Race for the Presidency

By Ross, Sonya | The New Crisis, September/October 2002 | Go to article overview

Race for the Presidency


Ross, Sonya, The New Crisis


CrisisForum

scanning on Race: Racial Politics in Presidential

Campaigns, 1960-2000 By Jeremy Mayer (Random House 24.95)

Jeremy Mayer leads readers out on minefield that is the road to the White House with this tantlaizing observation: Let's set aside that academic hooey about how the economy decides presidential elections and get to the real deal-it's all racially motivated. The winner tends to be the one who was shrewd enough to navigate the minefield by using the African American electorate as a mine detector. Sometimes that is a good thing for Black people, and sometimes it is not.

"Voters are not simply utility maximizers who vote according to their pocketbooks, but vivid human beings who often respond to emotional appeals to group identity and threat," Mayer says.

"Perhaps no other issue shows the limitations of economic analyses of elections better than racial politics do."

It's only natural to expect Running on Race: Racial Politics in Presidential Campaigns, 1960-2000 to be a fat yawner full of dry analysis, but it's not.

Mayer, a visiting professor in the government department at Georgetown University, tiptoes up to the notion of how the Black vote came to matter both so much and not at all by stressing John E Kennedy's wallow in symbolism as he battled Richard M. Nixon for the presidency in 1960. (He presents Kennedy's phone call to Coretta Scott King while Martin Luther King Jr. was in a Georgia jail as the watershed political maneuver that it was.)

But Mayer also strips away any expectations and lets readers draw their own conclusions as they breeze through the racial hand-wringing of presidential candidates, winners and losers - including Bill Clinton, who in 1992 fussed at rapper Sister Souljah (denouncing her declaration that since Black people are killing Black people there ought to be a week when Whites are killed) and treated Jesse L. Jackson "with tough love," but still won honorary "brother" privileges.

Much like Kenneth O'Reilly did in 1995's Nixon's Piano, Mayer, a visiting professor of government at Georgetown University, makes the case with nearly forgotten trivia, aware that such tidbits are most telling and tend to stick to the memory. Case in point: Mayer drives home his portrayal of Ronald Reagan as utterly unforgiving by using this factoid about Black Reagan loyalist Robert Keyes: "Reagan felt betrayed when... (Keyes) endorsed (Gerald) Ford and charged his former boss with racism. So hurt was Reagan by Keyes' allegation that when Keyes later called Reagan from his deathbed to make peace with his old boss, Reagan refused to take the call."

Similarly, just in case he hasn't done enough to argue that JFK had a talk-tothe-hand attitude toward Black voters,

Mayer wraps up his chapter on the Kennedy-Nixon race with a footnote culled not from academics, but the autobiography of Sammy Davis Jr.

Davis "had endorsed JFK, and delayed his interracial marriage until after the election so as not to harm Kennedy in the South. The invitation for Davis to perform at the inauguration was abruptly withdrawn days before the event. Election over,

Kennedy's men now worried that Southern senators would be offended by an interracial couple at inaugural proceedings."

Mayer trains an eye on the Nixon campaign's foibles over a civil rights agenda, a failure that pushed Nixon forever to the right: "Never again would a Republican attempt to equal the Democratic Party's racial liberalism. ... the message to Republicans was that black loyalties would be nearly impossible to shake. …

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