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Nixon's Piano
Presidents and Racial Politics from Washington to Clinton
By Kenneth O'Reilly

Chapter One: Bones and Tambo

Roger Wilkins never expected to be coming to dinner. In the fifteenth month of Richard M. Nixon's presidency he was thirty-seven years old, co-opted scarcely a whit, and prematurely PC sensitive; and this dinner was no place even for an Uncle Tom.

Nephew of NAACP giant Roy Wilkins, Roger Wilkins had been born into the civil rights movement but neither followed his staid uncle's path nor took to the streets with Martin King's nonviolent protestors. He chose the system route and worked himself up to director of the Justice Department's Community Relations Service. When Lyndon B. Johnson needed an emissary to visit Watts with the fires still burning, he picked Roger Wilkins. Los Angeles Police Department officers called their nightsticks "niggersticks" then, and when they greeted Wilkins that first night only White House credentials and the protestations of the white men Johnson had sent with him prevented him from getting what Rodney King got a quarter century later.

In 1970 Wilkins worked for McGeorge Bundy at the Ford Foundation in New York, and he sat in his office there when Tom Wicker of the New York Times called with the dinner invitation. "The notion of hobnobbing with the nation's elite," he confessed, "turned me on." So he accepted with the delight of a 1940s' kid who had stood all day, nose plastered against a candy store window, and then suddenly come into a nickel.

A few days later Wilkins received another unexpected invitation. The White House called this time asking if he might attend a prayer breakfast on the Sunday following the dinner.[1] His first inclination was to decline because not even the yet to come Watergate scandal could push Nixon's reputation in black America lower than it stood in 1970. His principles would not allow him to break bread with a politician lacking a moral compass on matters of race, and Wilkins considered telling the world that with a movement-style flourish (meaning a press conference). An occasion not to pray but to denounce. Given that he was more of a policy guy than a militant, Wilkins suppressed this impulse and delayed his response to the president's invitation until he could consult with Uncle Roy, Bundy, and Kenneth Clark (the psychologist who helped the Supreme Court justices hearing arguments in Brown understand the harm segregation did to black schoolchildren). They told him he couldn't turn down the president of the United States and the first lady (Pat Nixon also wanted him to come). Wilkins's curiosity further balanced his activist appetite. "It was like being invited to an Andy Warhol happening," he said. "I wanted to see the latest tacky trend."

So when Wilkins finally decided it was with mixed emotions. He telephoned the White House to decline the invitation and lay out his prayer-breakfast objections (an unconstitutional waste of taxpayer dollars). "Besides," he told the woman in the White House social secretary's office who answered the phone, "I think Mr. Nixon's policies are damaging to blacks." "Oh, that's a shame, she responded. "You know, we have lots of coloreds at these occasions. Sometimes they're even the preachers."

Wilkins later learned that President Nixon had invited all the big dinner's out-of-town guests to the prayer breakfast. On the evening of March 14, shortly before walking into the ballroom of the Washington Statler Hilton, he also learned that he would have to violate his principles if he were to hobnob. To get in he had to cross what the handful of women demonstrating out front called (with some exaggeration) a picket line. Once inside Wilkins nearly asphyxiated on the overwhelming white maleness. The only other black was someone they had to invite, District of Columbia Mayor Walter Washington. This was "white folks' night, " and two of the only three pleasant memories Wilkins could remember best measured his discomfort. One was the warm embrace of Deputy Attorney General Richard Kleindienst, scarcely known as a civil rights friend even in John Mitchell's Justice Department. The other was a long conversation with Cartha D. DeLoach, deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

DeLoach, a native Georgian, had come up in that crook-, commie-, and coon-fighting bureaucracy as the protege of Louis B. Nichols, the Hoover man whose chores included leaking tidbits to Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. DeLoach himself had tried (and failed) to peddle the FBI's Martin Luther King tap and bug recordings to Ben Bradlee, then Newsweek's Washington bureau chief, and several other reporters. If a black man found the Kleindienst/DeLoach encounters the high point of his Statler Hilton visit, something was terribly wrong that evening.

