Harry Dent died on Sept. 28. He was 77. If you don’t recognize the name, that’s understandable. Yet few people did more than Dent to usher the era of Republican dominance into South Carolina — and by extension, the South.
Today, the late Gov. Carroll Campbell and his flamboyant, self-promoting sidekick Lee Atwater get most of the credit for building the Republican Party in the Palmetto State, but before Campbell and Atwater, there was Dent. Probably no one more personified the nexus of race, religion, and Republicanism than the quiet, behind-the-scenes operator from Calhoun County. Anyone who doubts that the modern Republican Party is built on a foundation of racism should study his life and career.
Dent joined the staff of newly elected Sen. Strom Thurmond in 1955, only seven years after Thurmond had run for president on the Dixiecrat ticket, establishing himself as the nation’s foremost segregationist. Within a year he was chief of staff.
In 1964, the national Democrats, led by President Lyndon Johnson, passed the Civil Rights Act, inflaming white Southerners and giving the Republicans the chance they had been looking for to break into the old Democratic South. More than anyone else, it was Dent who whispered into Thurmond’s ear and said it was time to switch parties and become a Republican. That year Thurmond and Dent campaigned for Barry Goldwater, the GOP presidential candidate, using the code words of “states’ rights” to denounce civil rights legislation and the federal government in terms white southerners could understand without using the N-word. Goldwater carried S.C. and four other southern states that year, and the Republican Party has ruled the South ever since.
In 1966, Dent worked hard in the off-year campaigns for state Republican candidates, helping to elect 26 of them to the General Assembly. It would take three more decades, but the GOP was on its way to taking control of the state legislature.
At the Republican national convention in Miami in 1968, Dent and Thurmond held the line on Southern delegates who wanted to bolt to Ronald Reagan, thus assuring that Richard Nixon received the nomination. In the general election, Dent and Thurmond worked hard to get white Southerners to support Nixon, rather than the third-party insurgency of segregationist George Wallace. In this campaign Dent became the architect of what was known as Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” whereby he reassured white Southerners that, as president, he would go slow on civil rights issues, including school bussing. The strategy worked; Wallace carried five Deep South states, but most of the region held firm for Nixon, giving him the narrowest of margins over Hubert H. Humphrey.
In its notice on the death of Harry Dent, The New York Times wrote of his Southern strategy that, “Its detractors call it racism cloaked in code words like ‘law and order’…. In any event, the strategy was credited with the Nixon victory.”
After the election, Dent was rewarded with a position on the White House staff. There he met evangelist Billy Graham, who requested that he inaugurate a White House prayer breakfast. Dent complied, and the tradition continues nearly 40 years later, a precursor to the rampant religiosity which has suffused Washington politics in recent years.
In his last years, Dent walked away from politics and went into full-time evangelism, working closely with the Billy Graham Crusade and serving a hitch as a missionary to Romania.
As a reporter for The State newspaper, I met him a couple of times in that period. I think Dent took his religion seriously — certainly more seriously than most politicians, but it should be said that he helped open the gates of the modern GOP to the Christofascists who have grown so powerful in that party today. Likewise, I don’t think he was a racist, but he pandered to them and gave them cover and respectability. That’s an ugly legacy, but one which he shares with the other giants of the state Republican pantheon — Strom Thurmond, Carroll Campbell, and Lee Atwater.
In the final analysis, generations of political opportunists like Dent have held the South back, have kept it stuck with two wheels in the ditch and its soul in purgatory. When the South needed moral leaders to confront its segregationist past, it got fixers and operators like Dent, who helped preserve and justify that segregation.
Harry Dent used to say that he just wanted to make South Carolina into a two-party state. The irony, of course, is that it is as much a one-party state today as it was a half-century ago. And that same party runs the state today — the White People’s Party. Ultimately, Dent will be remembered for his role in helping that party change its name from Democratic to Republican.