Presidents and Racial Politics From Washington to Clinton
By Kenneth O'Reilly
Free Press.
525 pp. $27.50

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In Tune With Prejudice

By Jonathan Yardley

Nov. 5, 1995

The title of this study of American presidents and race is drawn from an incident at the Gridiron Club's annual dinner in 1970. The gentlemen of the press had completed their sophomoric skits and had turned over the stage to Richard Nixon and his vice president, Spiro Agnew. Each sat at a piano. Nixon played a medley of familiar traditional songs, but was repeatedly interrupted by Agnew, who "drowned him out a few bars into each with a manic Dixie on his piano," producing "louder and louder" laughter from the audience."

When Richard Nixon played his piano at the Gridiron Club in 1970," Kenneth O'Reilly writes, "the performance symbolized more than the incredible and arguably racist insensitivity of a single chief executive. Nixon's piano, as much as anything else, symbolized the presidency and the politics of race backwards and forwards in history. . . ." This may seem to be a sweeping overstatement, but O'Reilly's careful documentation of the racial attitudes and civil-rights policies of all the presidents leaves no doubt that it is accurate. O'Reilly believes that the Southern strategy made famous, or infamous, by Nixon in the 1972 presidential election "has always been . . . the gut organizing principle of American politics." This is a somewhat more dubious proposition, given that American politics must come to grips with a vast array of social, economic and ideological issues, but in two senses it is most certainly true: Americans have argued over race since the founding of the Republic, and their principal leaders have only rarely encouraged them to do so in sober or responsible ways.

The record of presidential attitudes toward African Americans is uniformly dreary. From Washington to Clinton, not a single man has assumed the nation's highest office with an uncompromised commitment to equal rights and opportunities for black Americans. George Washington "saw slavery as a moral abomination and a looming political horror," but kept his own counsel on the subject because, in his own words, "it behooves me to prevent the emancipation" of his own slaves. Two centuries later Bill Clinton, "arguably the least prejudiced of the 41 men who preceded him," won the presidency in a close election in which he played racial tunes by in effect chastising Sister Souljah in order to establish his tough-guy bona fides with white voters.

Between these two men, the record of presidential evasion, opportunism, cowardice and cynicism on the matter of race is almost unbroken. The notable exceptions, O'Reilly argues, are Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson, but even in these cases the record is tarnished; Lincoln came slowly and reluctantly to his repudiation of slavery, clinging for a long time to the will-o'-the-wisp of black colonization in Africa or elsewhere, and Johnson ended his administration bitterly angry at black leaders who, he believed, had betrayed him by growing ever more militant in their demands for full equality. Colonization was a solution favored by many 19th-century presidents, presumably on the grounds that out of sight is out of mind. Some went further than that. Five of the first seven presidents owned slaves. Andrew Jackson was "among the southwest's biggest slave holders" and, while protesting that "I could not bear the idea of inhumanity to my poor negroes," yet sought the return of runaway slaves by advertising in the press "and concocted stories if discipline crippled or killed a slave."

Matters improved little with the end of the 19th century. The nation was obsessed by race: "Whites feared that blacks were out to get their jobs, violate their women, cut their throats on country roads and city streets, and go over to their enemies on whatever battlefield." The men they elected to the presidency did precious little to discourage them in these fears. Theodore Roosevelt summarily dismissed all the members of three companies of the black 25th U.S. Infantry after they allegedly rioted in Brownsville, Texas, "disqualifying {them} from military or civil service forever," though evidence against them was almost nonexistent. His cousin Franklin "did something for blacks through government appointments, general aid to the dispossessed and symbolic gestures," but overall he followed the counsel of Louis Howe " to favor our Southern brethren and not our anxious colored brethren.' "

TODAY'S READERS will be familiar with the record of Roosevelt's successors. Though great strides have been made toward realizing the constitutional promise of full opportunity and rights, most presidents from Truman to Clinton have been irresolute participants in this process and only rarely have sought to provide active leadership. They have been more likely to exploit racial divisions for political gain than to use the bully pulpit they occupy in order to point the nation toward reconciliation.

The line between pure cynicism and practical politics is not always easy to discern, and O'Reilly tends to lose sight of it. He sees presidential policies on race through the prism of idealism, while presidents tend to see race and everything else in terms of the next election. This doesn't excuse their sorry record on the most basic of constitutional rights, but it does help explain it. At times, as he flails away at president after president, O'Reilly seems more than a little naive; he ignores the unpleasant reality that idealism brings far less puissant artillery to human affairs than does cynicism.

But to cite this reality is not to absolve it or those who profit from it. While it is true that political leaders are rarely much better than those who elect them -- our presidents' record on race would be far better if our own were -- it is also true that this persistent inability and/or unwillingness to provide positive leadership in race relations does not speak well for the men who have occupied the White House. Whatever else they may be, our presidents are hardly moral exemplars.

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