Richard Nixon on Why You Should Stake Out a Big Position on Civil Rights

Now, now, I’m not directly comparing legal gay marriage directly to the civil rights movement. I’m speaking largely in headline-ese. But my colleague Matt Yglesias reminds me of an interview that defeated presidential candidate Richard Nixon gave to Ebony in 1962. The focal point was Nixon’s “no comment” on the jailing of Martin Luther King, Jr. The Eisenhower-Nixon administration had reasons for staying out of the story. The Kennedy-Johnson campaign had no such worries. Robert Kennedy called King; the Democratic ticket’s support, which didn’t effect King’s status, was played up heavily among black voters.

Nixon told Ebony that the situation was mishandled, and it hurt him.

“Nixon blamed his silence on the “fast moving campaign,” adding: “I just didn’t realize such a call could swing an election. In a political campaign, I guess talking pays off most.”

“There was some debate,” Nixon admitted, “in the effectiveness of the Demcoratic use of the King case. At first our party people were not aware of the tremendous impact,” he said. “We had no idea the Democrats were concentrating so much in the Negro areas on this ‘No Comment’ business. By the time we learned, there wasn’t much we could do.”

Nothing changes, legally, because Obama’s admitted that he supports gay marriage. Really, nothing – he’s got the same federalist position on this that he has on medical marijuana, and you can see how that works for states. But the symbolism matters sometimes.