The dinner itself was an annual affair of the Gridiron Club, an enterprise that Hedrick Smith, in his book on how Washington works, called, simply, "an elitist social club of sixty print journalists." This early spring gathering was probably the Beltway royalty's closest match to Oscar night glitter both on the Hollywood-ish front end (with whitetied and-tailed guests from the political and corporate arenas stepping from limos into a sidewalk crowd) and on the back end (with postevent parties hosted by students of the legendary Swifty Lazar bash). "One of the high tribal rites of Washington insiders," Smith continued. "A mark of making it."[2] Gridiron men had been carrying on the tradition with only slightly less fanfare since 1885, managing to coax Harrison and every other president except Cleveland out of the White House for libations and a gourmet menu. When not focused on Terrapin Maryland served amid spotlights and red roses, the guests passed time with vaudevillian speeches, skits, songs, dances. All off-the-record. The red-jacketed Marine Corps band played Sousa marches. Pedantry permitted no member to forget that John Philip Sousa had been the club's first music director.

Eleanor Roosevelt staged the initial demonstration against Gridiron exclusiveness in 1933 after the club fractured its own tradition of inviting all cabinet members to maintain the higher tradition of men only. The president's wife held a "Gridiron Widows'party"in the East Room of the White House for Labor Secretary Frances Perkins and those women whose husbands made the big show. It was not much of a protest. By 1935 the affair had grown into a full-blown imitation that differed only in favoring tamer stuff than what Mrs. Roosevelt's husband sat through at the official dinner.

While the Gridiron Widows dined and clowned, the Gridiron men across town performed a skit for Mrs. Roosevelt's husband that featured "the Southern nightshirt trade." These newspaper reporters in Ku Klux costume poked fun at former Alabama Klansman Hugo Black, the president's nominee to the Supreme Court. Instead of K-K-K-Katy," FDR got:

K-K-K-Klansman Beautiful Klansman, You're the same old K-K-K-Klux I knew before, When the m-m-m-moon shines, Over the White House, We'll be watching at the K-K-K-Kourthouse door!

Franklin Roosevelt was not amused; Eleanor even less so when she learned of this classic.[3]

If race rivaled gender in the Gridiron hierarchy of exclusiveness, members occasionally enlisted blacks for their skits. A Spanish-American War item entitled "Uncle Sam's Yellow Kids," for example, featured a clubber who dressed up as "Uncle Sam" and brought in six "colored boys of the complexion that the negroes call 'yaller.'" They did a dance, a Gridiron chronicler noted, and "were meant to represent the Filipinos." Members and their dinner guests more often had to settle for blackface actors in the routines. After Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) made segregation the land's law, the club even formed its own "Supreme Court" consisting of nine newspapermen In black robes who were to all intents and purposes minstrels, for they had their interlocutor, bones, and tambo, jokes and songs."[4]

On Roger Wilkins's night out at the Gridiron Club, roasters and roastees included Robert Finch, Ralph Nader, John Mitchell, Richard Helms, Walter Mondale, Edmund Muskie, George McGovern, Henry Kissinger, Tom Clark, William Westmoreland, and some 550 other luminaries. Some thought Julian Bond and Andrew Young were on hand. But "Bond" and "Young" turned out to be Roger Wilkins, who knew how to take they-all-look-alike episodes in stride. Once, when Wilkins was ringing a lady's doorbell at an precipitous hour, Merv Griffin popped out of the opposite apartment, gave him a puzzled look, and asked, in a quizzical voice, "Andy?" No," Wilkins responded just as his friend opened the door. "I'm Julian Bond."

Wilkins and the other Gridiron dinner guests were no doubt unaware that a club speaker some sixty-three years earlier had screamed, in a voice famous for its strident pitch and dental emphasis but suddenly angrier than ever before: All coons do not look alike to me!"[5] That speaker was President Theodore Roosevelt, and he protested too much - having recently dismissed without honor all 167 men in the Twenty-fifth U.S. Infantry's three Negro companies. The offense was an apparent anti-Jim Crow rampage that left one white resident of Brownsville, Texas, dead. Roosevelt punished every last man even though only a handful could have possibly participated in that night's violence and no hard evidence identified any culprit. Fourteen soldiers were subsequently reinstated, but the dishonorable discharges stood for the rest of the men until Nixon's Defense Department changed them to honorable on the grounds that mass punishment contradicted Army policy.

Richard Nixon attended the March 14, 1970, Gridiron dinner, too. Wilkins looked up from his terrapin to catch "the President - all dressed up in white tie and tails, sitting about twenty feet away - staring at me intently. Our eyes locked only briefly before the President turned away, his eyes blinking in a rapid, nervous way. Though we had never met, he had to know that I was the black who had turned down his [prayer breakfast] invitation with those rude comments, because I was one of only two blacks in the group of more than five hundred men in the room." It was of no comfort here that Nixon could tell one black face from the next.

