Rick Perlstein: Harry Dent ... The Southern Strategist

In the small Southern town that produced Harry Dent, the future Nixon White House political aide, Dent’s great-uncle John (The Baptist) Prickett edited the newspaper. One day, an outraged reader called Prickett a “Republican S.O.B.” Prickett, who like everyone else in South Carolina was a Democrat, laid him flat with a punch. The baffled reader, upon recovering, asked what was the matter with calling him an S.O.B. “But you called me a Republican S.O.B.,” Prickett answered — and thereby hangs the tale of why Harry Shuler Dent is such an important figure in American history. He was the behind-the-scenes player who did the most to turn the South from a region that despised Republicans into a Republican bastion.

For most of the post-Civil-War era, the Grand Old Party survived in the Southern popular imagination as the Yankee enemy, eager to conspire with newly enfranchised slaves to overturn the entire “Southern way of life.” In 1957, Republican congressmen were instrumental in passing the first federal civil rights law in almost a century. The idea of a Southern state delivering its electoral votes to “the party of Lincoln” would have seemed outrageous before the 1960s — before, that is, the national Democratic Party made a commitment to the enforcement of civil rights for blacks.

By then, Harry Dent was a top political aide to Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Thurmond ran for president as a third-party “Dixiecrat” in 1948 after the Democratic convention passed a civil rights plank. Shortly before the 1964 presidential election, a Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, passed the most sweeping civil rights law in United States history. This time, Thurmond didn’t form a third party. The Republican presidential nominee, the conservative Barry Goldwater, opposed the civil rights law, which was political heresy at the time, as the conventional wisdom was that Republicans could not win the presidency without courting the black vote. Dent, a Southerner through and through — he was a lay preacher and established the Senate’s breakfast prayer group — persuaded his boss to drop out of the Democratic Party for good, join the Republicans and campaign for Goldwater. Goldwater lost in a landslide, winning just six states, five of them in Dixie. The “solid Democratic South” had been breached. American politics would never be the same....

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