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Jonathan Yardley
How three Democratic presidents wound up swinging a region from blue to red.

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, September 11, 2005

THE WHITE HOUSE LOOKS SOUTH

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman,

Lyndon B. Johnson

By William E. Leuchtenburg

Louisiana State Univ. 672 pp. $45

In the years since the end of World War II, the American South has changed almost beyond recognition. The region that before the war was the most depressed and desperate in the nation is now prosperous and populous, with booming cities and grassy suburbs. Many but scarcely all Southern blacks, who before the war lived in conditions not much better than slavery and were denied virtually all rights and opportunities, now enjoy incomes that grow ever closer to those of whites and are closing in on the social and political mainstream. Southern Republicans, who before the war were barely visible, are now members of the region's dominant political party and have made their own brand of conservatism as pervasive as was that of the Southern Democrats whom they shoved aside.

There are many explanations for all of this, some obvious and some subtle. William E. Leuchtenburg, a venerable historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, chooses a mixture of the obvious and the subtle in citing the influence of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson. On the one hand, the three presidents proposed federal legislation and formulated federal policies that encouraged the South's economic growth and helped break down its entrenched racial discrimination. On the other hand, all three had intimate, complicated relationships with the South that "sensitized them to the predicaments of the South and gave them entrée to Southern power brokers that outlanders were denied."

This is true even though none of the three was a native Southerner. Roosevelt's roots were in the Northeast, but when he went to Georgia in the 1920s to treat his polio at Warm Springs, he became an adopted Southerner who by the early '30s "had come to perceive himself as a Georgian" and addressed a crowd in Savannah in 1933 as "you, my neighbors." Truman was from the Midwest but "grew up in a home that glorified the Confederacy and in a town imbued with racist assumptions he never entirely forsook." Johnson was a Texan who emphasized his Western origins as he sought to rise above regionalism and become a national political figure, but his ties to the South were strong, especially to the Southern bloc in Congress.

All three were captive to the racial attitudes of their time, place and class, but to varying degrees and in different ways all managed to rise above them. The patrician Roosevelt mostly was content to keep African Americans in what whites then commonly assumed to be "their place," yet in 1936 he assailed the "feudal system" of the South, likening it to the "Fascist system," and he repeatedly intervened in Southern political races on the side of comparatively progressive candidates such as Claude Pepper in Florida and Lister Hill in Alabama. Truman acquired "an abiding belief in white supremacy" as a child in Missouri, yet as president formed the hugely influential President's Committee on Civil Rights, took "the first step in the eventual desegregation of the armed forces" and became "resolute on civil rights." As for Johnson, he voted against civil rights measures early in his congressional career but became the president of whom Ralph Ellison wrote, during the turmoil of Vietnam that ultimately drove LBJ from the White House: "When all the returns are in, perhaps President Johnson will have to settle for being recognized as the greatest American president for the poor and the Negroes, but that, as I see it, is a very great honor indeed."

Yet the steps that all three presidents took toward improving rights and opportunities for African Americans had the wholly unanticipated effect of turning white Southerners against them and the party they represented. If early in their presidencies all three were lionized by the white South as friends and allies, eventually all three were vilified as traitors. Opposition to Roosevelt wasn't much more than angry noise, but opposition to Truman led to Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrat campaign in 1948, and opposition to Johnson led to Barry Goldwater's sweep of the five Deep South states in 1964. Then came George Wallace in 1968 and thereafter, and the rise of the "Republican hegemony" that has characterized the South ever since.

The hammerlock that the GOP now has on much of the South certainly would have surprised and disappointed all three of these presidents, and, as Leuchtenburg points out, there are other ways in which their ambitions for the region have not been fulfilled. For all the prosperity of Atlanta and Charlotte and Nashville, "large pockets of poverty" persist in the South (as, for that matter, in the rest of the country), and racism, "though much diminished," continues "to be endemic." Leuchtenburg quotes a "prominent South Carolina Republican" as acknowledging that "racism, often purposely inflamed by many Southern Republicans, either because we believed it or because we thought it would win votes, was a major tool in the building of the new Republican Party in the South," and it remains a tool of Republican success today.

Leuchtenburg believes, though, that "the three presidents might well have found more to gratify than to displease them" in the South of 2005. The South is now "an integral part of the nation" rather than a separate and decidedly inferior satellite. "In the decades following the age of Roosevelt, the impoverished South of the Great Depression seemed changed almost beyond recognition," leaving the South far more "American" in many ways yet preserving much of its regional character. For all the persistence of racism, "by far the most significant transformation in Southern mores has taken place in race relations," often producing a comity that goes far beyond the rights and opportunities guaranteed to blacks by federal law.

Still, it was federal law -- particularly the monumental civil rights laws pushed through Congress by Johnson in the mid-1960s -- that made these changes possible: "Roosevelt, Truman and Johnson understood that the South would continue to be an outcast unless it abandoned folkways that were injurious -- to whites as well as blacks -- and they employed the powers of the state to coerce recalcitrants into new patterns of behavior." This is one of the "six premises," all of them valid, upon which Leuchtenburg has constructed this analysis:

" . . . that, at a time when historians are preoccupied with race, class and gender, not enough attention is given to place; that, in a period of increasing homogenization, section is still salient; that, in an era when social history is in vogue, political history is of abiding importance; that, in contrast to the assertion that the state is merely a superstructure, the state is capable of acting autonomously and profoundly affecting people's lives; that, though the impact of social forces is enormous, individuals continue to be change-makers; and, more particularly, that certain American presidents have made a difference."

The Great Man theory of history should be recast as the Great Person theory, but the essential truth remains: Individuals can and do sway the course of history. Yes, the sharecroppers depicted in the prose of James Agee and the photographs of Walker Evans have a claim on history's attention and thus on ours, but their children and grandchildren rose out of poverty largely because these three presidents changed the economic, political, social and racial structure of their world. As one who admires all three men -- though with full cognizance of their great and in some respects severely limiting imperfections -- I am perhaps predisposed toward Leuchtenburg's view, but similar arguments can be made with regard to other aspects of American life on behalf, say, of Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

Like the men who are its subjects, The White House Looks South is not without flaw. It is too long, it sometimes belabors the obvious, and it quotes too often from the writings of too many others who do not have as much authority as Leuchtenburg does. That he prefers their words to his own is a mystery. But on the main points, he is on solid ground. The White House Looks South may be old-fashioned in its assumptions and its historiography, but that simply is a useful reminder that old often is best. ยท

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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