Home / General / The Last Liberal President, Voting Rights Edition

The Last Liberal President, Voting Rights Edition



Speaking of voting rights, let’s return to the Golden Age of American Politics when there was a real liberal in the White House and everyone in American politics favored single-payer health care (I’m not sure why it never came remotely close to passing, but I blame Barack Obama.) From Ari Berman’s essential Give Us the Ballot:

[South Carolina GOP Chairman and top Strom Thurmond adviser] Dent told Nixon, “Thurmond was the only Southern leader in the GOP who could rally Southerners to the GOP banner.” Nixon had already been courting South Carolina’s sixty-four-year-old junior senator, telling the press in Columbia, “Strom is no racist. Strom is a man of courage and integrity.” (69)

OK, but Nixon was just pandering to win neoconfederate votes and there was no substance behind it, right? Not hardly. Nixon’s attorney general, future felon and arch-reactionary John Mitchell (not a dime’s worth of difference between him and Nick Katzenbach or Eric Holder!), proposed a substantial revision to the Voting Rights Act as its sunsetted provisions came up for renewal. Nixon’s proposed bill would have eliminated Section 5 — the preclearance provision — from the bill entirely, going Shelby County one better more than 40 years before the fact. The bill also would have eliminated the preclearance formula in Section 4, not to create broader rights enforcement — there would no longer be anything for the DOJ to preclear — but to send a message that there was no problem in states that were still aggressively resisting the Voting Rights Act.

But this was just a purely empty gesture to appease his southern base, right? Well, Nixon cared enough about the bill that the House actually passed his version. The original VRA was preserved because Senate Democrats worked with the well-to-the-left-of-Nixon Republican leadership to pass a renewal that kept Sections 4 and 5, which the Democratic leadership then got through the House. Nixon seriously considered vetoing the bill but in the wake of Kent State decided to hold his fire and let it pass.

Why, I’m beginning to think that the legislation a Democratic Congress put on Nixon’s desk doesn’t really reflect Nixon’s agenda or influence! But, the kind of person who is really committed to this Nixon-was-to-Obama’s-left nonsense might argue, maybe Nixon knew how this would play out, so his attempt to gut the Voting Rights Act was just empty pandering? Well, we can look at Nixon’s civil rights record on low-visibility areas more within his control. Most importantly, his appointment to head the Civil Rights Division was a complete nonentity who took orders from…Harry Dent. Those orders were not “robustly enforce civil rights,” and the CRD was hit with a wave of resignations. Oh, and we shouldn’t forget that Nixon’s Supreme Court nominations provided the four votes necessary to effectively overrule Brown v. Board of Education.

But Hillary Clinton would name Zombie Strom Thurmond to head the Civil Rights Division, introduce legislation to repeal the Voting Rights Act in its entirety and make Jeff Sessions her first Supreme Court nomination, so I’m writing in H.A. Goodman.

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  • howard

    i’m not going to guarantee that my memory is infallible on this, but it seems to me in real time, “everyone” knew that the payoff for southern racists joining the gop was going to be in court nominations, which is why the nomination of clement haynesworth in the first place and why nixon doubled down with harrold carswell before he finally compromised on blackmun.

    and strom, of course, was crucial in the development of the southern strategy and his support for nixon was a bedrock against the southern gop affection for reagan at the ’68 convention.

    • Malaclypse

      And if memory serves, Rehnquist started off doing voter suppression in Arizona.

      • Scott Lemieux

        And — as was known at the time of his nomination — thought the Court should have re-affirmed Plessy in 1952.

        • Malaclypse

          Somewhere (probably Campaign Trail) Hunter Thompson have the sort of description of Rehnquist that only he could write, but my google-fu is failing.

          • BiloSagdiyev

            If only the good doctor were here with us today, so he could set up PA’s and a tape recorder outside of H.A. Goodman’s house at 3 am and play elk mating calls at full volume. Also, something with pistols and fireworks.

          • Jeff R.

            You can do “search inside” at Amazon:

            [To Jim Flug, a Kennedy aide:]
            “To hell with Butz,” I said, “What about Rehnquist? Are they actually going to put a swine like that on the Supreme Court?”

