Harry Dent; Advised Key Republicans

Harry S. Dent, 77, helped Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) slow Southern school desegregation and developed the Southern strategy that helped Richard M. Nixon win the presidency.
Harry S. Dent, 77, helped Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) slow Southern school desegregation and developed the Southern strategy that helped Richard M. Nixon win the presidency. (White House Photo)
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Harry Shuler Dent, 77, a Republican political operative who helped Sen. Strom Thurmond slow school desegregation in the South, who devised the Southern strategy that elected Richard M. Nixon president and who later became a lay minister, died Sept. 28 at his home in Columbia, S.C. He had Alzheimer's disease.

From his early years supporting Thurmond's segregationist agenda to the 1960s, when he assured Southern politicians that Nixon would not force civil rights laws on unwilling states, Mr. Dent enraged moderates and liberals alike. After he linked Republican presidential candidate John B. Connally with gays and blacks, Connally called him "the original dirty trickster." Time magazine quoted adversaries who dubbed him "a Southern-fried Rasputin" in "Uncle Strom's Cabin."

"When I look back, my biggest regret now is anything I did that stood in the way of the rights of black people. Or any people," Mr. Dent told The Washington Post in 1981, when he announced he was quitting his South Carolina law practice to devote himself to his ministry.

He escaped the worst taint of the Watergate scandal because his image as a prudish Southern Baptist prevented other Nixon aides from fully trusting him. The job he might have had went to Jeb Stuart Magruder.

However, Mr. Dent was involved in a 1970 fundraising operation for the Nixon administration that was a precursor to Watergate. The "townhouse operation" at 1310 19th St. NW raised money for a slush fund, which was used to make donations to political candidates with the intent of blackmailing politicians in the future. The townhouse operation and Watergate involved some of the same fundraisers, donors and campaign finance abuses.

Mr. Dent pleaded guilty in late 1974 to a misdemeanor for his part in the operation. He said he was "very much afraid" that prosecutors would charge him with a felony and bring him to trial with Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman if he did not plead to the lesser charge. He expressed remorse to the judge for "that bad footnote in history and the embarrassment this will cause my family and my name forever." He was sentenced to one month of unsupervised probation.

Not long after, he joined an alliance of born-again politicians -- Watergate figure Charles W. Colson, Reagan image-maker Michael Deaver and Reagan strategist Lee Atwater. Mr. Dent worked for Gerald R. Ford's presidential campaign in 1976 and George H.W. Bush's campaign in 1980, ran a law practice in Columbia, S.C., until he decided to close his practice and study the Bible at Columbia International University. He set up 18 missions in Romania after the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989.

Mr. Dent, a longtime Southern Baptist who organized the initial White House prayer breakfast in 1969, was the first director of the Billy Graham lay center in Asheville, N.C.

"I always thought I knew what sin was," he said, referring to the whiskey-and-wild-woman strain. "But I have learned that the real sin is in selfishness, or pride. And politics is very selfish, very self-oriented. And I've been part of that."

He was born in St. Matthews, S.C., and graduated from Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C. He was an Army veteran of the Korean War. He graduated from George Washington University Law School in 1957 and received a master's of law degree from Georgetown University in 1959.

He was a young aide to Thurmond in 1957 when the then-South Carolina Democrat launched a filibuster blocking a vote on a civil rights bill. Mr. Dent, worried about the effect on Thurmond's health, tried to get him to quit, but when the senator refused, Mr. Dent did all he could to keep the filibuster going. He warned Thurmond when the senator inadvertently sat down while answering a question. When Sen. Paul Douglas, an Illinois Democrat, provided Thurmond with a large pitcher of orange juice, in an effort to force him to leave the Senate floor for the men's room, Mr. Dent quickly grabbed the pitcher and put it out of his reach.

Thurmond switched to the Republican Party in 1964 at the urging of Mr. Dent. Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater lost badly that year, but carried five Southern states by appealing to states' rights in opposition to civil rights.

Building on that trend, Mr. Dent began creating the Southern strategy that took Nixon to victory and that provided the conservative foundation for the Republican victories in the 1980s and 1990s.

Mr. Dent became head of the South Carolina Republican Party, and began a voter registration drive among whites. He stoked fears that the federal government would take over the state's public schools.

By 1968, he told Nixon that he needed the Southerners to win. According to a transcript of Nixon's meeting with the regional party leaders, Nixon promised to be a law-and-order president and said that he would appoint "strict constructionists" as federal judges. Mr. Dent made Nixon aware that Southern politicians were suspicious of his support for civil rights, so Nixon said he would allow local school officials to carry out their own desegregation plans.

The Southerners supported Nixon, and Mr. Dent was rewarded with a job in the Nixon campaign. After the 1968 victory, he was named to Nixon's transition staff and later became special White House counsel to the president. After Nixon's reelection in 1972, Mr. Dent accepted the position of general counsel to the Republican National Committee.

He also wrote five books on political and religious topics.

Survivors include his wife of 56 years, Betty Francis Dent of Columbia, S.C.; four children, Harry Dent Jr. of Tampa, Dolly Montgomery of Chapin, S.C., Ginny Brant of Seneca, S.C. and Jack Dent of Alpharetta, Ga.; and nine grandchildren.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company