The Godfathers of G.O.P. Racism
Posted Thursday, May 03, 2012 7:08 PM
Lee Atwater, the late Republican operative, is described by his numerous detractors as the godfather of contemporary xenophobic dog whistles to the baser instincts of a vastly Caucasian political party.
Atwater (1951-1991) made his professional bones as chief dirty trickster for the 1978 U.S. Senate candidacy of his own godfather——fellow South Carolinian Strom Thurmond (1902-2003), a white supremacist who secretly fathered a child with a 16-year-old black housekeeper.
Given the color-consciousness of many contemporary Republicans, the godfathers may well be smiling from wherever they are, above or below. Neither mentor nor protégé was shy about candidly expressing racial sentiment in political context.
Thurmond came to national prominence during the presidential contest of 1948, in which he was standard-bearer for the short-lived Dixiecrat party. According to the archives of National Public Radio, he declared in that campaign:
“[T]here’s not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the n****r race into our theatres, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”
As quoted in Southern Politics magazine in 1990, a year after he became chairman of the Republican National Committee, Atwater explained the historical evolution of certain talking points he recommends for G.O.P. office-seekers:
“You start out in 1954 by saying ‘n****r, n****r, n****r’ [but] by 1968 you can’t say n****r. That hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like ‘forced busing,’ ‘states’ rights,’ and all that stuff.”
The highlight of Atwater’s years of slinging “all that stuff” was the so-called Willie Horton spot he commissioned for the presidential campaign of 1988. Notable for its glaring jailhouse mug shot of Horton, an African-American felon who briefly qualified under Massachusetts state law for weekend furloughs from prison, the TV commercial was calculated to scare the bejesus out of white voters——and to a large extent did so.
Atwater’s client in the ’88 election was Republican nominee George H.W. Bush, who won a convincing victory over Michael Dukakis, the Democratic governor of Massachusetts. The Horton spot inferred that Governor Dukakis personally allowed a decidedly unattractive black male convicted of homicide to run wild through the streets of Boston, whereupon he raped a pretty white female and stabbed her white fiancé.
Atwater died of brain cancer in 1991 at age 40. Perhaps he was unacquainted with a younger man who at the time was president of the Harvard Law Review. But had Atwater known Barack Hussein Obama, he probably would have failed to sense White House prospects for a literal African-American of black Kenyan and white Kansan parentage.
Some see the godfathers’ ghosts at play all these years later, busily spooking the rude precincts of America’s white electorate. But in lieu of saying “n****er,” as Thurmond would and did, euphemisms applied to Mr. Obama have a mostly Atwaterian ring:
• “America’s food stamp president” was among Newt Gingrich’s numerous racial pejoratives during his bid to serve as Great White Hope of the Republican party.
• “Skinny ghetto crackhead” tripped smirkingly from the tongue of Fox News commentator Brent Bozell.
• “Government nig…” was an especially disturbing slip by Rick Santorum.
• Texas Governor Rick Perry, once considered odds-on favorite to oppose Obama in November, frequently hosted Republican moneymen at his family’s hunting camp, known for years by its stone marker at the entry gate: Niggerhead.
• As April came to a close, it was clear that Mitt Romney would be the Republican nominee come November, due in part to a nostalgic catchphrase used in TV ads on his behalf during the primaries: “Keep America America,” just one letter removed from “Keep America American,” the venerable Ku Klux Klan slogan. Coincidence?
First Lady Michelle Obama, whose parents are both black, is victim to her own share of coy bigotry.
With reference to her crusade against childhood obesity, white G.O.P. Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin complained of Mrs. Obama, “She lectures us on eating right while she has a large posterior herself.” This prompted Mary Curtis, the Washington Post columnist, to ask, “Can you imagine how the incident would play out if an African-American congressman made a crude remark about First Lady Laura Bush’s body?”
A fervent California supporter of Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul apparently considered even the Obamas’ two daughters as fair game for crudity, and fatal violence, at least rhetorically.
In a February rant via Facebook, Jules Manson of Carson City, a failed candidate for local office, advocated the assassination of the president and his “monkey children.” Subsequently, the Secret Service paid Manson a home visit, with the result that we’ve not heard further from him.
