Richard Nixon's Antibusing Presidency
—President Richard Nixon, 1969
President Richard Nixon made his most important statement on “busing” in a televised presidential address in March 1972. The speech came shortly after Florida’s Democratic presidential primary, in which the “busing” issue propelled George Wallace to a landslide victory and 74 percent of Floridians signaled their opposition to “busing” in a ballot straw poll. Nixon called on Congress to enact a moratorium on new “busing” orders and pass new legislation that would “establish reasonable national standards” rather than the “unequal treatment among regions, states and local school districts” ordered by the courts. While the compromise bill Congress eventually passed was weaker than Nixon’s proposal, White House adviser John Ehrlichman later described the televised speech as a political victory: “Whether Congress passed the busing moratorium was not as important as that the American people understood that Richard Nixon opposed busing as much as they did.” Nixon’s televised speech prompted the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund to publish “It’s Not the Distance, ‘It’s the Niggers,’” a report that fact-checked Nixon’s claims about “busing.” The speech also intensified tensions between the White House and the civil rights lawyers in the Justice Department who worked on school desegregation cases, seven of whom resigned in protest. In a letter published in the Washington Post, one of the lawyers wrote, “As I sit here watching President Nixon make his statement on school busing I am sickened. Sickened because it is the job of the President to unite and lead the nation to the future, not buckle under the weight of political pressure and retreat to a dark and miserable past.” Nixon’s administration had announced only two days earlier that the speech would be a televised address and did not release the customary advance copy to the media. All the networks carried the address, but with limited time for commentators to analyze the text of the speech, Nixon was able to present his views on “busing” with almost no critical commentary. Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey called the speech a “TV commercial” for “antibusing” views, and Roy Wilkins, executive director of the NAACP, criticized Nixon for using his televised address to speak “as a committed advocate of one side of a major national controversy” and wrote to ABC, CBS, and NBC requesting equal time to reply.
President Nixon’s televised speech on “busing” was consistent with his administration’s broader media strategy. Nixon favored presidential addresses over news conferences, because it allowed him to speak directly to what strategist Kevin Phillips called “the great, ordinary, Lawrence Welkish mass of Americans from Maine to Hawaii.” By the time he resigned in 1974, Nixon had made more live prime-time television addresses than Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson combined. The Nixon administration also developed the infrastructure of modern political media strategy, creating the Office of Communications, establishing a manager of communications position, and carefully monitoring news media coverage of the president and relevant foreign and domestic political issues. Lyndon (Mort) Allin, who worked on Nixon’s daily news summaries, explained that television news coverage figured prominently in this news monitoring. “The real emphasis as far as the basic summary itself would be on television, because that’s where, you know, 70% of the public gets most of their information,” Allin explained in 1974. “The President didn’t see television and most of the staff people didn’t see more than one network if even one network. There were meetings then, people were with their families or dinner, so you always gave a complete report on television no matter what the story was, how insignificant, you’d at least give it a line or two.” Nixon’s team kept careful tabs on news coverage as a warning to broadcasters and reporters, and regularly attacked the news media for coverage that the administration felt was not favorable to the president. Following Nixon’s November 1969 speech on Vietnam, where he asked for the “great silent majority” of Americans to support the continuation of the war, Vice President Spiro Agnew delivered a speech attacking the television news industry to the Midwest regional Republican Party conference in Des Moines, Iowa. “When the President completed his address,” Agnew argued, “his words and policies were subjected to instant analysis and querulous criticism. The audience of 70 million Americans gathered to hear the President of the United States was inherited by a small band of network commentators and self-appointed analysts, the majority of whom expressed in one way or another their hostility to what he had to say. It was obvious that their minds were made up in advance.” Agnew and other members of the administration continued to monitor and complain about news coverage through Nixon’s time in office, and administration veterans Pat Buchanan and Kevin Phillips brought this criticism of the news media to TV Guide’s “News Watch” column in the mid-1970s. The Nixon administration sparred constantly with the news media and, prior to Watergate at least, won more battles than it lost.
