From Publishers Weekly
University of Alaska historian O'Reilly (Racial Matters) ably synthesizes a large volume of material to portray what he sees as the mostly sorry record of American presidents who, on matters of race, pandered to what was worst in America for the sake of votes. The early leaders, Reilly posits, were hypocrites; Abraham Lincoln "was the first to act his conscience on matters of race." Even New Dealer FDR accommodated himself to Jim Crow in military strategy, and Harry Truman and JFK (a "civil rights minimalist") were pushed not by ideals but by pressure or expediency. O'Reilly has harsh words for Ronald Reagan's attempt to turn the clock back and George Bush's consistent flip-flops on race. If Jimmy Carter's compromises on affirmative action couldn't keep his fellow Southern whites in the fold, Bill Clinton has even more carefully pursued a "balancing act" in which he regularly dissociates himself from the likes of Jesse Jackson and Lani Guinier. "These are bleak times," the author concludes, suggesting that attacks on welfare and affirmative action still don't address the source of white middle-class anxiety.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Yes, the title is strange: it refers to a racist minstrel-show performance in which the president and vice president (Spiro Agnew) mocked their "Southern strategy" before journalists and guests at a 1970 Gridiron Club dinner. The argument of University of Alaska historian O'Reilly is just as audacious: he maintains that a "Southern strategy" --" a belief that presidential elections can be won only by following the doctrines and rituals of white over black" --has been "the gut organizing principle of American politics" ever since the Constitutional Convention compromised with slavery. Only Lincoln and LBJ stand as exceptions: despite the former's "white supremacist caveats" and the latter's "surveillance state," these two presidents truly improved African Americans' status and opportunities. After one chapter on "Owners" (Washington to McKinley) and one on "Progressives" (Teddy Roosevelt to Hoover), O'Reilly's remaining seven chapters study the many ways in which presidents from FDR to Clinton--often despite personal goodwill--have "deepened . . . the racial rut" in which "the politics that came out of the Constitution and its articles on slavery" has been stuck for more than two centuries. Provocative history, convincingly argued. Mary Carroll