Playing the Race Card--Over and Over



Racial Politics in

Presidential Campaigns, 1960-2000

By Jeremy D. Mayer

Random House -- 368pp -- $26.95

The divide between black and white America is nowhere more evident than in Presidential elections. In 10 of the past 11 showdowns for the White House, Republicans have won the majority of white support, sometimes by vast proportions. Blacks, in contrast, are the most loyal constituency of the Democratic Party. In Running on Race: Racial Politics in Presidential Campaigns, 1960-2000, Jeremy D. Mayer addresses the history and significance of the black-white chasm at the voting booth. It's arguably the most important political story of the past half-century, and the Georgetown University political scientist offers a workmanlike account of African Americans' move into the Democratic fold and the subsequent "white flight" to the GOP.

Until the 1930s, most blacks voted Republican out of loyalty to the party that had brought them emancipation. Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal persuaded many African Americans to start voting Democratic. But by 1960, the black vote was up for grabs, since both John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon promised to improve the lot of African Americans. Then, when Martin Luther King Jr. was briefly incarcerated in Georgia, Kennedy telephoned King's wife to express sympathy. This calculated gesture motivated a majority of blacks to vote Democratic.

The Dems won a lock on African-American support when Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act into law, enfranchising blacks almost a century after the 15th Amendment had supposedly guaranteed them the right to vote. The legislation did more than inaugurate a new level of black political participation. As black registration surged, so did white registration. And millions of whites, particularly Southerners, eventually switched their allegiance to the GOP.

Nixon helped nurture this white backlash. As Vice-President, he had been progressive on civil rights--in fact, he had been a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. But after the 1960 loss to Kennedy, Nixon political adviser Thruston Morton bitterly resolved that the new approach to blacks would be "to hell with them." When Nixon ran for the Presidency again in 1968, he began to steal the thunder of segregationist and third-party candidate George Wallace. Nixon promised white voters he would appoint conservatives to the federal judiciary and stall school integration. A surge in Southern white support allowed Nixon to eke out a victory. Thereafter, GOP Presidential campaigns would regularly play the race card.

The strategy reached its nadir in 1988, when George Bush discovered the case of Willie Horton, a black convict who had raped a white woman after he was furloughed from a Massachusetts prison. Bush, who was lagging behind his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, played up the incident. His Washington spokesman, Mark Goodin, even kept a photo of Horton near his telephone so that he would remember to mention the rapist in conversations with the press. When Bush won, it was in no small measure due to the millions spent by GOP groups on TV ads to make Horton a household name.

In Mayer's narrative, most Republican candidates come across as a feckless bunch, but Dems don't fare much better. In particular, Mayer explains how Democratic candidates have pandered to white conservatives while taking the black vote for granted. For example, Bill Clinton, then governor of Arkansas and a former death-penalty opponent, made a detour from the campaign trail in 1992 to attend the execution of a brain-damaged black man who had murdered a police officer. It was a blatant appeal to white swing voters. And while Kennedy may have telephoned Coretta Scott King during one tense period, he also avoided meeting with her husband, for fear of alienating white Southerners. Nor did JFK shrink from speaking before segregated audiences.

Such cynical maneuvering left the Democratic Party ripe for an internal or third-party challenge from an African-American leader. Into this breach stepped Jesse Jackson, a civil rights advocate who had never held electoral office. In his two quests for the Democratic Presidential nomination--in 1984 and 1988--Jackson did indeed force the party to pay fresh attention to minority concerns. But as Mayer shows, the black leader did not always take the high road himself. During a joint 1988 appearance, the 6-foot-4-inch Jackson publicly humiliated Dukakis, stepping up on the diminutive governor's concealed riser. Then, as he towered over the Democratic nominee, Jackson declared that he had been waiting for "equal standing" for years.

Running on Race could have used more such spicy vignettes, since Mayer does not, in the end, add much to what we already know. Some of the best material is relegated to footnotes: how, for example, the usually unflappable Ronald Reagan repeatedly (and perhaps tellingly) lost his temper with African Americans while campaigning. And there's one glaring gap: Only in passing does Mayer refer to black ministers, a key in turning out the black vote.

In 2000, less than 10% of blacks voted for George W. Bush, while only about one-third of white males voted for Al Gore. Yet such disparities, the author declares, will eventually fade. It's hard to see why: After all, as Mayer himself shows, both parties benefit from the divide. Until that changes, whites and blacks will continue to differ over who should run the country.

Starr covers politics from Washington.

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