Nixon's Piano: Presidents and Racial Politics From Washington to Clinton.
Kenneth O'Reilly Free Press, $27
In Disney World's "Hall of Presidents," robotic incarnations of all 42 of our chief executives, from George Washington to Bill Clinton, gesture stiffly to turnstile tourists. It's among the theme park's most popular family attractions--millions of Americans each year leave the exhibit feeling proud of their star-spangled nation and bounce into Futureland humming the Battle Hymn of the Republic. But after reading Kenneth O'Reilly's Nixon's Piano, a devastating critique of the executive branch's institutionalized indifference to racism, any feelings of pride in our presidents will quickly dissipate.
O'Reilly's spotlight on our presidents exposes bigotry and racism from the whole distinguished lot. Only Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson escape with their integrity somewhat intact. O'Reilly, who teaches history at the University of Alaska, writes like a relentless prosecutor marshalling evidence against 42 defendants, collecting every racist slur or off-the-cuff innuendo. From studying forgotten memoirs, O'Reilly presents a convincing case against the American presidency.
O'Reilly's title comes from an anecdote, first told by civil rights activist Roger Wilkins in his 1982 autobiography A Man's Life, of an unforgettable evening in 1970, when President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew surprised the white elite at the Gridiron Club by performing a manic version of "Dixie." Nixon played the piano, and Agnew accompanied him in a "darky dialect," while the Washington Brahmins hooted and hollered them on. The Republican Party at that time had their "Southern strategy" in full swing: "a belief that presidential elections can be won only by following the doctrines and rituals of white over black." This story, well told by O'Reilly, is a perfect warning of the collective perversity the reader is about to encounter.
From 1866 to 1948, for example, approximately 5,000 African-Americans died at the hands of lynch mobs without a single president denouncing the atrocities. Most pre-Civil War presidents found slavery morally repugnant, but politically explosive, and therefore tried to find a host of watered-down compromises to postpone dealing with the oppressive issue. Almost every Northern presidential contender from 1787 to 1860 had a back-to-Africa trump card stored up his sleeve, including Lincoln, who spoke of sending blacks "to Liberia--to their own native land."
For example, not only did Thomas Jefferson bring many of his 175 slaves with him to Washington, D.C., but the man who described slavery as a "cruel war against human nature itself" in the original version of the Declaration of Independence lived in a city where "one could stand in the Capitol Building doorway and watch processions of chained men, women, and children shuffling to the pens to await sale and new southern homes." Despite the fact that much of this is well-known history, O'Reilly has performed a singular service by stringing together the racist Jeffersonian litany--made famous in his book, Notes on the State of Virginia, which claimed that people of color were scientifically "proven" inferior and, in some cases, were more ape than human.
Somewhere around the end of the first section, however, O'Reilly's unyielding presentation becomes exhausting. In a historical work such as this, it's imperative to place monumental figures like Jefferson and Lincoln in the context of their times. To Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, for example, having dinner with Booker T. Washington was considered being enlightened on the race issue; today that looks like a token effort. How should they be judged?
O'Reilly also defines Franklin Delano Roosevelt's legacy to black America by his refusal to sponsor an anti-lynching bill. O'Reilly is generally unconvinced that the New Deal did anything to alleviate segregation. Yet he fails to adequately account for the Southern-controlled Congress. FDR had to battle arch-segregationists, such as Theodore Bilbo, who denounced every New Deal measure with an unrestrained vengeance. And because it would not fit his thesis, O'Reilly obfuscates the reality that FDR allowed First Lady Eleanor to champion the rights of blacks in a few-holds-barred fashion unmatched since the days of William Lloyd Garrison.
In the same vein, O'Reilly argues that Dwight Eisenhower encouraged segregation but never discusses his order to mix black and white blood in World War II hospitals because "people were all the same." And John F. Kennedy was, by the standards of his time, something more than a "civil rights minimalist." O'Reilly's allergy to anything hopeful hampers his ability to distinguish between the bad and the truly awful. George Bush deserves whatever venom O'Reilly spews about the Willie Horton exploitation, which looks even worse eight years later. O'Reilly's portrait of Carter, however, is mean-spirited and superficial. He never mentions that Carter was the first American president ever to visit sub-Saharan Africa (Nigeria in 1978), that he denounced South African apartheid, that he helped oversee the smooth transition of white supremacist Rhodesia to majority rule Zimbabwe, or that Carter had the enthusiastic support of many black leaders.
Similarly, his closing section, "Rectors and Souljahs," pummels Bill Clinton beyond recognition. "Bill Clinton," O'Reilly fumes, "calculated that he could not win in 1992, unless he used Sister Souljah to bait Jesse Jackson, put a black chain gang in a crime control ad, golfed at a segregated club with a TV camera crew in tow, and allowed that search for a serviceable vein in Rickey Ray Rector's [the black Arkansas man Clinton had executed during the campaign] arm." But Clinton's record, notably his recent defense of affirmative action, makes clear he's no George Wallace, or even George Bush.
These flaws don't change the fact that there is important historical material here. By forcing us to come to grips with presidential race-baiting, O'Reilly touches a nerve we too often ignore. His thorough, and thoroughly dispiriting, chronicle suggests that, if nothing else, Colin Powell offers an antidote to 200 years of shame.
Douglas Brinkley, director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans, is the author of biographies of Dean Acheson, James Forrestal, and Jimmy Carter (forthcoming).
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1995|
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