            Now, with Nixon trying to fill two more Court vacancies, Flug said there was not a chance in hell of beating either one of them.

            “Not even Rehnquist?” I asked. “Christ, that’s like Lyndon Johnson trying to put Bobby Baker on the Court.”

            • Malaclypse

              I could have sworn it was a lot more colorful.

              • Jeff R.

                There’s one reference later where mentions complaints about his objectivity because he called Rehnquist a swine (remember this was originally serialized in RS). He says the only objective reporter he knows is Dr. Raoul Duke who “grabs objectivity by the throat.” Elsewhere, he says if want objectivity in a newspaper, read the box scores.

              • BiloSagdiyev

                I did find this at the Rolling Stone tube:

                Justice William Rehnquist, the fourth and most virulently conservative of the four Nixon appointees, has been either pressured or cajoled by the others to remove himself from the case because of his previous association with the Nixon administration. Rehnquist was an assistant attorney general in John Mitchell’s Justice Department before Nixon picked him up by his jackboots and hoisted him onto the Court.

          • Joe_JP

            The world is full of dangerous beasts – but none quite as ugly or uncontrollable as a lawyer who has finally flipped off the tracks of reason. He will run completely amok – like a Priest into sex, or a narc-squad cop who suddenly decides to start sampling the contraband.

            – Hunter Thompson on William Rehinquist’s nomination to the Supreme Court in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’78 P.38

            He also says something about WR being addicted to pills but given the source not surprisingly didn’t think much of the fact.

            • Malaclypse

              Think that was it.

              I so need to dig up and reread that bok.

        • howard

          well, hell, i’ll see your 1952 and raise you a 1948 thurmond run for the presidency to preserve segregation as a state’s right against the federal interlopers.

          a classy group of characters all around….

          • Scott Lemieux

            The Dixecrats were just running to restore courage and integrity to the White House.

            • Malaclypse

              I’ve heard it was really about States’ Rights.

              • BiloSagdiyev

                To do what? Oh, I’m sorry, it’s rude to ask. I’ll see myself out.

                • joe from Lowell

                  It’s just like a liberal to take a conversation about Strom Thurmond running for President in an effort to protect states rights from the threat of federal civil rights enforcement and drag race into it.

              • ColBatGuano

                I thought it was about tariffs?

    • Gwen

      Following up on my comment yesterday re: Wallace… the AIP platform had a lengthy rant about the federal judiciary.

      So, yes, the Court was a huge issue for conservatives ca. 1968. And Nixon was generally happy to oblige (although he and Ford accidentally appointed a few liberals like John Paul Stevens…).

      • howard

        the hatred started with brown v. board, and the language the right still employs about “activist judges” was all invented in the ’50s and ’60s thanks to brown, miranda, and a number of others….

        • efgoldman

          the hatred started with brown v. board, and the language the right still employs about “activist judges” was all invented in the ’50s and ’60s thanks to brown, miranda, and a number of others….

          And in fact, “Impeach Earl Warren” was a trope among the Birchers and their acolytes.

      • Scott Lemieux

        Stevens was just a Ford thing. Nixon’s four first choices were all reactionaries, and even Blackmun was conservative on the issues Nixon cared about for his first decade on the bench.

  • Hogan

    John Mitchell, not George.

    • howard

      right, john mitchell, corrupt wall streeter that he was turned out to have the most accurate take on the future of anyone in his time, having been quoted during the “mayday” 1971 mobilization against the war in vietnam that “this country is going to go so far to the right that you won’t recognize it.”

    • Scott Lemieux

      Thanks, just caught that! Apologies for briefly impugning the fine senator from Maine. Somehow, “if you guys could nail George Mitchell that would be beautiful” doesn’t have the same ring….

    • efgoldman

      John Mitchell, not George

      Yes, and his wife Martha, who would call reporters and complain about the crooks and liars in Tricksie Dicksie’s circle.

  • Roberta

    Is anyone seriously saying Nixon’s a liberal? I thought it was snark, introduced into discourse by Stephen Colbert back in 2005 or 2006.

