Politics

CNN Pundit’s Skewed History of Russell Building Left Out Most of the Key Facts

Tim Naftali suggests the 1972 renaming for the Southern Democrat was part of a Nixonian plot to woo Southerners to the GOP

A historian and CNN commentator suggested Tuesday that the decision to name a Senate building for Democratic segregationist Sen. Richard Russell was part a Nixonian plot to woo racist voters in the former Solid South.

The issue has been in the news since Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) suggested Sunday that the Russell Senate Office Building be renamed in honor of the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

The proposal prompted CNN to turn to Tim Naftali, former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, to provide a brief history of the man whose name now adorns the building.

It is not the first time someone has floated the idea of removing Russell’s name, due to his history as a strong supporter of segregation and Jim Crow laws, and as an opponent of the civil rights movement.

In his telling, Naftali mentioned no role by Democrats in the 1972 renaming. He focused instead on Richard Nixon and the GOP. In fact, the renaming would not have happened without the Senate’s Democratic majority.

“Why did Republicans — don’t forget, that’s the Nixon era — why would Republicans have wanted this Democratic legislator to have his name on a building? Because in the 1970s, Republicans were competing for the votes of Southern Democrats,” he said.

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“This was the time of Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy. He wanted to embrace those who had been against civil rights legislation. Ergo, the naming of the building,” he said.

But Naftali’s comments badly distort the facts of history.

The names of Senate office buildings are the exclusive province of the Senate. The president has no role. At the time, Democrats controlled the Senate 54-44 (with two independents), so no name change could have passed without their support.

And in 1972, the year after Russell’s death, the idea of putting his name on the office building was not exactly partisan or controversial. Sens. Howard Baker, a Tennessee Republican, and Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, co-authored the resolution. It passed 99-1, with Michigan Democrat Philip Hart objecting on grounds that it was “unwise to anticipate history’s verdict.”

Byrd was himself controversial, having been earlier in his life an “exalted cyclops” of the Ku Klux Klan. He would go on in 1964 to join the Southern Democrats’ filibuster against the Civil Rights Act.

Russell (pictured above left) was a titanic figure in the Senate, well-liked by his colleagues, especially a Texas Democrat by name of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who as president would later sign the Civil Rights Act into law.

Russell was known for far more than his views on race, having wielded the gavel of the powerful Armed Services Committee for years. It wasn’t just the politicians who praised him. The nation’s two most important newspapers also gushed over his career immediately after his death.

The Washington Post, in its obituary, called him “the closest thing remaining to the embodiment of the Senate of old, the keeper and the symbol of the tradition, mores and tone that gave the place its stature.”

The New York Times, on its editorial page, noted: “Public men, whether they are right or wrong, are measured by their character and by the size of the issues which concern them. By these standards, Richard Russell was a big man.”

Naftali focused, however, exclusively on the dark side of Russell’s record.

Related: CNN Panel Erupts During Heated Discussion on Trump and McCain (Watch)

“He supported Jim Crow laws. He supported the caste system, the apartheid system in the South,” he said. “He was a racist. He was a great friend of Strom Thurmond. We wouldn’t want an office building named after Strom Thurmond in Washington.”

Thurmond — who ran for president in 1948 as a Dixiecrat Democrat — ended his long career as a Republican senator from South Carolina. Thurmond was still a Democrat in 1956 when he signed the Southern Manifesto defending segregation. In fact, 99 of the 101 members of Congress who signed the document in 1956 were Democrats. That included all 19 senators who signed.

Seven of the South’s nine Republicans in Congress refused to sign the manifesto. That included Baker, then a representative, who later would subsequently co-sponsor the resolution to name the office building for Russell.

Rather than being racially motivated, Nixon’s Southern strategy represented a recognition by Republican political strategists of the era of the increasing suburbanization of the South and rising standards of living in much of the region.

That trend encouraged the growth of Republican parties across the once so Solid (Democrat) South and was at the heart of a 1969 book — “The Emerging Republican Majority” — by a then-young political analyst, Kevin Phillips.

(photo credit, homepage and article images: John McCain, CC BY 2.0, Chris “Mojo” Denbow)

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