As Nixon’s critics understood, the president was in a unique position to shape the debate over “busing,” and through television addresses, policy statements, and press releases, the Nixon administration used this power to normalize resistance to federal court school desegregation orders. Nixon aide Bryce Harlow described the White House’s posture on school desegregation as a “calculated waffle,” and many of the Nixon administration’s statements on “busing” were designed to send different messages to different audiences. To southern politicians and parents, Nixon signaled that he would move more slowly on school desegregation than the Johnson administration had. To politicians and parents in the North and West, Nixon promised that he would limit government oversight to unconstitutional de jure segregation, most commonly associated with the South. Nixon’s “political compass told him to stay away from the whole subject of race,” John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic affairs adviser, remembered. “And if he could not stay out of it, the best political position was on the side of the white parents whose children were about to get on those hated buses.” Nixon’s speeches and statements on school desegregation and “busing” were crafted so that politicians and parents from Charlotte to Los Angeles would view the Nixon White House as being on their side. While the Nixon administration skillfully used media to communicate nationally their opposition to “busing,” Nixon’s politics on “busing” were not just symbolic. Unlike George Wallace, Claude Kirk, Louise Day Hicks, or the hundreds of other state and local politicians who spoke out against “busing,” Nixon, as president, had control over governmental bureaucracy with the authority and power to force school districts to desegregate. Nixon warned his appointees and the lawyers and officials who worked in the Justice Department and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) that they could either support the administration’s evolving school desegregation policies or lose their jobs. After slow, fitful progress during the Johnson administration in getting more school districts to comply with school desegregation requirements, the Nixon administration ordered Justice and HEW to go no farther than required by the courts and to avoid upsetting local parents and politicians. Like HEW’s 1965 retreat in Chicago, where the agency withheld $30 million in federal funds for “probable noncompliance” with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and then restored the funds five days later under pressure from Mayor Daley and President Johnson, the Nixon administration’s reining in of Justice and HEW emboldened opponents of school desegregation.
The Nixon administration’s limitations on Justice and HEW were part of a strategic choice to shift the job of enforcing school desegregation to the courts. The goal was that the courts, rather than the White House, would attract the attention and anger of parents and politicians when school desegregation could no longer be delayed. Nixon and his aides regularly criticized court decisions with which they disagreed, contributing to the public perception that “forced busing” and “massive busing” were the result of overzealous judges. At the same time, Nixon appointed 231 federal judges (then a record), including four Supreme Court justices (Warren Burger, Harry Blackmun, Lewis Powell, and William Rehnquist). Through these appointments and public criticism of court orders, Nixon worked to bend the judiciary to his views on school desegregation and “busing.” These efforts were ultimately successful. In Milliken v. Bradley (1974), Potter Stewart joined the four Supreme Court justices appointed by Nixon in a 5–4 ruling that overturned a lower court and blocked a metropolitan desegregation plan that would have involved Detroit and its suburbs. Milliken placed a nearly impossible burden of proof on those seeking school desegregation across city and suburban lines by requiring evidence of deliberate segregation involving multiple school districts. Milliken meant that most suburbs were untouched by school desegregation, while city schools grew more segregated by race and class.
Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall strongly disagreed with the court’s ruling. In his dissenting opinion, Marshall argued that “school district lines are both flexible and permeable for a wide variety of purposes, and there is no reason why they must now stand in the way of meaningful desegregation relief.” Marshall emphasized that the lower courts had found the state of Michigan to have committed acts of de jure school segregation and that the metropolitan remedy was designed to correct these acts, not pursue “racial balance,” as the majority suggested. If Thurgood Marshall was right and the court’s Milliken ruling reflected the “perceived public mood” more than the law, President Nixon deserved much of the credit or the blame. The court’s interpretation of school desegregation law in Milliken strongly resembled the case President Nixon had made against “busing” to parents, politicians, federal officials, and judges over the prior six years. In the end, the Milliken ruling helped President Nixon make good on his promise to protect “neighborhood schools” and limit “busing.”
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