Wherever they are, I wonder if Harry S. Dent, Sr. and Harvey LeRoy “Lee” Atwater are smiling. Both have gone to meet their maker - Atwater in 1991 and Dent in 2007 - and although I doubt that children will be studying them in American classrooms, their legacy is indelibly printed on American politics and history. One more of many examples of that legacy occurred yesterday when Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell was named Chairman of the GOP Governors Association. He succeeded Texas Governor Rick Perry, whose predecessor was Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour.
Virginia, Texas and Mississippi. I wonder if anyone else is struck by the irony that the party founded on the mission to battle the expansion of slavery is now clearly led by former slave states. That the party whose founders fought against the confederacy is now led by states that proudly fly its flag. That the party whose first president battled secession may actually nominate a presidential candidate who actually touted it. Without a doubt, this isn't your "Fore"-Father's GOP. A huge number of its most ardent supporters - perhaps even a majority of them at this point - may actually despise its founding president if not its founding principles. Wow. Just.....wow. Clearly, Lincoln weeps.
So, who in the heck are Harry Dent and Lee Atwater? If you haven't already clicked through the links provided above, Messrs. Dent and Atwater were political operatives. Not elected officials or appointed public servants, they were the Karl Roves of their day. If there were a political strategists Hall of Fame, these two men would be in it because what they did was change the landscape of American politics and in so doing, brought success to their party. At least two presidential candidates - Nixon and Reagan - ran and won using their principles and countless down-office republican candidates have used their techniques. The shorthand name for the set of messages and campaign techniques that changed the electoral map is the Southern Strategy where republican politicians made both overt and covert appeals to southern white racists with coded messages around civil rights, states rights, busing, affirmative-action, welfare, law and order and other issues actually or ostensibly associated to or with black Americans. Harry Dent was the architect of strategy, started out as a political adviser to democrat-turned-dixiecrat-turned-republican Strom Thurmond, himself a fierce segregationist:
“And I want to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there’s not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the n!gger race into our theatres, into our swimming pools, into our homes and into our churches.”
This experience, as well as his observation of Barry Goldwater's unsuccessful presidential run, gave Dent the winning strategy for the 1968 Nixon campaign. Though trounced by President Johnson, Goldwater carried five deep southern states with his States Rights message. With Thumond's help in convincing southerners that he wasn't going to push hard on civil rights, Nixon carried five southern states to narrowly beat Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Republicans knew they had a winning message. Mr. Atwater, adviser to Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush was frank in his description of the strategy and how he perfected it with Reagan:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, 'N!gger, n!gger, n!gger.' By 1968 you can't say 'n!gger' - that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.
And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me - because obviously sitting around saying, 'We want to cut this,' is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than 'N!gger, n!gger.”
Thus, Reagan's first stop after receiving the republican nomination for president was Philadelphia, Mississippi, where racists murdered civil rights workers Cheney, Goodman & Schwerner and buried them in an earthen dam. His message was one of, you guessed it, states rights. Reagan would go on to attack a so-called inner-city welfare queen driving a Cadillac while collecting benefits. In the north, Reagan empathized with workers watching an able-bodied man using food stamps in the grocery store. In the south, Reagan described that able-bodied man as a "strapping young buck" using food stamps to buy steaks. President George H.W. Bush wasn't above the tactic either, running the infamous Willie Horton ads against Michael Dukakis. Senator Jesse Helms was losing to Harvey Gantt until he began running his "white hands" ads decrying affirmative action. Republicans even pursued the strategy against other republicans. In the 2000 South Carolina republican party, Bush campaign strategists led by Karl Rove ran push polls asking voters about McCain’s “illegitimate black child”, who in actuality is a Bangladeshi orphan who the McCains adopted.
There is no denying that the Southern Strategy occurred (two of Atwater’s successors to the RNC chairmanship admitted it) and there is no denying its effectiveness. With the exception of perhaps Florida, the deep southern states are decidedly red in presidential polling. With the exception of Mason-Dixon line states (extended) of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and West Virginia, southern governorships are ubiquitously republican. The last three chairman of the GOP governor's association were from southern states. High fives for the GOP political consulting firm of Dent & Atwater.