Gridiron rules allowed the roasting of the president of the United States if not his portrayal on stage. Most but by no means all past occupants of the office loved the attention, with Lyndon Baines Johnson being among the more direct objectors. "About as much fun as throwing cowshit at the village idlot," he once said. Nixon, in contrast, hoped to earn a reputation as a good sport and thus sided with the majority. Democratic Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine gave what Wilkins called "a very funny and exquisitely partisan speech" - observing that the Republicans' three problems were the war, inflation, and what to say on Lincoln's birthday. Nixon laughed, and so did Wilkins.

Muskie's line was among the rare bits that Wilkin's enjoyed. Overall, he said, "the humor made me think I had stumbled into the locker room of a segregated country club." Most songs and skits spoofed Nixon's so-called southern strategy of reaching white voters at black expense. For this president race was a tool for breaking the "solid South" and tipping those white voters out of their traditional Democratic party nest. Even Gridiron president Jack Steele, Washington bureau chief for Scripps-Howard newspapers, joined in. President Nixon could fulfill the Republican promise to stop "court-ordered busing" and otherwise protect neighborhood schools," Steele deadpanned. "All he has to do is get Ralph Nader to get General Motors to recall all the school buses."

A newspaper reporter on the card, in the role of HEW chief "Bob Finch," sang, to the tune of A Dixie Melody," a summary of this Republican party tack that Wilkins found a bit too cute:

Rock-a-bye the voters with a southern strategy; Don't you fuss; we won't bus children in ol' Dixie! We'll put George Wallace in decline Below the Mason-Dixon line. We'll help save the nation From things like civil rights and inte-gra-tion! Weep no more, John Stennis! We'll pack the court for sure. We will fight for voting rights - To keep them white and pure! A zillion Southern votes we will deliver; Move Washington down on the Swanee River! Rock-a-bye with Ol' Massa Nixon and his Dixie strategy!

A singing "Carswell" developed the court-packing reference:

Nobody knows the trouble I've seen, Nobody knows but Haynesworth.

President Nixon had tried and failed to put Florida's G. Harrold Carswell and South Carolina's Clement E Haynesworth, Jr., both outstanding segregationists, onto the Supreme Court in hope of courting Alabama Governor George Wallace's constituency.[6]

Things got no better at the Gridiron that night. Absolutely determined that a good time would be had by all, and equally determined to bring down the house, Richard Nixon appeared as the final act. The curtain pulled back to reveal the president and Vice President Spiro Agnew seated at two modest black pianos (Dwight Chapin at the White House had requested grand pianos or at least baby grands but the Statler Hilton could only manage uprights). This was the first time a chief executive had appeared on the Gridiron stage, and Nixon opened by asking: "What about this 'southern strategy' we hear so often?" "Yes suh, Mr. President," Agnew replied, "Ah agree with you completely on yoah southern strategy." The dialect, as Wilkins observed, got the biggest boffo.

After more banter with the "darky" Agnew, Nixon opened the piano duet with Franklin Roosevelt's favorite song ("Home on the Range"), then Harry Truman's ("Missouri Waltz"), then Lyndon Johnson's ("The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You"). Agnew, drowned him out a few bars into each with a manic Dixie" on hi.s piano, and the Gridiron crew got louder and louder. "The crowd ate" it up," Wilkins observed. "They roared." Nixon ended with his own favorite songs, "God Bless America" and "Auld Lang Syne," and here Agnew played it straight. The Gridiron dinner faded with five hundred men suddenly solemn and on their feet, many with tears in their eyes, all singing along, all celebrating their nation.[7]

Even before Watergate, Richard Nixon knew something about scandal; and he knew as well that his boffo keyboard bit was no scandal among the made men of how-it-really-works Washington. Those Gridiron members and their distinguished guests laughed and sang and cried not because they considered the president's southern strategy in the nation's best interest. Many in fact condemned his politics as opportunistic, divisive, even immoral. They cheered the president because they respected the electoral results. Simply put, southern strategy worked. It put Nixon in the White House. And nothing in the political culture symbolized by the Gridiron Club is more honored than a grand strategy that ca-n carry a man to the Oval Office. Nixon and his southern strategy braintrust created and then exploited a message identifying the "new liberalism" as a doctrine sympathetic to the "excessive demands" of blacks (feminists, too, for that matter). As they portrayed it, the new liberalism opposed the modest aspirations of white working-class and middle-class families while forcing those families to pay taxes for programs like affirmative action that undermined their own values and placed them at an economic disadvantage. Unlike the New Deal's old liberalism, which supposedly favored universal or class-based programs, new liberalism supposedly favored special interest programs. The demand for racial justice is thus dismissed as the exclusive prerogative of the special interest group in question (blacks) and their benefactors in the courts and bureaucracies and other orbs favored by the new liberalism.[8]

