header by Emerson Taymor, 2005
9. The Twenties
14. The Sixties
GOP Apologizes for Southern Strategy
Mike Allen, “RNC Chief to Say It Was ‘Wrong’ to Exploit
Racial Conflict for Votes,” Washington
Post, July 14, 2005
New York Times
In the small Southern town that produced Harry Dent, the future Nixon White House political aide, Dent’s great-uncle John (The Baptist) Prickett edited the newspaper. One day, an outraged reader called Prickett a “Republican S.O.B.” Prickett, who like everyone else in South Carolina was a Democrat, laid him flat with a punch. The baffled reader, upon recovering, asked what was the matter with calling him an S.O.B. “But you called me a Republican S.O.B.,” Prickett answered — and thereby hangs the tale of why Harry Shuler Dent is such an important figure in American history. He was the behind-the-scenes player who did the most to turn the South from a region that despised Republicans into a Republican bastion.
For most of the post-Civil-War era, the Grand Old Party survived in the Southern popular imagination as the Yankee enemy, eager to conspire with newly enfranchised slaves to overturn the entire “Southern way of life.” In 1957, Republican congressmen were instrumental in passing the first federal civil rights law in almost a century. The idea of a Southern state delivering its electoral votes to “the party of Lincoln” would have seemed outrageous before the 1960s — before, that is, the national Democratic Party made a commitment to the enforcement of civil rights for blacks.
By then, Harry Dent was a top political aide to Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Thurmond ran for president as a third-party “Dixiecrat” in 1948 after the Democratic convention passed a civil rights plank. Shortly before the 1964 presidential election, a Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, passed the most sweeping civil rights law in United States history. This time, Thurmond didn’t form a third party. The Republican presidential nominee, the conservative Barry Goldwater, opposed the civil rights law, which was political heresy at the time, as the conventional wisdom was that Republicans could not win the presidency without courting the black vote. Dent, a Southerner through and through — he was a lay preacher and established the Senate’s breakfast prayer group — persuaded his boss to drop out of the Democratic Party for good, join the Republicans and campaign for Goldwater. Goldwater lost in a landslide, winning just six states, five of them in Dixie. The “solid Democratic South” had been breached. American politics would never be the same.
Dent’s ascent to the upper echelons of the White House began in 1966. Following Goldwater’s lead, Richard Nixon laid the groundwork for his presidential nomination by building his political base in the 11 states of the Old Confederacy. To succeed, he would need the blessing of the South’s most trusted Republican: Strom Thurmond. To get to Thurmond, he knew he’d need the loyalty of the man Thurmond trusted most: Harry Dent. It happened via one of those colorful stories of which Southern political lore is made. The Dent family dog had just been run over by a car, and Nixon, thinking quickly, sent Dent’s stricken children a new one. A grateful Dent, who had a gift for soothing the egos of powerful men — on the Nixon Oval Office tapes you can hear him agreeing with whatever the president says almost before he’s through saying it — explained to Nixon how to win Thurmond’s heart, advice Nixon followed. Nixon announced: “Strom is no racist. Strom is a man of courage and integrity.”
But by 1968 Nixon was still not guaranteed the loyalty of Southern Republicans. Thurmond had installed Dent as chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, and Dent had organized his fellow Southern chairmen in a scheme to vote their delegations as a block at the convention. But first they would play hard to get, making the three top contenders — Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Nelson Rockefeller — come down South and beg for their hand. According to legend, Rockefeller, despised by them anyway as a civil rights liberal, nearly disqualified himself by trying to pour sugar on his grits. Reagan, the sentimental favorite, ruled himself out by refusing to say whether he was officially running. Nixon met the state chairmen on May 31, 1968, in Atlanta, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was interred six weeks earlier. He walked off with the prize after pledging to appoint “strict constructionist” Supreme Court justices and choose a running mate “acceptable to all sections of the party” — in other words, one signed off on by Thurmond. The South was now not just a player in Republican politics. It was calling the tune.
“Four years ago it would never have occurred to Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller to go politicking in the South,” Richard Dougherty of The Los Angeles Times wrote, marveling at the accomplishment of South Carolina’s “conservative and articulate” state chairman. That one word — “articulate” — spoke volumes. Dent claimed his truest passion was healing the South’s wounded regional pride: the shame at being condescended to by Yankees. At the 1968 Republican National Convention, Dent deployed his mastery of wounded Southern pride to keep restless Dixie convention delegates united behind Nixon instead of Reagan. Then, in the general election, he ran the “Thurmond Speaks for Nixon-Agnew” committee, which was ostensibly “independent” of the official campaign, lest Nixon be excoriated by pundits for campaigning in the South, as one internal memo put it, “in regional code words.” President Nixon rewarded Dent with a White House job as his keeper of those same regional code words, the man in charge of demonstrating to the South that the White House would not be working to enforce federal civil rights laws, while appearing publicly to endorse them. That move would soon be enshrined in the press as the “Southern Strategy.”
Most of Dent’s days were spent working the back channels, assuring Southerners that the administration would stonewall federal court desegregation decisions. After Nixon’s first Supreme Court nominee, South Carolina’s Clement Haynsworth, withdrew under a cloud of corruption allegations, the president ordered Dent to “find a good federal judge further South and further to the right.” Dent obliged him with G. Harrold Carswell, who once campaigned for the Georgia State Legislature with the credo, “I believe that segregation of the races is proper and the ONLY practical and correct way of life in our states.” Nixon, following Dent’s example, argued that the opposition to Carswell’s nomination was mere regional bigotry against the South. Liberals, not without reason, regarded Dent, Time reported, as “a Southern-fried Rasputin in the Nixon administration.”
The lay preacher in Dent suffered from a guilty conscience. In his 1978 memoir, “The Prodigal South Returns to Power,” Dent wrote that his politics were never racist. “The aim of the Southern strategy,” he claimed, was merely “to have the South treated just like any other section of the U.S.A.” Three years later, when he retired from law to preach the Gospel full time, he came clean. Yes, he admitted, of course he had exploited race to aggrandize Southern power. “When I look back,” he said, “my biggest regret now is anything I did that stood in the way of the rights of black people.”