southern Strategy, rooted in his explicit invitation to Southern white voters to take shelter in the GOP, had created dismal expectations for what Nixon would do, as President, with respect to civil rights.

But the Republican Party of Nixon's era was a far different creature from the one with which we are familiar today. This was the time when big-C Southern Conservatism was courted by, but was not yet triumphant in, the party. Within the Nixon White House, recall, sat Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Leonard Garment.

Moreover, at the top of the chain sat likely the most enigmatic individual ever to have occupied the office. It is often forgotten that Nixon himself had not just a credible, but indeed an admirable civil rights record in the Congress.

Upon election, Nixon committed his administration to resisting the call for a "Thurmondorian" - as it was called, in a joint allusion to Robespierre and Senator Strom Thurmond - reaction to civil rights issues. Rather than follow Thurmond's path, Nixon explicitly set out on a quintessentially Nixonian strategy of words to appease Southern whites and deeds to advance the progress of civil rights.

Nixon's accomplishments were significant and no doubt would make many a contemporary Republican shake his head in dismay. There was no "rollback" of previous progress on civil rights issues. Affirmative action took strong root.

Furthermore, critically or disastrously depending on your viewpoint, it was the Nixon administration that took the fateful step that transformed minority participation from an aspirational goal to an enforceable target. Ambivalent as he was, Nixon inaugurated himself Quota King by introducing the groundbreaking Philadelphia Plan for federal contracts. (Who was his point man on the project? Surprisingly, the future Reaganite George P. Schultz.)

Meanwhile, in the area school desegregation, Nixon's administration, with the prodding of the courts, accomplished more than any before or since. Last but hardly least, Nixon stage-managed the reauthorization and expansion of the Voting Rights Act.

The Author's Discomfort with Complimenting Nixon's Record

Kotlowski, in his preface and throughout the book, takes a cheeky pride in the fact that he has come forth from the academy to say something positive about Richard Nixon. Nevertheless, Kotlowski is a creature of the academic culture (or at least, the stereotype of the culture, which like the Herblock caricature of Nixon, communicates only a partial truth) from which the book, published by Harvard University Press, emerged.

A typical sign of Kotlowski's ambivalence is his branding of Nixon's decision to sign the expanded Voting Rights Act as "unheroic." Why? Because Nixon acted to prevent, as only Nixon would have put it, the "goddamn country" from "blowing up."

What exactly would a hero have done differently? This disjoint arises again and again. Kotslowski sharply criticizes Nixon for proceeding pragmatically in navigating the explosive shoals of school desegregation. But sometimes pragmatism is heroic - especially where there is a fair chance that violence and retrenchment would be the wages of dramatic action.

The academic roots of this work also show in its organization. Not every doctoral dissertation makes for a good book. Kotlowski's book is a good one, but it suffers from a somewhat stilted one-topic-per-chapter/one-chapter-per-topic organization.

Each chapter exhibits a tremendous amount of work, no doubt representing countless hours spent sifting through the archival detritus that is what remains of the Nixon administration, as well as conducting a number of insightful interviews with the participants. The book will unquestionably serve as an invaluable reference for students of the policies it covers. But its rigid organization deprives the reader of an understanding of the interrelation of the different policies and politics, and of the tumult of the period.

The Inevitable Counterfactual: A Nixon Without Watergate

One of the questions I hoped to find an answer for in the book was: Without Watergate, what would a full second term of Richard M. Nixon's presidency have achieved?

Unfortunately, the answer is not to be found between the covers of Kotlowski's book, though the question itself is raised in the concluding chapter. But then maybe the answer to the question is implicitly contained in the book: the answer, the book suggests, is that there can be no answer.

Nixon was all grand strategy ("words, not deeds") and tactics (implement the Philadelphia Plan for minority set-asides). In order to answer the question of what Nixon would have done, had he not been first distracted and then displaced by Watergate, you would have to first locate and then extrapolate from a month-to-month strategy that Nixon had used earlier.

Matthew Herrington practices law in Washington, D.C.

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