Nixon was not the first candidate to refine and then ride a southern strategy into the White House. The words themselves ("southern strategy"), though a relatively recent construct, can be better understood as regionless code for "white over black." That racist policy dates back not to Nixon's campaign in 1968 (or as some argue to Barry Goldwater's run in 1964), but to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Slavery was the unwritten code then (the word appears only in the Constitution's Thirteenth Amendment added in 1865 to abolish the peculiar institution formally and forever), and it affected the Philadelphia debates on such key issues as representation in Congress, interstate commerce, and the method of choosing the president. No matter how elliptical, discussion of the slave question influenced things far more than the divisions between "big states" and "small states" that all school-children read about in their texts.

William Lloyd Garrison and his Liberator condemned the Constitution as "A Covenant with Death and an Agreement with Hell" because the Founders sought to preserve their young republic and its economic health by providing explicit and implicit protections for the South's labor system. Explicit protections include the Constitution's three-fifths clause (Art. I, Sec. 2); the "such Persons" (slave importation) clause (Art. I, Sec. 9, Par. 1); the capitation tax clause (Art. I, Sec. 9, Par. 4); the "Person held to Service or Labour" (fugitive slave) clause (Art. IV, Sec. 2, Par. 3); and Article V prohibiting any amendment of the slave-trade and capitation tax clauses before the year 1808. Implicit protections include the amendment structure for changing the document Art. V), requiring approval of three-fourths of the states in 1860 slave states still made up nearly half the nation); prohibition on export taxes (Art. I, Secs. 9 and 10), meaning that slave-produced products (tobacco, rice, and later cotton) could not be taxed; and the insurrection clause (Art. I, Sec. 8) and domestic violence clause (Art. IV, Sec. 4), assigning federal responsibility for suppressing slave revolts.

Because the Electoral College structure included the three-fifths compromise (Art. II, Sec. 1, Par. 2), slaveowners got a disproportional say in choosing the person charged with enforcing the domestic violence clause in the worst-case event that the task of controlling slaves proved too much for these otherwise die-hard states' righters. It ought to come as no surprise, then, that from 1789 to 1861 nine of the fifteen commanders-in-chief were slaveowners; or that all five two-term presidents during those years claimed human property rights; or that even Abraham Lincoln, before battlefield woes forced a reappraisal, promised only to keep slavery from spreading. Lincoln made no promise to move against slavery in the states where it already existed. Careful, as \ever, to distinguish between what the Union's people should do (abolish slavery everywhere) and what they could not do, he said that "the peace of society, and the structure of our government both require that we should let it alone [in the states], and we insist on letting it alone [emphasis added]." For the pre-Gettysburg Lincoln, the Constitution's articles, sections, and paragraphs regarding slavery were "guards which our forefathers have placed around it."[9]

Of the forty-two presidents of the United States only Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson stand out for what they ultimately did on the matter of civil rights for all. But even they brought baggage to their great accomplishments: Lincoln with his white supremacist caveats, closet dream of sending the slaves he freed back to Africa, and faint Reconstruction notion of building a decent Republican party home for the South's poor white trash at the expense of any freedman he could not ship to Liberia; and Johnson with his surveillance state (that gave the FBI et al. free run at an entire race by ranking blacks alongside Communists and criminals) and Vietnam draft boards (that always came first for the people at the bottom he otherwise seemed so intent on helping).

Collectively, the nation's forty-two chief executives have exercised little leadership on any civil rights front. This includes all but the two bright stars whose positive accomplishments were aided by the flow of history. From the Quaker pleas of George Washington's time to the post-Jim Crow litigations and consent decrees of Bill Clinton's time, African Americans have slid about in white America's consciousness as property, dilemma, threat, inconvenience, and cause for guilt and shame. Black citizens occasionally represented a mere patronage or diversity headache for the post-civil War presidency; more often they served as a permanent opponent for the domestic security community's war games and especially as a tool for dividing the electorate.

