Commentary

Saunders: Lessons in politics and life from 1968 and beyond

bsaunders@newsobserver.comJune 4, 2014 

“1968 was one helluva year for me,” Robert J. Brown of High Point told me when I spoke with him recently.

He was speaking of himself as a man, but he could’ve been speaking for the country, as well.

What happened on June 5 was part of what made 1968 such an epochal year: The man Brown was working for, hoping to help elect president – Robert F. Kennedy – was mortally wounded in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He died the next day.

Two months earlier, another man for whom Brown was working, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., had been shot and killed. That tore a hole in his heart that, you can tell from talking to him, hasn’t healed yet.

‘What is going on?’

Brown said he was at King’s Atlanta headquarters awaiting his arrival on April 4 when King called his secretary to say he was going to stay in Memphis that evening to hold another rally for striking garbage workers. We all know what happened that evening in Memphis.

“After Bobby was killed,” Brown recalled, “I said ‘Oh my God. What is going on in this country?’ After that, I said ‘I’m getting out of politics.’ 

History shows that didn’t last long, as Brown got right back in, with great reluctance, he said, and helped put together some of the most society-advancing pieces of legislation since the 13th Amendment.

Days after proclaiming that he was through with politics, Brown said, he was in New York, meeting with a client of his public relations company. He ran into two friends who were working for Richard Nixon’s candidacy. They laid out their reasons why and he agreed to work with them as a fundraiser and troubleshooter “for two days a week.”

That didn’t last long, either. The gig immediately became a five- to seven-day-a-week commitment. He troubleshot so well that H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s crew-cutted aide, set up a meeting with him.

‘Be prepared to stay’

“He said ‘The old man’ – that’s what they called him – ‘the old man has been watching what you’ve been doing, and he appreciates it,’ ” Brown recalled. “ ‘He wants you to be on the plane with him for the rest of the campaign. So what you should do is go back to North Carolina and get whatever clothes and anything else you might need and be prepared to stay’ ” for the rest of the campaign.

After Nixon won, Brown turned down the president-elect’s request to “come and help him put his government together,” he said. “I told them, ‘This is where I get off. I’ve been messing with this campaign stuff too long. I’ve got to get my business back together and make some money.’ 

For weeks, Brown received calls from Nixon’s assistants, running off historical names many consider villainous – Ziegler, Haldeman, Ehrlichman. Only, to Brown, they weren’t villains.

Neither was Nixon. Brown, a former High Point cop and federal treasury agent, finally relented to that job offer. During his first meeting with the president-elect, Brown said, Nixon introduced him to some other people as “the man who did some great work for us, and he’s going to be one of my top assistants in the new administration. ... Now, we hadn’t had any conversation at all.”

Brown said he was stunned, so I asked what he did next. “I’m not crazy. This man was just elected president of the United States,” he said. “I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ 

Brown served as special assistant to the president from 1968 to 1973. Since then, he has served as chairman and CEO of B&C Associates, a public relations firm, but he still has those memories of being at the center of society-altering legislation.

It’s funny how history works. To me, nobody but a real Southern white Democratic dude, not a transplant, could have pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which is being discussed, praised and – yes – vilified this year, its 50th anniversary.

President Lyndon Johnson, cajoled, arm-twisted, sweet-talked, bribed and threatened enough congressmen to do what needed to be done when it needed to be done. For that, he is being deservedly feted and honored during this anniversary of that legislative achievement.

Nixon deserves some of those encomiums, too, though, because only a conservative Republican like Richard M. Nixon could have pushed through an affirmative action law and accomplished some of the things he did.

It’s true that Kennedy and Johnson both mentioned affirmative action – a 1961 executive order by Kennedy was the first recorded mention I found of the term – but Nixon established the Small Business Administration to help socially and economically disadvantaged businesses and the Office of Minority Business Enterprise.

‘Different kind of guy’

As Brown said, Nixon was the first president or vice president to go to Africa, and he promised Brown genuine responsibility when it came to making America more inclusive in all areas.

“He was a different kind of guy, Nixon was,” Brown said.

As one of the architects of the president’s affirmative action program, among other things, Brown said, he knows it was as unpopular among some then as it is now. It was also just as necessary.

“These rich guys, big government guys, Democrats and Republicans, were going to Nixon trying to get me fired. They’d say, ‘This guy is taking away all of these government contracts.’ Nixon wouldn’t even talk to them. He told them they had to talk to me.”

Brown told of the day “three of the top guys” did just that, coming to his office to try to dissuade him from seeking government contracts for black businesses. “I said, ‘Look guys. Live and let live. We’re not trying to take it all. Hell, we couldn’t even handle it if we had it all. But our people have been shut out for so long and you have had the whole thing. That’s not going to happen anymore.’ 

Right on, right on, right on.

Given the positive changes wrought during Nixon’s oft-besieged presidency, I asked Brown if Watergate is the reason Nixon is remembered less fondly than a rancid clam sandwich.

“That’s part of it, but the other part of it is that he was a Republican. Man, if he’d been a Democrat, they’d be lionizing him all over the damned place today,” he laughed. “You know what the real truth is. We had never had anything in the area of affirmative action in a major way before Nixon. We’d never had anything dealing with black enterprise or black colleges. We’d never had any agency dealing with the environment or to champion women’s rights in sports before that.”

There are a lot of things to which we as a nation shouldn’t want to hark back, but a period when principle trumped party, when idealism trumped ideology – when a liberal Democrat could pass the Civil Rights Act with significant Republican support, and a man working for an even more liberal Democrat could go to work for a Republican “law and order” president who implements affirmative action programs, well, that would be something good to see again.

Of course, Republicans in 1968 didn’t have Fox News beating up on them any time they dared reach out to the other party.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or bsaunders@newsobserver.com

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