    • Scott Lemieux

      Sadly, yes, this is a thing, at least in “more liberal than Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton” form.

      • Linnaeus

        Yes, and the evidence given is something like, “Nixon signed into law the EPA, which you’d never see now because the Democrats became too conservative”.

        • BiloSagdiyev

          In addition to overlooking the fact that there was a lot of popular support for enviro issues at the time and a lot of Democratic power to make things happen, what’s also frustrating about this was that Nixon proposed the EPA as a way of consolidating several already existing agencies that dealt with environmental/pollution issues, so this was a way to look like he was doing something, and a way to claim efficiency! cost savings! while not actually doing something all that new.

          • brad

            There’s also, in my somewhat limited knowledge of times before I existed, much talk that he only formed the agency to prevent it being forced upon him as a Cabinet level priority.

            • Manny Kant

              It’s really kind of absurd that EPA isn’t a cabinet department.

          • Right, well, if you say the president gets credit for public opinion and the legislative branch, then it’s obvious!

            • joe from Lowell

              Nixon knew how to lead with leadership.

              And also blackmail.

              He knew how to lead with leadership and blackmail.

              • And ratfucking.

                Nixon’s skills include leadership, blackmail and ratfucking.

                • brad

                  And an almost fanatical devotion to the war.

                  Amongst his skills are such diverse elements as leadership, blackmail, ratfucking, an almost fanatical devotion to the war, and a love of profanity… ugh, I’ll come in again.

    • Malaclypse

      Well, there’s Freddie.

      • Scott Lemieux

        Check their records in domestic policy. Check their preferences on health care. Check their relationship to the social safety net

        Yes, Freddie, maybe you should do that sometime.

      • Roberta

        Oh God. Someone needs to introduce this person to the concept of context.

        • JMV Pyro

          It’s Freddie. He believes himself beyond such petty things as “context”. America’s next great public intellectual subsists on his mind and logic alone.

          • efgoldman

            It’s Freddie. He believes himself beyond such petty things as “context”.

            And also, he never uses a hundred words when 1000 will do the same job.

      • Malaclypse

        And, as is obvious downthread, we have out very own idiots people who believe this rather silly thing.

        • jim, some guy in iowa

          he just wants attention and knows how to get it without going full-on troll. it’s kind of an art form

    • UserGoogol

      Noam Chomsky has been saying it for a while: here’s a quote of him saying it in June of 2000 in an article in Z Magazine. There’s a snarky component to it, but it seems to have disseminated pretty broadly.

      • CrunchyFrog

        Yep, there it is clear as day:

        In contrast, when Richard Nixon—in many respects the last liberal president—

        Now, keep in mind this was 2000, before Dubya and Obama. Clinton’s presidency was still active and his record had all the warts we know about, and let us not forget that Carter was hated by the left so much that Ted Kennedy came very close to defeating him in the 1980 primaries. So it’s not *that* outrageous.

        But I think there is a very valid point to be made that has gotten lost in the misguided attempts by some to characterize Nixon as liberal. That is the incredible degree to which the Overton window has shifted since 1970 regarding national political issues. Topics like conservation and the environment were considered bipartisan. Hell, the Equal Rights Amendment breezed through both houses of Congress in 1972, but by 1979 conservatives had turned strongly against it. Basic gun control measures also were bipartisan – even the NRA at the time supported them.

        There’s no way Nixon supports any of those things if he were alive today. Doubtful also that Reagan supports half the things he did if he were a GOP pol today.

        There is a related point that, due to the success of the conservative movement a lot of Democratic politicians caved on what used to be key policy points – and I’m thinking the DLC-type of folks here (Clinton included). We still have a few of those left, but fortunately outside of a few issues like funneling education tax dollars to corporations most Democrats don’t hold DLC-type positions any more.

        • Phil Perspective

          We still have a few of those left, but fortunately outside of a few issues like funneling education tax dollars to corporations most Democrats don’t hold DLC-type positions any more.

          LOL!! All those who have power still do!! See Rahmbo and Marty Walsh as just two examples, among many.

