NIXON'S PIANO: Presidents and Racial Politics from Washington to Clinton by Kenneth O'Reilly

NIXON'S PIANO: Presidents and Racial Politics from Washington to Clinton

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A panoramic view of the ""politics of division"" throughout American history, as exemplified by our presidents. Many early chief executives, O'Reilly (History/Univ. of Alaska; Racial Matters: The FBI's Secret File on Black America, 1989) writes, kept slaves, although ""nearly every pre--Civil War chief executive who owned slaves privately admitted that the practice was a sin."" Others barely tolerated the existence of African-Americans in the US, seemingly hopeful that the race question would go away. Only Abraham Lincoln publicly developed a politics that addressed these issues, and that politics ended in spectacular bloodshed. Theodore Roosevelt spoke openly of ""coons""; Franklin Roosevelt resisted integrating the armed forces. Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew openly bantered Amos-'n'-Andy style before the assembled Washington press corps, while George Bush made much political hay of the Willie Horton scandal. In short, as O'Reilly amply demonstrates, the presidential record on civil rights is hardly one to be proud of. Despite good intentions and a liberal upbringing in the New South, O'Reilly volunteers, Bill Clinton hasn't done much to improve that sorry history, as witness his panicked retreat from nominees Johnetta Cole as education secretary and Lani Guinier as assistant attorney general when race-bound political controversy greeted him. O'Reilly's analysis of this cut-and-run tendency is not pretty; even less so is his look at Clinton's attack on rap singer Sister Souljah, greeted in Republican circles as a backhanded repudiation of Jesse Jackson, a ploy that won Clinton a sizeable number of votes from so-called Reagan Democrats. ""Of the forty-two presidents of the United States only Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson stand out for what they ultimately did on the matter of civil rights for all,"" O'Reilly says. Future presidents will have to do much better, and reading this unhappy book might be a good place to start.

Pub Date: Nov. 8th, 1995
Page count: 512pp
Publisher: Free Press