READING: On Kevin Phillips in 1968; by Garry Wills, from his "Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man"
What the late Kevin Phillips was doing on the Nixon campaign in 1968, and why it mattered in making America what it is today...
Wills, Garry. 1970. Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
6. Southern Strategy
Jam senior, sed cruda deo viridisque senectus —Vergil (Now old, but a raw to the god and green old age)
Monday evening [at the start of the 1968 Republican National Convention], on plan, Nixon’s jet turned and returned through the gauzy late Miami afternoon. The trick was not to touch the runway too early—while the six-thirty TV shows were opening with their résumé stories on the first day of the convention. And not to land too late—when the slanting light would be grayed for the color cameras. The team had chosen six thirty-eight as optimum time for live coverage; so the plane circled a half hour, responsive to the intricate countdown, signaling the networks, holding, easing into its pattern, landing, sidling, disgorging staff, and—six thirty-eight—epiphany out of a pink sky.
Nixon made his way to a temporary platform and up to the mike: “This state, as many of my Florida friends know, has a special meaning for me—not only because I visit here from time to time, but because in the year nineteen sixty I made the decision to become a candidate for President while staying here.” Applause—enough to key his regular refrain, “But this time there’s a difference. This time we’re going to win!”
He looks jerkily around, to hang his words on an anticipated peg: “I notice in this crowd a number of my Cuban friends. This morning I had a very moving experience. I went down with Mr. and Mrs. Manuel Sanchez—who are members of our family in a very special way [i.e., valet and maid, found for the Nixons by Bebe Rebozo], and are Cuban refugees [not really, they come from Spain, though they were born in Cuba]—to vouch for them when they applied for citizenship. Mrs. Sanchez—Fina—said to me, ‘Mr. Nixon, this is the greatest day in my life.’ We must make America worthy of the love of people like that.” Timing could do no more—Nixon’s countdown included this last-minute swearing in of his servants as political assets. In the Checkers era, Nixon’s servantlessness had been a sign of Americanism and piety; it is no wonder that, by 1968, the very servants and fur coats somehow became red, white, and blue.
Into cars and buses which move, under the helicopter-scrutiny given each candidate, toward the Hilton Plaza, where the real crowd is. Multicolored squirts of balloons go bumping up the hotel façade. There is a “ nervous snap in the air, set off in part by toy “grasshoppers” given the crowd so it can “click with Dick.” That clicking will go on all week, the mechanical whir and tick of this perfect Nixon drive. Omnipresent music of the fait accompli. No trumpets. No trombones. Just Clicky Dick.
Next morning, Nixon finally appeared in his own headquarters—the red-velvet candy-box maze of the Hilton’s mezzanine. Here Herb Klein had presided for days over frequent press conferences, guest appearances, fashion shows of Nixonaires and Nixonettes—Miami is the stewardess capital of the world, and newsmen wrote miles of copy describing them, trying to invent differences in the kind of girls who danced for Nixon and those who danced for Reagan or Rocky, for Vote toothpaste or Pepsi-Cola; yet they were all the same, showgirls for a day. Here would-be Vice-Presidents came to catch the public eye. (The public eye would have little to do with choice of a running mate.) Here Nixon’s floor manager—Rogers Morton—came to pooh-pooh the claims of Rockefeller (supported by Morton’s brother, Thruston). Reporters were ruminated from chamber to chamber, trying to find something new to “say about the candidate who had stayed away.
The morning after his arrival, Nixon held audience for all delegates in a marathon four-hour session. He did not drive up and down the Beach, working his way in and out of each state’s chosen hotel as Rockefeller and Reagan had. Instead, the delegates were summoned to the Hilton on a staggered, six-session schedule. The Hilton now replaced the Fontainebleau—de facto convention headquarters.
Nixon began that extraordinary morning with a press conference at eight-fifteen—the only one he granted before balloting. He would tell the New York Times what it wanted to hear—“after an era of confrontation, an era of negotiation”; he was considering a trip abroad after the convention; he had met all the world rulers except those in Russia; he had achieved his comeback because “the man and the moment in history [have] come together.” That last is a line Len Garment had been using on the press for months—Nixon as the defeated man who returns when his country needs him; Nixon as Churchill, as de Gaulle, as Lincoln. It is a very good ploy—suggesting that time and office would give Nixon the stature he so clearly lacked.