          • Malaclypse

            I don’t understand the use of qualifiers either.

            • Lord Jesus Perm

              Say what you want about Phil, but he’s committed to his job.

              • Scott Lemieux

                The fact that he couldn’t even be bothered to cherry-pick a Democratic officeholder above the municipal level is also impressive.

        • efgoldman

          Ted Kennedy came very close to defeating him in the 1980 primaries.

          Not all that close. But the rift ensured the landslide for Sanctus Ronaldus Magnus, who probably would have won anyway.

    • Matt McIrvin

      It’s a fashionable way of saying “not a dime’s worth of difference”.

  • Keaaukane

    Why is this man laughing?

    • so-in-so

      He just read the Freddie comment linked by Mal above?

    • BiloSagdiyev

      He just dreamed up the idea to run for president by saying he had a secret plan to get us out of Vietnam? But not telling people he intended to stay and try to almost-kinda-win-maybe, I mean, slooowly withdraw, but not, of course, within the first term, as getting reelected is very important?

      (I could go on with the perfidy on just this subject, but Nixonian perfidy has a way of going on and on.)

      • Woodrowfan

        when I mentioned the “Secret Plan” in class last week a lot of my students actually laughed.

        • efgoldman

          when I mentioned the “Secret Plan” in class last week a lot of my students actually laughed.

          Unfortunately, nobody was laughing at the time.

    • joe from Lowell

      Someone had just said, “But sir, we’re the party of Lincoln.”

      • Ahuitzotl

        Also Chevrolet and Cadillac

  • Dilan Esper

    The problem with these posts is that Scott focuses on the many areas where Nixon wasn’t liberal and ignores issues like guaranteed income and price controls where he was.

    It’s fine, of course, to say Nixon wasn’t liberal. He wasn’t. But he was, in fact, more liberal than modern politics allows on some issues.

    • joe from Lowell

      If you can show me any evidence of Nixon being liberal on either of those issues at any point in his career in Congress, as Vice President, or during his 1968 campaign – that is, before he started acceding to liberal positions he despised in order to keep the Democratic Congress on board with Vietnam while he was President – I will stop treating “liberal Nixon” as a punchline.

      • ColBatGuano

        Evidence? Mere assertion will do!

    • BiloSagdiyev

      It may be an issue of how many manys on each side of the issue.

    • Malaclypse

      It takes a special kind of stupid to think nobody else will remember that the full policy was “wage and price controls.”

      Also, I have Richard Fucking Nixon right here:

      This national floor under incomes for working or dependent families is not a “guaranteed income.” Under the guaranteed income proposal, everyone would be assured a minimum income, regardless of how much he was capable of earning, regardless of what his need was, regardless of whether or not he was willing to work.

      Now, during the presidential campaign last year, I opposed such a plan. I oppose it now and I will continue to oppose it, and this is the reason: A guaranteed income would undermine the incentive to work; the family assistance plan that I propose increases the incentive to work.

      A guaranteed income establishes a right without any responsibilities; family assistance recognizes a need and establishes a responsibility. It provides help to those in need and, in turn, requires that those who receive help work to the extent of their capabilities. There is no reason why one person should be taxed so that another can choose to live idly.

      • Malaclypse

        And note, in the very middle of what Dilan calls a liberal policy, the following massive dog-whistle:

        The present system often makes it possible to receive more money on welfare than on a low-paying job. This creates an incentive not to work, and it also is unfair to the working poor. It is morally wrong for a family that is working to try to make ends meet to receive less than a family across the street on welfare. This has been bitterly resented by the man who works, and rightly so.

        “Liberal.” That’s some weapons-grade stupid, that is.

      • JKTH

        Yeah, Nixon was going off Friedman’s idea for a negative income tax which you specifically have to earn income to benefit from. It’s in essence what the current EITC is, clearly not a guaranteed income.

        • Cassiodorus

          You don’t need income to benefit from Friedman’s negative income tax idea. You get the most dollar benefit from it by having no income at all.

      • Scott Lemieux

        It takes a special kind of stupid to think nobody else will remember that the full policy was “wage and price controls.”

