Friday, July 9, 2010
Harry S. Dent: the bad footnote
Were it not for a driver who accidentally struck and killed the beloved family dog of Harry Shuler Dent, Richard Nixon may not have become President. To be sure, Nixon was already trying to think of a way to court Southern votes as the 1968 election approached. The death of the dog provided an opportunity for him to get his foot in the door and make a gesture to Dent, then serving as a top assistant to ultraconservative and segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond, a Republican from South Carolina. Nixon sent the Dent family a new dog, and it won him a meeting. Dent told Nixon that the way to prevent a segregationist third party bid from siphoning off Republican votes was to win Thurmond's loyalty. The very next day, he had the opportunity to do so. When a reporter asked him if he was embarrassed to share a party with Thurmond, Nixon replied, "Strom is no racist. Strom is a man of courage and integrity."
It paid off for Nixon. During the 1968 primaries, Dent was initially supportive of then Governor Ronald Reagan of California, but swung his support to Nixon at Thurmond's urging. Thurmond himself led Nixon's campaign in the South, covering quite a bit of ground in the final months of the campaign to stump for him. Dent stayed in the background to some degree. In 1967, South Carolina Democratic executive director Donald Fowler accused Dent of "impugning the honesty of the Democratic Party" and demanded an apology. Dent responded by saying Fowler "should develop a tougher hide if he wants to survive in politics." Yet in the next year, Dent was himself demanding an apology from Democrats after black baseball legend Jackie Robinson accused Thurmond and Nixon of being racist and commented, "We might as well die in the streets fighting for our dignity as men as fight in Vietnam for freedoms we don't have for everybody at home." Dent responded, "The Democratic Party owes the people an apology. They are responsible for what Robinson said." However, Dent did have some role in organizing support for Nixon's nomination. Nixon won support easily in the South, as Reagan was ambivalent about running for the nomination and Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York was seen as a more liberal supporter of civil rights.
Dent was born in St. Matthews, South Carolina, in February of 1930. He graduated from Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina, in 1951 and went on to serve in the Army during the Korean War. For a time following his service, he worked as the Washington correspondent for several Southern newspapers and radio stations. He attended school at night, earning degrees from both George Washington University and Georgetown University Law School in 1959.
Dent spent a decade with Thurmond, starting a few years after Thurmond's 1948 bid for President on a segregation plank. He played a major role in getting Thurmond to switch parties from Democratic to Republican, and also helped the senator in his record-breaking filibuster against a civil rights bill in 1957. Dent's actions then included keeping a pitcher of orange juice offered by a senator away from Thurmond so he wouldn't have to use the bathroom, and waiting outside the Senate chamber with a pail just in case Thurmond couldn't make it to a toilet following the day-long harangue.
Dent's political strategy for the South had its roots in 1964, when he campaigned for Republican candidate Barry Goldwater. The election marked a shift away from traditional Republican stances, as Goldwater opposed civil rights and spoke out in favor of states' rights. Goldwater lost the election, but carried five states in the Deep South. The next year, Dent became the chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party and remained there until 1968. One notable action during his chairmanship was his opposition to a legislative bill which would allow a stock car race to take place in Darlington on a Sunday. Dent argued that the bill "violates our traditional observance for the Sabbath day at a time when too many other important American traditions are being extinguished for the purpose of expediency and obvious personal gain."
After Nixon was elected in 1968, he appointed Dent was a special counsel and political adviser. He and Nixon immediately had to deny that the appointment was a reward for Thurmond's help in getting Nixon elected, and moderate Republicans worried that Dent would prove as much of a right-wing ideologue as Thurmond. Dent sought to assuage such fears, insisting that he answered to Nixon and not Thurmond. "I recognize that this country is bigger than the South and that the President has to have a stance that's national," he said in a 1969 interview with Time. "The thing that would do me the most harm would be if I took up the South's cause, waved the Confederate flag, and ran all through the White House yelling and being parochial." Contemporary accounts suggested that Dent was proving true to his word, and that he was able to mesh well with Nixon without going too far to the right. In 1971, he even tried unsuccessfully to get the South Carolina Republican executive committee to name a party chairman who would be more moderate on racial politics.