But greatness was always suspected in Churchill, de Gaulle, Lincoln. One test of it was their prose, a resonance to all they said or wrote, even in defeat. Men do not sound like that if they have nothing in them. And the Nixon on the podium that morning, so exhaustively prepared, turning on well-oiled hinges from question to question, pointing to all his old friend-foes of the press as he stood there, arm lifted “from his slight Ed Sullivan humpback, his eyes testing response to each joke before his mouth gave its belated jerk, eyes and mouth in perpetual counterpoint playing against each other—this Nixon was the soul of hard-earned competence, but he had no touch of greatness.
He did not need it. He gave them what they wanted. While reporters rough-sketched their palinodes, hailing a new Nixon still another time, the candidate scuttled off to waiting delegates, each region in its own candy-section, to tell them what they wanted to hear. Corn country first, running south from the Dakotas to Missouri, in the bon-bon section called the Jackie-of-Hearts Room. Reporters, by flattening themselves against the aromatic candy-divider wall, caught bits of the spiel: “The way to get the Vietcong to the negotiating table is to say unless you negotiate, this and that is going to happen.” The era of negotiation, very short-lived, just yielded again to the era of confrontation.
After each session, Herb Klein gathered reporters around him and gave them a résumé of what had been said. But he conveniently forgot, in his report on the Corn Belt, all talk of “the way to get the Vietcong to the negotiating table.” His memory was selective all morning—especially after the talk with Southerners (ten-thirty in the Palace Room). Luckily, that most important session had been secretly tape-recorded, and the Miami Herald let the world in on it. Nixon told Strom Thurmond’s fiefdom that he would not force an unacceptable Vice-President upon them (thus countering Clif White’s talk of a Lindsay or Hatfield serving with Nixon); that he did not agree with the federal open-housing bill; that the busing of a schoolchild “will only destroy that child”; that he would follow Eisenhower’s example and “not tolerate” a continual war in Vietnam; that he would turn the war over to the South Vietnamese and pressure the Soviets—through the Middle East, or Eastern Europe, or bomb negotiations—to end the war; that he would increase the missile program; that he would find an Attorney General “who is going to observe the law” and a Chief Justice who would “interpret the law … and not make it”; that he would not be interested in “satisfying some professional civil rights group” but in guaranteeing that “the first civil right of every “American is to be free from domestic violence.”
It was strong stuff—Strom stuff. So strong that Richard Rovere wrote: “Although it was surely a miscalculation (or aberration) of sorts that led him to talk as he did, and when and where he did, before the Southerners, it was one of the very few mistakes of the kind that he has made in the last two years.” It was no more a mistake than talk of Manuel Sanchez to the Miamians, or of Russian summitry to the national press, or tough coldwarmanship to the Corn Belt. If Nixon gave more, more flamboyantly, to the South, that was because the whole convention hinged on the South. Others he could soothe or try to placate; these delegates he had to serve.
Only the South added Republican strength in 1964 when Goldwater ran at the top of the ticket; and convention votes are apportioned to the states according to their performance in the last national election. Moreover, each state that gave its electors to Goldwater—and only Southern states did—got a bonus of six extra votes. This meant that the Southern states had a whopping 316 votes to cast in Miami. “. Add Arizona and Texas, and the total came to 388 “votes. If Nixon could add a border state like Maryland (by adopting its governor), he would be bargaining for a package of 414 votes (with only 667 needed to nominate him).
Nor was it only a question of Miami. The South was just as important in November....
What is at stake, if one accepts the Southern strategy as the basis for Republican growth, is a reversal of the Democrats’ reign as the majority party—a reversal that is likely to last for decades. Political scentists like Harry Jaffa and Samuel Lubell point out that the American party system has not been a matter of fairly equal see-sawing. The normal situation is to have one solidly established party, to which a minority party can make only partial challenges, until an electoral revolution effects a change in their relationship, giving the minority party a new dominance.
According to Jaffa, there have been only four such “electoral revolutions”—those marked by the rise of Jefferson (1800), Jackson (1823), Lincoln (1860), and Roosevelt (1932). The significance of Rusher’s article—and of the Nixon campaign which, far more than Goldwater’s, was based on its insights—is that Nixon’s election may go down in history as such a turning point. That is clearly what the Nixon organization had in mind. There was much talk among them, all through 1968, of “new coalitions,” of “the passing of the New Deal”—the meeting of their man with a great historic hinge and moment “of reversal.
Indeed, Nixon’s fanciful speech on the “new alignment”—joining New South to new blacks—was an artful cover for the work being done on a real coalition; for one must know “where the ducks are” (as Goldwater put it), but one must not say where they are. One of Clif White’s major errors—the kind Nixon did not repeat—was to confess his strategy. The Democrats, through their many years of bargain with the South, kept blinking innocently outside the bargaining room, denying any sinister “special relationship.”