I can’t help but feel, however, that this success has come at some cost. With the exception of those republicans who I have come to know personally, I don’t assume the purest of intentions and motivations with respect to matters of race and policy. With the exception of those who I believe have consistently comported themselves with dignity in the heat of campaigning, I don’t hold republican politicians in high esteem and few if any have earned the benefit of the doubt on statements and actions that come too close to the proverbial fault-lines of race. While I do not believe the majority of republicans to be racist, I can’t help but see an all-too-visible minority of people who are. Perhaps most vexing, I don’t note what I would consider to be a requisite level of intra-party disdain expressed toward those republicans who continue to cross the line. Make no mistake in assuming that because I, like other blacks, typically vote democrat, that we are simply blowing this issue out of proportion for partisan reasons. I do not empathize with the weariness expressed by republicans in having to deal with the conundrum of race and consider admonishments to “get over it” to be a “white thing”. The fact that most black people at one time voted republican should confirm that our perspective on this divide isn’t a partisan thing – it’s a “black thing”. I actually hold a level of curious admiration for those black people so focused in their ideological groundings that they can share their tent with people whose perspectives I frankly find repulsive. That said, I am not surprised when Black republican activist Ken Barnes quits the GOP in disgust because of the continued racist e-mails, pictures and “jokes” distributed by fellow California republicans. Or when Arizona black republican Anthony Miller quits after receiving e-mails stating that someone was going to “get him” and having teabaggers refer to him as “McCain’s boy” while using their hands to simulate a pointed gun. Or when Virginia black republican Terone Green feels the need to quit after what he called years of GOP lip service but no action around issues of diversity and ethnic inclusion.
Incredulously, some republicans seem to go out of their way to pull back the festering scab that is race relations even as they feign umbrage at being called on it. While at one point republicans aggressively employed cynical race-baiting tactics in order to win elections, I now find expressions of racism and racial resentment to be reflexive, almost as if it has become part of the republican DNA. What other reason could explain a republican official declaring an escaped gorilla to be an ancestor of the First Lady of the United States of America. What other reason could explain a sitting congressman – for the first time in American history – interrupting the President of the United States while that president was addressing a joint session of Congress? What other reason could explain the republican nominee for the governorship of the State of New York having e-mails depicting the President as a pimp and the First Lady as a whore? What other reason could explain the San Bernadino GOP distributing “Obama Bucks” featuring pictures of stereotypically black diet staples such as fried chicken and watermelon? Who can look at these and legions of other incidents without acknowledging that there just might be a problem? Perhaps the answer is that enough people on the republican side actually don’t believe that such incidents would be a problem if we simply didn’t bring them up.
In my opinion, republicans have evolved their cynical tactics, expanding the “kinds” of people who are somehow less than truly American to include gays, non-Christians and certain immigrants. But race was the grand-daddy wedge issue and as much as some would simply like for us all to move on, even that desire is stunningly hypocritical, what with the new chair of the GOP Governors Association declaring April to be Confederate History Month in Virginia but not including a reference to slavery because:
"there were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states. Obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues. But I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia."
The Southern Strategy put republicans into power but made us a weaker, less unified country. Feelings are so raw and the views so polarized that we can’t even come to an agreement that maintains the full faith and credit of the United States. The latest entrant into the race for the republican nomination has gone back to insinuating that the President is somehow anti-American.
During the Clinton v. Bush campaign, I noticed a strange interview with Lee Atwater and his democratic counterpart Ron Brown. In it, Atwater was attempting to be magnanimous, reaching rhetorically across the political divide toward Brown who – apparently unwilling to give quarter – slammed Atwater. I noted the disappointment on Atwater’s face as the interview ended. Sometime after that interview, Lee Atwater died of cancer at the age of 40. Perhaps I read too much into that interview, but I couldn’t help but believe that perhaps Atwater knew that he was dying and because of it he was concerned about the political legacy he was leaving behind – that he wanted to go out looking like a good guy after making a career out of being a bad guy. Mr. Dent, a Southern Baptist deacon started a lay ministry with his wife that built orphanages and churches in Romania and was active in religious organizations after he left politics. In a 1981 interview, he expressed a regret:
“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.”
Former governor George Wallace, on his sickbed before dying at 72 years old, told columnist Carl Rowan how he regretted shouting “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” at the conclusion of his 1963 inauguration speech on the steps of the Alabama capitol building. Though he never openly expressed regret for his segregationist stances, even Strom Thurmond apparently voted to extend federal voting rights laws and voted in favor of establishing the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. Some republicans – most notably former RNC chair Ken Mehlman – have gone so far as to apologize for the Southern Strategy, much to the displeasure of Rush Limbaugh and others. But acknowledgement among republicans of the damage done by it has not been significant. Indeed, I note far more people on Newsvine who attempt to ignore, obfuscate and deflect the obvious even when yet another republican, conservative or tea party member pops off with yet another racist remark or gets caught distributing yet another racist e-mail. I am highly skeptical of the ability of republicans to eschew the race-baiting, xenophobia, homophobia and expressions of religious bigotry that have helped to fuel their electoral success so I’m not expecting miracles this election season. Perhaps the party does have to come face-to-face with its own mortality in order to stop drinking the Hate-O-Rade.