However, the stances masked a more racially charged "Southern strategy" concocted by Dent. Nixon's take was that "this Administration has no Southern strategy but rather a national strategy which, for the first time in modern times, includes the South rather than excludes the South." Dent worked as a liaison between the White House and various Republican groups around the country. He blamed Democrats for creating social programs that put a drain on middle class, and said that under the party's leadership the country was "filled with radical dissenters, cities were literally burning down, crime seemed uncontrollable."
Though the "Southern strategy" never overtly identified itself with racial politics, it essentially sought to capitalize on Southern disillusionment with the Democratic Party. The Democrats traditionally attracted Southerners, but support waned following President Lyndon B. Johnson's civil rights efforts such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. A key component in winning over the South was an effort to assure Southerners that the White House would not overtly pursue civil rights issues, that it would appear to be supportive but not follow through on such matters. Edward Morgan, an assistant to Dent, summed it up in a memo to Nixon: "If we can keep the liberal writers convinced that we are doing what the Court requires, and our conservative Southern friends convinced that we are not doing any more than the Court requires, I think we can walk this tightrope until November, 1972."
Dent urged Nixon to make conservative, pro-segregation appointments to the Supreme Court, including Clement F. Haynsworth, Jr. and G. Harrold Carswell. He also suggested to White House department heads that appointing white Southerners should be a top priority. The racial component of the strategy did not exactly go unnoticed at the time. Clarence Mitchell, a lobbyist with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, complained in late 1969 that Dent and other Nixon aides were hostile to the organization. Dent was not well-liked by liberals and moderates, and a 1969 Time article said people of those political persuasions considered him a "Southern-fried Rasputin in the White House."
Dent's official title went through a few changes over the years, as he went from a special counsel to a deputy counsel and received a promotion to "chief political troubleshooter" in May of 1969. In 1970, he had to handle a minor flap involving his own actions when it was found that he wrote letters on White House stationary to blacks approached by his brother's home construction business. Dent denied that the letters were meant to help his brother's business, but rather to show that the Nixon Administration was fully supportive of federal programs for low-cost housing. Most of his brother's homes were financed through such programs, and though Dent denied that his brother requested that he send the letters he did say that his sibling complained that Democrats were getting most of the credit for such programs. Dent said he sent the letters because he "was interested in laying to rest any question as to where Richard Nixon stood on this program."
At the close of 1972, following Nixon's re-election, Dent left his post to return to his law practice in Columbia, South Carolina, despite a request by Nixon to stay on in a promoted capacity. He announced that he was doing so because his key goal had been to help Nixon into a second term, he wanted to be closer to his family, and he wanted to distance himself from politics. Despite this last point, he said he would help Nixon or South Carolina Republican candidates if asked and often had to deny rumors that he would fill one of the numerous posts vacated in the wake of the Watergate scandal, or that he would run for governor of the Senate. In one odd advocacy move, Dent urged Fred B. Dent, who was no relation to Harry but had been named Secretary of Commerce after Nixon's re-election, to run for governor of South Carolina. Before long, Dent was serving as general counsel for the Republican National Committee.
In 1974, the year rumors had him aiming for political office, Dent was caught in the expanding Watergate imbroglio. One of the practices uncovered in the investigation was Operation Townhouse, an illegal effort that raised $3 million for GOP candidates in 1970. The operation, so named because it ran from the basement of a private townhouse, essentially provided a slush fund with the goal of blackmailing recipient politicians if it ever came to it. The scheme was a violation of the Corrupt Practices Act, which forbid unregistered campaign groups from providing money in two or more states without first filing financial reports.
Operation Townhouse was established by Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman, with Nixon calling the shots on who would receive funding. Dent admitted that he helped select which candidates would receive money, but did not know where the money was coming from. Dent was given the choice of going to trial on a felony charge of pleading guilty to a misdemeanor. He chose the latter in December of 1974, admitting to a violation of federal campaign finance laws. He was sentenced to one month of unsupervised probation. Dent resigned from his post in the Republican National Committee as a result of the conviction. The court also netted Nixon's personal attorney, Herbert W. Kalbach, and another aide, Jack A. Gleason.