Perhaps the best place to find out about the real coalition being forged by Nixon in 1968 was at the “control tower” of the effort—John Mitchell’s brain trust at 445 Park Avenue, just across the street from the formal headquarters at 450 Park. There, in a cubbyhole next to Mitchell’s office, a brilliant young lawyer named Kevin Phillips served as the house expert on ethnic voting patterns. Formally, he was subordinate to Professor David Derge, the haruspex of all polling operations, but in fact he was in charge of his own specialty, which as he bluntly puts it is “the whole secret of politics—knowing who hates who.”
Phillips, later an aide in Mitchell’s Justice Department, is Bronx Irish, a savvy “city kid” who served his political apprenticeship working for Congressman Paul Fino. His academic record was “ excellent—Phi Beta Kappa at Colgate, National Merit Scholarship, cum laude from Harvard Law. But his heart has always been in the tough world of Realpolitik. By the age of fifteen, he was making intricate maps of voting patterns. “Here’s one I did in high school,” he said when I interviewed him during the campaign—and pulled out a dense little mosaic of colors and figures that seemed to divide the country not into states or counties, but almost by street.
Always animated by one ambition—to know who hates who. “That is the secret,” he says with a disarming boyish grin, one that snags a bit on his front tooth, like an unmalevolent Richard Widmark’s. “In New York City, for instance, you make plans from certain rules of exclusion—you can’t get the Jews and the Catholics. The Liberal Party was founded here for Jews opposing Catholics, and the Conservative Party for Catholics fighting Jews. The same kind of basic decision has to be made in national politics. The Civil War is over now; the parties don’t have to compete for that little corner of the nation we live in. Who needs Manhattan when we can get the “ electoral votes of eleven Southern states? Put those together with the Farm Belt and the Rocky Mountains, and we don’t need the big cities. We don’t even want them. Sure, Hubert will carry Riverside Drive in November. La-de-dah. What will he do in Oklahoma?”
In drawing up his ever more complex maps, Phillips does not rely only on ethnic considerations, but on the whole historical, social, economic picture of the electorate from one campaign to the next. He has a private set of categories. “Silk Stocking,” for instance—rich enough to stay in town and live in the safe areas, or to move only to the best suburbs, “the red-hot types who go for Gene McCarthy”; they have never felt the shove of fellow proles in the same block; Nixon can count them out. “Yankees,” the puritan abolitionists whose migrations westward trail special colors out from Phillips’ New England. “You can get a pure Yankee type out on the West Coast—look at Dan Evans.” On the Phillips plan, a presidential candidate would talk to those who voted for Evans much as he addresses a pristine Yankee in Maine.
“Sunbelt,” the new technocrats of Florida, Arizona“, Texas, and Southern California—“skilled workers in light industry, non-Catholic, conservative,” one of the fastest-growing and most important blocs on the map. The variations and combinations lead to that minute arithmetic in which Phillips delights: Non-Yankee New Englanders, urban Catholics, rural Catholics (German), Scandinavians (like the Yankees but with patterned divergences). His charts trace and retrace their settlements, their slight shiftings from one vote to the next.
I asked Phillips what he thought of Jaffa’s thesis about four electoral revolutions. “The only thing wrong with it is that there have been five—you must count eighteen ninety-six, when Bryan and populism captured the Democratic Party and brought it down.” Jaffa claims that each revolution was in the direction of greater equality, and therefore “from the Left” in American politics. How could that apply to the Republican Party in 1968? “The clamor in the past has been from the urban or rural proletariat. But now ‘populism’ is of the middle class, which feels exploited by the Establishment. Almost everyone in the productive segment of society considers himself middle-class now, and resents the exploitation of society’s producers. This is not a movement in favor of laissez-“ faire or any ideology; it is opposed to welfare and the Establishment (a Chotiner moment in history).
What makes the pattern emerge at this time? “It has been taking shape for years, but the trends were covered up by accidents—the low voter turnout that put Truman back in office in nineteen forty-eight, the belief that Eisenhower was just a one-shot freak of popularity in nineteen fifty-two, the crushing of Goldwater in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination in nineteen sixty-four. But the trends have been there for years, especially in the South, in the suburbs, and among Catholics.”
Catholics play a great part in Phillips’ analysis (as they had in Sorensen’s of 1960)—understandably, since they make up a quarter of the population. One of Phillips’ basic polarities is of Catholics against Yankees. Catholics were called back to the Democratic Party by Kennedy’s candidacy in 1960, when 78 percent of them voted the old way. But their labor ties are disappearing, and they are becoming a moralistic mainstay of the middle class. It was at Phillips’ suggestion that, during the homestretch of the ’68 campaign, Nixon headquarters released a proposal for aid to Catholic schools.