Southern strategy in our time remains what it has always been: the gut organizing principle of American politics. At root it is nothing more than a belief that presidential elections can be won only by following the doctrines and rituals of white over black. The pecking order has stayed that way through the death of slavery and Jim Crow, and notwithstanding Lincoln and Johnson our presidents have in nearly every other case made it their job yb keep that order.

All three of the nation's two-party systems have accommodated white over black and respected White House responsibilities to ensure that the nation's politics remains organized according to that dictate. In the era of Federalists v. Republicans, our presidents enforced by example the gentlemen's agreement that kept slavery removed from public discourse. While the Whigs continued that increasingly difficult duty from the 1820s to the 1850s, the Jacksonian movement invented a party and a style of presidential leadership that knew no higher purpose than protecting slavery forever. Our third and still functioning two-party system has been largely shaped since the Civil War by a Republican struggle to capture the white southern vote and a Democratic struggle to keep that vote. For the former this meant a presidential charge to transform the Republican party into a white man's party. For the latter it meant a peaceful coexistence between the White House and the worst extremes of southern racism until the coming of Lyndon Johnson and the Second Reconstruction. For post-Johnson Democrats it has meant an effort to counter the GOP's exclusionary racial status. To put it bluntly, Republicans seeking election or reelection to the land's highest office are expected to solidify their hold on the angry white male vote while Democratic presidential candidates are expected to win that vote back.

The most surprising and ultimately disturbing thing in all this is how little the personal values of our presidents mattered. Nearly every pre-civil War chief executive who owned slaves privately admitted that the practice was a sin. A stain," to use Madison's chilling word. In their public lives, of course, those slaveowners honored the Constitution. In more recent times we have had presidents contradict their own heartfelt values by implementing blatantly racist electoral strategies and policies. One candidate actually organized his campaign around the great taboo of American race relations, the black man who raped a white woman. That such a thing could still cut a bath to the White House exactly two hundred years after Washington's election is the sort of troubling reality that needs to be confronted if we are to understand the nature of our democracy and where that democracy will take us all, whatever our color, in the future.

Such a conclusion seems especially alarming when contrasted with more conventional wisdom. The latter holds that, presidential or any other sort of leadership requires followers first and foremost, and thus if the electorate holds racist notions then the men who would be president must inevitably bow to those notions. This is truly a more numbing formulation because it locates the problem in the American people themselves and not in governmental structures. Equally alarming is the historical evidence that the men who ran our political institutions worked so hard to nurture and support the nation's racism. These men, including our presidents, in all too many cases had no great confidence that white over black would rule so absolutely without proper guidance from above.

That lack of confidence was present before the Constitutional Convention and continues to hold to this day. "If Negro slavery came to Virginia without anyone having to decide upon it as a matter of public policy," as historian Edmund S. Morgan has shown, "the same true of racism. By a series of acts, the assembly deliberately did what it could to foster the contempt of whites for black and Indians." Similarly, C. Vann Woodward demonstrated that segregation was not a time-honored tradition even in the deep South but a relatively recent construct of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.[10] In the history of American racism, stateways have influenced folkways far more deeply than the reverse; and the men who came to the Oval Office were as responsible for seeing to this as any Jamestown slaveowner or Jim Crow architect or practitioner of the segmented racial politics that dominates presidential elections today.

Whether in theory and practice or in creation and maturation, the nation's executive branch of government has remained remarkably fixed on the Founders' so-called original intent. An urge to confront problems of race and racism head on has appeared in the Oval Office about as often as a famous named comet cuts the earth's heavens. Structure and nature, however, explain only in part this White House institutionalization of white over black. History shows what the presidency can accomplish when the stars are properly aligned, yet all too often the choices that could have been made to improve things were not made. To write of the forty-two chief executives and their deeds and dreams on matters of race yields few profiles in courage and a great many profiles of men who agonized and analyzed only in search of more perfect ways to protect slavery or Jim Crow or a life expectancy that in the mid-1990s is lower in Harlem than Bangladesh. The story of the presidency and the politics of race is thus largely a story of choices made to acquiesce in, preserve, and adapt the original intent of 1787 to modern times.

All too often the quality of the decisions made by the honorable men who lived in the White House was no better than Nixon's decision at the Gridiron Club to follow Spiro Agnew's darky patter with Dixie" and then "God Bless America" on his piano. It was indeed a Mr. Bones spectacle that Roger Wilkins witnessed when he came to dinner that evening, and aside from a few unscheduled breaks it rates as the nation's saddest and longest running show.

© 1996 Kenneth O'Reilly

Free Press

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