Contemporaries were rather sympathetic to Dent. Political columnist Jack Anderson said Dent's role in the scandal was minimal and "like his mentor [Thurmond], is personally regarded as honest, even by his enemies." Anderson alleged that Dent had even privately denounced the "dirty tricks" in the White House and that such corruption spurred his departure from his post there. Judge George L. Hart, Jr. commented, "It does appear to be as if Mr. Dent were more of an innocent victim than a perpetrator." Dent thanked Hart for the light sentence, but also bemoaned that he would be associated with Watergate and said, "I'm destined for the history books as a bad footnote." Dent said he initially wanted to fight the charge, but was advised against it by his attorneys. "I realized that if I went to trial in Washington, D.C., this old boy with the Southern accent wouldn't have a chance before an all-black jury," he said.
Dent's guilty plea was followed by a probe to see if he would be disbarred, but nothing came of it. He worked for the presidential campaigns of Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. Dent also helped cripple John B. Connally's bid for the 1980 Republican nomination by associating him with blacks and gays; Connally grumbled that Dent was the "original dirty trickster." Dent turned his focus to religion, closing his law practice in 1981 and going into the Southern Baptist ministry. Following the fall of Nicole Ceausescu, Communist leader of Romania, Dent made several mission trips there to establish churches and orphanages. He helped to organize the first Senate prayer breakfast in 1989. Dent ultimately wrote five books. In one, he claimed the Southern strategy was meant to fight bias against the South, but when he started his ministry he admitted that he helped exploit racism to benefit Nixon. "When I look back, my biggest regret now is anything that stood in the rights of black people," he said. "Or any people"
Dent died in Columbia in September of 2007 due to complications from Alzheimer's disease.
Sources: "Dent: Kill Raceway Bill" in the Sumter Daily Item on Feb. 15 1966, "Apology Asked Of Harry Dent" in the Herald-Tribune on Sep. 7 1967, "Thurmond To Head Nixon Campaign" in the Rock Hill Herald on Sep. 10 1968, "Dent Asking An Apology For Robinson" in the Rock Hill Herald on Oct. 23 1968, "Dent Says New Post No Reward To Strom" in the Sumter Daily Item on Dec. 4 1968, "Thurmond Aid Is Nixon Troubleshooter" in the Toledo Blade on Jun. 14 1969, "Nation: Up At Harry's Place" in Time on Jul. 11 1969 "Black Leader Calls Nixon Aides Hostile" in the Milwaukee Journal on Dec. 28 1969, "Dent Sends Double-Barreled Letters" in the St. Petersburg Times on Jun. 27 1970, "New Moderates Seem To Be Raising Their 'Ugly' Heads" in the Tuscaloosa News on Jan. 24 1971, "A Who's Who Of Prominent Republicans" in the Miami News on Aug. 21 1972, "Harry Dent Says He's Returning To S.C. Law Firm" in the Herald-Journal on Dec. 3 1972, "Harry Dent: President Won't Name Candidate" in the Herald-Journal on Dec. 3 1972, "Dent Says He's Leaving Post In Administration" in the Rock Hill Herald on Dec. 4 1972, "Dent Mentioned For Governor" in the Herald-Journal on Feb. 11 1973, "Harry Dent Thinks He's Not Considered" in the Herald-Journal on May 2 1973, "Washington Merry Go Round" in the Bangor Daily News on Nov. 22 1974, "Former Nixon Aide, Dent, Gets One Month Probation" in the Lewiston Daily Sun on Dec. 12 1974, "Ex-Nixon Aide Pleads Guilty" in the Reading Eagle on Dec. 12 1974, "Dent Faces Probe" in the Times-News on Jan. 10 1975, "Nixon Strategist To Seek Ford Votes" in the Sumter Daily Item on Jun. 12 1976, "Harry Dent" in the Herald-Journal on Nov. 8 1988, "Dent Set Stage For Political Upheaval" in The State on Jan. 21 2005, "Harry Dent, An Architect Of Nixon 'Southern Strategy,' Dies At 77" in the New York Times on Oct. 2 2007, "Harry Dent; Advised Key Republicans" in the Washington Post on Oct. 3 2007, "The Lives They Lived" in the New York Times on Dec. 30 2007, Nixon's Civil Rights: Politics, Principle, and Policy by Dean J. Kotlowski, From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race in the Conservative Counterrevolution 1963-1994 by Dan T. Carter, President Nixon: Alone in the White House by Richard Reeves, Nixonland: The Rise of a President by Rick Perlstein