According to journalist Ronald Kessler’s book, In the President’s Secret Service, threats against President Obama’s life have increased by 400 percent over those of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Significant cuts to the agency’s budget were made when Bush folded the Secret Service into a new bureaucracy, the Department of Homeland Security. The cuts remain in place.
To document each and every racist locution heard across America on a given day is impossible, of course. But even those duly recorded by television cameras——as on March 20, 2010, when African-American Congressmen John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) were spat upon in a shower of “n***r” epithets howled by Tea Party loiterers on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, D.C.——is pugnaciously denied by Rush Limbaugh and other Republican luminaries.
In an interview with a reporter for the McClatchy newspaper chain, Cleaver said of the spitters, “It was a chorus. I feel sorry for those people who are doing this nasty stuff. They’re being whipped up.”
Americans of ecumenical outlook might find it easy to despair of the racist beat that still throbs in the hearts of some white Republicans——candidates, wingnut voters and broadcast apologists alike. All might reference the clownish, one-off Republican primary candidacy of black pizza magnate Herman Cain or the loopy pronouncements of black Congressman Allen West as proof that their party is color-blind.
But Maurice Berger, author and scholar in the field of white racism, is not to be deterred from his prediction of a relatively fair-minded political future, one that could arrive as early as November’s presidential election.
“Older white voters are dying off and being replaced by Hispanics, others of color, and progressive young white voters,” Berger told Highbrow Magazine. “I’m not sure [race baiting] will work. This rhetoric will turn off many, if not most, independent voters.
“This is a country that has changed dramatically over the past 50 years. This is becoming a country of so-called minorities, and Obama represents that——dynamically,” said Mr. Berger, who is also a University of Maryland professor and consulting curator for New York’s Jewish Museum.
He added, “We may see the Obama presidency as the beginning of a trend, not just an anomaly.”
In his April 16 column for the Washington Post, Charles Lane underscored Berger’s view.
“It’s hard to see much future for a G.O.P. that has minimal support from blacks and Latinos…[P]arty racialization is approaching the point of diminishing returns,” wrote Lane. Of the Republican brand, he intimated in a closing line, “[T]he losing party in 2012 will conclude that it must broaden its base, or die.”
Berger suggested that the Democratic party, too, has power to lose unless liberal white adherents own up to their brand of nuanced racism. By way of example, Mr. Berger spoke of a liberal acquaintance——an art critic who published a Facebook screed about the dearth of black people in studio audiences during the seemingly endless series of televised Republican primary debates.
“The thing about this critic,” said Berger, “is that I’ve been to parties at his home, and I’ve never once seen a black person there.”
The incipient optimism of Lane and Berger aside, today’s Republican campaign discourse “hurts, it really hurts,” said Toni Morrison in an April 13 interview with The Guardian. The African-American novelist and Nobel laureate said the G.O.P.’s hateful language is a “very deliberate vocabulary of [racist] code” that is “embarrassing for my country.”
More and even greater embarrassment looms on the horizon.
One of Romney’s campaign wise men——Larry McCarthy, president of the Washington, D.C., ad firm McCarthy-Hennings Media, Inc.——now heads “Restore Our Future,” the super PAC responsible for the presumptive Republican nominee’s effective slash-and-burn TV spots that vanquished his competitors during the primary season.
“Larry McCarthy has been responsible for some of the most negative ads in American history,” Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, told the Huffington Post.
Back in 1988, it was McCarthy whom Lee Atwater hired to create the infamous Willie Horton spot, which Mr. Dukakis remembers only too well.
“McCarthy’s playing an important role” in the Romney campaign, said Mr. Dukakis in the Huffington Post report. “So it’s obvious what’s going on.”
Indicative of obvious TV spots to come, NBC Television news recently reported that super PAC contributions to the Romney cause exceeded $52 million, compared to $9 million for the African-American incumbent.
Thomas Adcock, a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine, is an independent journalist, novelist, and editorial consultant based in New York City. His articles have appeared in U.S., Canadian, Mexican and European newspapers, magazines and websites, as well as American University publications. His critically acclaimed crime novels and short stories have been published worldwide.
Photos: AP (Strom Thurmond, 1957); Fotopedia (Lee Atwater); Fox News (Brent Bozell); Barnes & Noble (Maurice Berger book)