Richard M. Nixon: Politician, President, Administrator

By Leon Friedman; William F. Levantrosser | Go to book overview

Discussant: Roger Wilkins

I've just gotten here, and though I haven't heard any other panels, I've been told that there's a lot of revisionism going on and a lot of rehabilitation of Richard Nixon. What I want to tell you is that I am not here to rehabilitate Richard Nixon; I am here to bury him. I don't want to be called "soft" on Richard Nixon because Tom Wicker is sitting here taking notes, and I don't want my old buddy to say, "Oh gee, that Roger went soft at the core." However, I want to tell you I am soft on Bob Finch. I have just spent the last eighteen years protecting this man. I have not told anybody that he had the bad judgment to offer me the job of general counsel of health, education, and welfare at the beginning of the Nixon Administration. I thought he was too good a fellow to have to bear that cross among his peers and colleagues, but he did offer me that job, and it was not something I wanted to do at that time. When Mr. Finch offered me that job, I had just ended three years as an assistant attorney general in the Johnson Administration, working on issues that dealt with riots and urban poverty.

When I think of Nixon's civil rights record, I don't simply think of civil rights, but I think of poverty. As Tom Wicker reminded us in his column the other day, poverty is always with us. With respect to blacks you cannot separate issues of civil rights and poverty. Moreover, when I think of Nixon's civil rights record, I add what Nixon did to the American culture regarding the place of minority Americans in America. I see Nixon not as an isolated incident standing alone, but as a way station 181 years out from the framing of the Constitution to Ronald Reagan, a way station that gained significance because of the president whom he succeeded, Lyndon Baines Johnson. Now, in my judgment, as a man who has spent all of his adult life, in one form or another, fighting for the rights of black people, particularly poor black people, I would have to say that looked at through a prism of the Reagan Administration, the Nixon civil rights record does not look nearly as bad today as it did to me in 1971, '72, and '73. That is because whatever one may say, and I am about to say some bad things about it, Nixon (probably because of John Ehrlichman, and Pat Moynihan), understood that the black people were part of the polity of this country that had to be dealt with--that we weren't beyond the pale to be disregarded, to be insulted, to be degraded as we have under Reagan. I cannot imagine, for example, a Reagan cabinet officer offering a young black man who had the public record that I had in 1969 a subcabinet presidential appointment. I cannot imagine the Reagan Administration doing that, and in fact it did not do it. I can't imagine the Reagan Administration bringing a former civil rights leader like Jim Farmer into the administration on a presidential appointment level, as Mr. Finch did.

Moreover, the Nixon Administration did understand that there was human suffering in the nation that had to be attended to. I have been amused over these last

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