I asked Phillips if the growth of Negro registration would not recompense Southern Democrats for their losses to the Republican Party. “No, white Democrats will desert their party in droves the minute it becomes a black party. When white Southerners move, they move fast. Wallace is helping, too—in the long run. People will ease their way into the Republican Party by way of the “American Independents”—just as Thurmond eased himself over by way of his Dixiecrat candidacy in 1948 and his independent write-in race in 1956. “We’ll get two thirds to three fourths of the Wallace vote in nineteen seventy-two.”
The demographic shifts in America have been away from the old centers of population. The big cities are declining in population, and declining even more drastically in voting population. The large cities now make up only 30 percent of the national population, against 35 percent suburban, and 35 percent rural and small-town dwellers. This diffusion means that economic climbers do not try to adopt Brahmin standards from old social leaders. The suburbs of the new rich are, like the Sunbelt, unashamed of their gains, unburdened by liberal conscience.
Thus, when Phillips speaks of a new Republican power founded on the nation’s heartland, he does not mean by that term the old Farm Belt or the Midwest, merely. His heartland bloats out toward every state that lacks a seaboard, and even toward some that have one (Florida, California). He sees a long period of Republican domination. “There will be no landslide this year, of course. No charisma. The only mystique that can be built around Nixon is a mystique of the non-mystique. This will be a realignment victory; the trends will just take him in. But you watch us in seventy-two. Our tabulations and techniques will be perfected by then; we’ll have four years to work on them, and all the resources of the federal government. I’d hate to be the opponent in that race. Teddy better wait twelve or sixteen years. All those urban programs the Democrats passed to build up their big city machines—they passed them, but they won’t get a chance to use them. I wrote a long critical study of those programs when I was with Fino. But I’ll never publish it now. We’ll be using them.”
Since Phillips was aiming, even in ‘68, at a period in the Justice Department to give him the right connections for private practice and business, I asked who would be doing the kind of work he described for ‘72. “I don’t know. Maybe Sherman Unger. You guys in the press write about Charlie McWhorter as the man who knows the party—he’s nothing. We call him Baby Snookums at 445 Park. He drops all those “ facts and figures about each county and district—but if you look in his briefcase, you’ll find he’s just reciting from Unger’s daily memo to Nixon’s plane on the territory they will be going into the next day.” Unger, in preparing those memos, had Phillips’ reports on each state—five to ten pages which described key elements of the electorate in each sector, what to stress where, what to avoid and why.
Phillips seems very confident about the future. But I suggested there were some imponderables ahead. What if Nixon could not end the war? “Why not? The country is sick of it. All we need, to get out now, is a scapegoat. We’ll give them one—the big D.” What about urban riots? “That cycle’s over. If there are any more, we might have to choose a key city, bring in the troops, and just cream ’em. That will settle it.” Does he see no chance for a Democratic comeback? “How? When Hubie loses, McCarthy and Lowenstein backers are going to take the party so far to the Left they’ll just become irrelevant. They’ll do to it what our economic royalists did to us in 1936.”
When I talked with Phillips, it was early October, and Nixon had not begun to slip in the polls. “No one here is interested in the election anymore,” he said. “They’ve all got their knives out, trying to carve a place for themselves in Washington. I had an appointment the other day to talk something over with Sherm Unger at lunch, and we had to beat off about six people trying to climb aboard as we passed through the office.” What kind of administration do you think it will be? “Irish and Jewish,” he answered, sorting things instantly into his familiar categories—“just like Nixon’s law firm.”
Phillips has some doubts about Nixon—about his toughness, his willingness to trust the trends, to buck the Eastern Establishment when the crunch comes. After the Chicago riots, the polls showed labor-Catholic votes swinging back to Democrats, as a sign of their approval of Mayor Daley. Some Nixon advisers panicked—including Charlie McWhorter—and said the thing to do was swing Nixon’s campaign to the Left so it could pick up disillusioned Democrats of the McCarthy stripe. Phillips has a massive contempt for such twinges surviving in Nixon men.
Nixon, of course, does not need a Phillips to teach him the facts of political life—though statistics help back up instinct and political feel. Besides, Phillips makes the same mistake Clif White did—he confesses his strategy. Nixon had to act on that plan while disguising his intention. But his virtuoso performance Tuesday morning in Miami—he had never been trickier—showed that he grasped the arguments made by tough young technicians like Phillips. And Phillips led back to Rusher; 1968 must build on 1964—which meant Nixon must build on the South, and on the Republican Party’s major acquisition from the 1964 campaign, Strom Thurmond…