Nixon's Court: His Challenge to Judicial Liberalism and Its Political Consequences. By Kevin J. McMahon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. 343 pp.
Nixon's Court challenges the widely repeated assertion that through his judicial appointments, Richard Nixon waged an all-out, ideological attack on the Warren Court but ultimately failed to move the Court as far to the right as he had hoped. Kevin McMahon argues instead that Nixon never intended to undo most of the liberal jurisprudence of the Warren Court and only hoped to exploit strains in the Democratic coalition for his own electoral gain. Nixon's primary goal, McMahon argues, was not to shape judicial doctrine but to build an electoral coalition capable of sending him to, and keeping him in, the White House. According to McMahon, then, Nixon was not an ideologue, but rather, a pragmatist, viewing his judicial nominees primarily as signals to his voters and potential voters, rather than as chess pieces in a game of Supreme Court decision making. The implication of McMahon's account is that the success of Nixon's judicial appointments is best measured in Nixon's own terms, based on Nixon's ability to reshape the American electorate, rather than to reverse the rulings of the Warren Court, and that Nixon succeeded in using his Supreme Court appointments to craft a new and winning Republican coalition.
Nixon's Court challenges the conventional wisdom in part by directing our focus away from Nixon's rhetoric to archival sources such as administration memos and recorded conversations. These less visible presidential records make it clear that Nixon's personal views on Supreme Court policy or even on the competence and ability of his potential nominees were remarkably insignificant in his nomination choices. While Nixon believed that his nominees had to be acceptably conservative, McMahon demonstrates that Nixon's definition of "conservative" was both very broad and quite shallow, leaving as much room as possible for Nixon to identify nominees who could be electorally useful to him.
Thus, McMahon argues, Nixon's "Southern strategy" has been vastly oversimplified as exclusively Southern and segregationist. Nixon was not merely interested in picking up votes in the South, but in forging a broad-based national electoral coalition. Nixon carefully attempted to "peel off' racial conservatives in both the North and South from the Democratic coalition without alienating his moderate supporters...