Elephants in the Cottonfields

Elephants in the Cottonfields

By Randall Williams

Vol. 5, No. 1, 1983, pp. 19-20

Elephants in the Cottonfields: Ronald Reagan and the New Republican South. Wayne Greenhaw. Macmillan, 1982.

The growing strength of the Republican party in Dixie has taken many Democrats by both storm and surprise, but the G.O.P. muscle-building did not begin yesterday. Explaining this fact is only one of the services performed here by author Wayne Greenhaw, though if he had accomplished nothing else Elephants would still bee success.

In fact the book offers a great deal more. Greenhaw has assembled detailed profiles of the leading personalities behind the Republican surge; he manages to give us a picture of the situation in every Southern state, and his interviews with young voters reveal what the South’s political future might be if many Republican dreams–and Democratic nightmares–are realized.

In that sense, Greenhaw’s book is non-partisan political reportage; both Democrats and Republicans will come away from Elephants knowing much more about their respective parties.

There is plenty of history here that never gets taught in many Southern schools. Greenhaw starts at the beginning, with the Southern reaction to the formation of the Republican party. Then he moves ahead, through secession, through war, then Reconstruction, then the return to power in the South of white Democrats.

Of more immediate interest is the examination of how Goldwater fever hit the South in 1964. Here Ronald Reagan appeared for the first time, and Richard Nixon returned, and the groundwork was laid for the first real two-party politics in the South in one hundred years.

Greenhaw writes that this was no accident but an indicator of the polarization within the Democratic party over racial issues. Strom Thurmond was not the only Democrat converting to Republicanism out of a belief that the South was being forced by national Democrats into a Second Reconstruction.

But as white Southern Democrats abandoned their party, blacks moved into it. (The quotes by George Wallace–the ’64 model–on this development are intriguing.) More than ninety percent of blacks voted Democratic in 1964, signaling the extent to which Lincoln’s party and the Democrats had switched roles.

Elephants is a contemporary story from this point on, and begins to be peopled by familiar characters. Here for example is Jesse Helms, who began as “a soda jerk at the local drugstore, sweeping out the weekly Monroe Enquirer, and writing up the high school (athletic games),” and eventually became a newspaper, radio and television personality, which gave him the platform he needed to become a well-known conservative voice in the “tobacco valleys of eastern North Carolina.”

Thousands of words have been written about Helms, but few have as carefully explored his early career and the foundation of his astonishing political popularity built around a philosophy of negativism . . . “He has always against something, whether it was food stamps for the needy, sex education for the ignorant, or government-paid abortions for women who could not otherwise afford such drastic measures of birth control.” Meanwhile, adds Greenhaw, “federal support for tobacco farmers was a necessity as (Helms) viewed it. Besides, his wife had a tobacco allotment.”

Similarly profiled is Jeremiah Denton, the junior senator from Alabama who rode his reputation as a Vietnam war hero into the Capitol. Both Denton and Helms are important to any discussion of Republicans today, but they do not represent the entire party. In fact, the detail with which Elephants examines the extreme right, especially the religious right, reveals the serious differences which exist within the Republican party.

Representing another faction of the GOP is Tennessee’s Howard Baker, through whom Greenhaw illustrates the “new old Republican order.” Baker’s Senate seat adjoins those of both Helms and Denton, but his brand of Republicanism may as well be from another planet. While Helms was reading segregationist editorials over the air in North Carolina in the Sixties, Baker was studiously keeping to the middle of the road, voting against federal funds for busing but for all major civil rights legislation.

Greenhaw’s skill as a reporter has never been more evident than in the chapter he does on Lee Atwater, the South Carolina protege of Thurmond who ramrodded the Reagan campaign in the South and in his spare time managed the campaigns of six Republican congressional candidates (all six won).

Atwater is the master–and originator, he says–of the Negative Factor Theory of politics. This theory is put into practice through a simple technique: Never mind the issues, just raise lots of money, find dirt on the opponent, then publicize the hell out of it. If no dirt exists, invent some.

This chapter should be memorized by any Democrat planning to run for office in what used to be the Solid South. However, Greenhaw writes not just about Atwater’s strategies, but about the man himself. In fact, he peels Atwater like an onion, layer by layer, yet he does

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it in such a way that probably no one will enjoy that chapter more than Atwater himself.

Greenhaw makes no projections for the future success or failure of Atwater and his Republican colleagues. He acknowledges that although Republicans are growing in strength, Democrats generally still control the South but with a looser grip than before.

What will become of the young Republicans who call themselves progressives, or the New Right apostles who viewed Reagan’s election as a mandate for them? That remains to be seen, of course, but Greenhaw has given us a good look at the landscape.

Randall Williams, a writer and editor who lives in Montgomery, is a Yellow-dog Democrat.