        Ah, you beat me to it. Even by Dilan intelligence-insulting standards, this is classic. We’ve been through this before, but if your evidence for Nixon’s liberalism is an ineffective policy with no support among any discernible constituency on the left, then you have no evidence.

        In fairness, at least he didn’t return to the “but some environmental legislation passed with veto-proof majorities, sometimes over actual Nixon vetoes!” canard he’s trotted out before.

    • TribalistMeathead

      It’s fine, of course, to say Nixon wasn’t liberal. He wasn’t. But he was, in fact, more liberal than modern politics allows on some issues.

      Yes, this is true. It’s also true to say “It’s fine, of course, to say [President] wasn’t [liberal/conservative]. He wasn’t. But he was, in fact, more [liberal/conservative] than modern politics allows on some issues.” What’s your point?

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        that instead of “Jefferson/Jackson” events the dems should use “Nixon/Clinton” ?

        • Malaclypse

          Roosevelt/Obama, obvs.

          • keep Jefferson/Jackson just make it about George and Jesse

  • sergius

    Completely agree that Ari Berman’s Give Us the Ballot is essential. It was eye-opening for me on many points even though I read LGM with regularity. The only thing I didn’t like in the book was the few times he impugned Republicans for things that had nothing to do with voting rights (e.g. he insinuated that Hans von Spakovsky has a sinister sounding name, and he mentioned John Ashcroft’s spending taxpayer money to cover up Lady Liberty at an event, which while not a good use of resources, was not a germane point to the book, and only seemed to be there to make him seem silly). I wrote a review of some of the real highlights, though, including the voter roll purge in FL before the 2000 election.

    • Joe_JP

      Hans von Spakovsky has a sinister sounding name

      Kinda does and stating the obvious is okay. He doesn’t harp on it. But, sure, focus on his sinister deeds. Richard Hasen also is on the case & his book Voting Wars helped cover the “The Fraudalent Fraud Squad.” The “Lady Liberty” citation also is forgivable — he was setting a mood of the place of an announcement and the personality of the person in question.

      (I read the book but don’t recall the references; checked them via Amazon’s “look inside” preview feature.)

      • sergius

        Sure, I forgive it, too, but that’s because I agree with him about voting rights. We’re on the same team. But I have a lot of relatives and friends who are Republicans (and I used to be one, too, until I went to grad school and actually started to pay attention), so when I read books and write reviews, I’m thinking about people who don’t agree with me necessarily. And to me, mentioning those things really detracts from the focus on the “sinister deeds.” It makes it easier to dismiss Berman as having a “liberal bias,” when he’s done an amazing job of researching and reporting the issue. They were miniscule references, so I’m probably nitpicking. I’m hyper aware of that kind of thing though because of the audience of my blog.

        ETA I’ll have to check out that Hasen book. Thanks for the rec.

  • Brian Schmidt

    I just want to say that picture makes Nixon look more human than any other I’ve seen of him.

    Is Scott a secret sympathizer?

    • NonyNony

      I was going to say something similar – that’s the only picture I’ve see of Nixon smiling. I think I may have seen a few photos of him smirking but it took me a while to realize that that was actually Nixon.

      • The Temporary Name

        He’s possibly standing on an infant.

        • brad

          No, but he is about to unhinge his jaw and swallow one.

          • Gregor Sansa

            Clearly, he didn’t know about rule 34. In fact there are several rules he clearly didn’t know.

            (That link is actually SFW, despite what you’re thinking, you dirty person you.)

  • Gregor Sansa

    It’s probably worth having a post about the “data-gate” thing. You know, the one that currently has paralyzed a campaign with more support than Trump, and which they’ve threatened a court case over. I don’t think this is good for either side; and though there’s plenty of fuck-uppery to go around in the story, the ones who look worst are the DN fucking C.

    • efgoldman

      It’s probably worth having a post about the “data-gate” thing.

      Pierce did a good post on it.

  • j_kay

    Nixon ruined the 70s economy with his wage and price controls. It worked because real capitalism needs to change prices and wages to work.

    And he was the liberallest nukemomger ever.

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