In discussing the campaign ahead, Howard Dean has said on several occasions now that the Republicans will "do what they've been doing since 1968." But what exactly is that? As far as I can tell, what they've been doing is winning presidential elections. They have won six of the last nine if you count the last one that they did not exactly win.
Of course, that's not exactly what Dean meant. He meant that for him to win in 2004 he has to defeat a system established in 1968 by Richard M. Nixon. Never one to mince words, Dean has described that system as one of "coded racism." And its key code phrase was "states' rights," an old Southern favorite going back to the right to own slaves.
Nixon, always known more as an opportunist than an ideologue, assessed the political landscape when he ran for president in 1968, a time when Republicans had lost every presidential election since the Depression, except for two by Dwight D. Eisenhower. Like Dean today, he asked why are we losing and how can that be changed?
Nixon saw his opportunity in the decline of the great civil rights movement and the killing of Martin Luther King Jr. He judged that the South, a solid Democratic bloc that had never forgiven Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans for the Emancipation Proclamation, was furious about 10 years of civil rights progress and was ready to turn on the Democrats, who had received faithful Southern support since before the Civil War. In the end, Nixon defeated the Democrats not because of their worst disaster, Vietnam, but because of their greatest accomplishment, civil rights.
Many Republicans had backed civil rights too. In 1968, the Republican Party had many prominent liberals, including New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who, according to pollsters, may have been the most popular politician in the U.S.; New York City Mayor John Lindsay; and the first black senator since reconstruction, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts. The party's significant black support included that of Dodger great Jackie Robinson.
Rockefeller contributed to the death of Republican liberalism by running a disastrous campaign for the nomination. When the summer convention opened in Miami, Rockefeller had the goodwill and Nixon had the delegates. Many thought Nixon would create "the dream ticket" with a liberal running mate such as Rockefeller or Lindsay who could steal votes from the Democrats. But Nixon surprised and angered his party by keeping his promise to South Carolina's Strom Thurmond, who had recently become a Republican with the understanding that Nixon would choose a running mate that would please states' rights Southerners.
Nixon chose Maryland Gov. Spiro T. Agnew and the party could not conceal its unhappiness. There was a move to try to force Nixon to pick someone else. It was stopped only because Lindsay performed Nixon the service of seconding the Agnew nomination.
The following day, the NAACP denounced the ticket, which it said was composed of "white backlash candidates."
Robinson switched to the Democrats. Accurately defining the division but not the outcome, he said, "I think what the Republican Party has forgotten is that decent white people are going to take a real look at this election, and they're going to join with black America, with Jewish America, with Puerto Ricans, and say that we can't go backward, we can't tolerate a ticket that is racist in nature and that is inclined to let the South have veto powers over what is happening."
Nixon also began a campaign for an anti-civil rights court and in so doing sharpened the division between parties and turned the U.S. Senate into a far meaner place. Lame-duck President Lyndon Johnson had chosen Associate Justice Abe Fortas to be U.S. chief justice. Back in those quaint times, both Republican and Democratic senators recognized the right of the president to have his choice. Fortas had almost overwhelming support from Democrats and Republican leaders. But John Ehrlichman, later Nixon's chief advisor on domestic affairs, worked with Robert Griffin, a GOP senator from Michigan, who got 19 Nixon Republicans to oppose the nomination.
At his hearings, Fortas was subjected to an unprecedented grilling by a coalition of right-wing Republicans and Southern Democrats. A new alliance was taking shape. Among the chief inquisitors were Thurmond and John Stennis of Mississippi, who denounced Fortas for being a liberal and attacked him for supporting desegregation.
Griffin launched a filibuster that successfully tied up the hearings until the end of the congressional session — the first time in American history that a filibuster was used to block a Supreme Court appointment.
When Nixon came to power, he began to attack the Supreme Court, attempting to destroy liberal judges and replace them with judges preferably from the South with anti-civil rights records.
Fortas was driven from the bench in a White House-created scandal for accepting fees in a manner that was common practice for Supreme Court justices. The next target was William O. Douglas, a Roosevelt-appointed liberal, but an impeachment drive against him failed.
The Fortas attack plus the bad health of elderly judges gave Nixon the unusual opportunity of appointing four Supreme Court justices in his first term, including the Justice Department's legal mind behind the Supreme Court attacks, William H. Rehnquist.
All Republican presidential candidates since 1968, including George W. Bush, have used the accepted code phrase for anti-civil rights, "states' rights."
That is why there was no contradiction in Bush endorsing states' rights and then, when his election was in doubt, turning to the federal court run by a member of the original team, Chief Justice Rehnquist.
No Democrat since John Kennedy has won a majority of white Southern votes. Dean knows that if he is to run successfully for president he will have to run against Nixon. He knows that if the fight is out in the open, both Nixon and his racist approach are beatable.
Mark Kurlansky's latest book, "1968: The Year That Rocked the World," will be published by Ballantine Books in January.
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times