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Commentary: Nixon's legacy in a new light

Richard Nixon's enduring image as a political villain, his appeal to the silent majority of mostly middle-class Americans, and especially his notorious Southern strategy have contributed to a widespread view that his record on racial matters is poor. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Richard Nixon's enduring image as a political villain, his appeal to the silent majority of mostly middle-class Americans, and especially his notorious Southern strategy have contributed to a widespread view that his record on racial matters is poor. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whatever the complexities of Nixon's racial politics, his policies achieved far more than those of his great rival, John F. Kennedy, who dragged his feet on civil rights until near the end of his time in office.

Consider the tortured subject of busing. Nixon was on record opposing the forced busing of schoolchildren for the purpose of integration. At the same time, his civil rights record had been strong throughout his career. As vice president under Dwight Eisenhower, Nixon helped lead support for the 1957 Civil Rights Act - for which Martin Luther King Jr. wrote to thank him. Nixon opposed segregation. In a 1968 interview on Face the Nation, presidential candidate Nixon said that "no funds should be given to a district which practices segregation."

However, Nixon did not see busing - forced integration - as a solution to racial inequality, let alone as a way to foster harmonious relations between whites and blacks. In addition, he objected to it on the grounds of community control. After the Swann ruling upheld the constitutionality of busing, Nixon asked Congress to pass a moratorium on new court-ordered busing rulings.

Liberals blamed Nixon for his resistance to busing, but they somehow missed the astounding success he was having desegregating American schools, which was busing's main goal. When Nixon entered the White House, the desegregation of Southern schools was proceeding at a snail's pace. In 1968, nearly 70 percent of black children in the South attended all-black schools. By the time he left office, in 1974, just 8 percent did. The record is crystal clear: Richard Nixon desegregated more schools in his first term than all other presidents combined.

He accomplished this historic feat in no small part by applying Republican, conservative principles of governance, especially federalism - the philosophy that grants maximum autonomy to the states. Where desegregation was concerned, Nixon deferred to federalist principles as long as the states' efforts were consistent with federal mandates on civil rights. As the speechwriter and author Ray Price put it: "Nixon's aim was to use the minimum coercion necessary to achieve the essential national goal, to encourage local initiative, to respect diversity, and, to the extent possible, to treat the entire nation equally - blacks equally with whites, the South equally with the North."

George Shultz, who served as Nixon's secretary of labor, in a powerful New York Times op-ed in 2003 told the story of how Nixon worked to enforce the mandate of Brown v. Board of Education. In the article, Shultz described how Nixon supported this legislation - which had been flouted for nearly 20 years - by asking him and Vice President Spiro Agnew to form biracial committees in the seven affected Southern states. The idea was that white and black representatives would work together to manage the process of desegregation with minimal interference from Washington - as long as the committees understood that they had to reach some kind of workable solution, or risk federal intervention. In many instances, the whites and blacks who served together got to know and respect one another to an extent few had foreseen.

"One of the most encouraging experiences that I have had since taking office was to hear each one of these leaders from the Southern states speak honestly about the problems, not glossing over the fact that there were very grave problems," Nixon said. "As a result of these advisory committees being set up, we are going to find that in many districts the transition will be orderly and peaceful, whereas otherwise it could have been the other way."

"In the end," Shultz wrote, "the school openings were peaceful. To the amazement of almost everyone."

Nixon's administration also put together the Philadelphia Plan, a forceful federal-level initiative to guarantee fair hiring practices in construction jobs, with definitive "goals and timetables" for minority inclusion. The administration would not impose quotas, Nixon himself said, "but would require federal contractors to show 'affirmative action' to meet the goals of increasing minority employment." The plan took its name from the city in which the first test case was run. Assistant Secretary of Labor Arthur Fletcher said: "The craft unions and the construction industry are among the most egregious offenders against equal opportunity laws . . . openly hostile toward letting blacks into their closed circle."

The Philadelphia Plan was part of a broader agenda of supporting what Nixon called "black capitalism." It came at a time, several years after Dr. King's death, when the traditional civil rights paradigm seemed to have broken down amid a changed legal and political climate. Some problems had actually been solved; others remained. But the old-line civil rights leadership seemed unable to grasp the new realities, and the urban violence of the late '60s had exposed the limitations of its approach - while prompting a backlash from whites. Nixon saw support for black business efforts not only as a logical next step in black advancement but as a way to defuse racial tensions.

As Price put it, the rioting and other inner-city violence posed the danger of "hardening attitudes into a simple formula of 'it's us against them.' "

Nixon's approach sought to bring Republican values of entrepreneurialism to the black community, while also - so Nixon hoped, anyway - reaching out to blacks and demonstrating to them that Republicans also sought their advancement and wanted their support. As a result, the Office of Minority Business Enterprise, championed by Republicans, put liberal Democrats on the defensive. Black capitalism, said Graham T. Molitor, a pollster for liberal Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York, was "a stroke of political genius."

Nixon showed that civil rights could be advanced in a rational, reasonable way that emphasized cooperation while de-emphasizing areas of conflict. His achievements in this area exemplify his nonideological political approach.

Douglas E. Schoen is a longtime Democratic campaign consultant and author of "The Nixon Effect: How Richard Nixon's Presidency Fundamentally Changed American Politics" (Encounter Books, 2016), from which this excerpt is taken