Among the casualties of the Ferguson tragedy is the governor of Missouri. Jay Nixon is a Democrat who won re-election by 12 percentage points in a Republican state and was being mentioned for vice president after increasing the state’s Medicaid workload and vetoing bills that sought to override federal gun laws, extend the waiting period for abortions, and cut state income taxes.
Then came August and the killing of Michael Brown. Gov. Nixon ran afoul of the national guard curse that has afflicted so many governors. He was faulted for delaying too long in sending the guard to Ferguson after the killing and then faulted for sending the guard too early, too late, too noticeably.
There probably isn’t a right way to send a state’s guard to the scene of trouble. Governors have been faulted for creating volatile situations by using the guard too quickly or by putting the guard front and center. When they are more cautious, they are faulted for waiting too long.
In 1965, Acting Gov. Glenn Anderson consulted with local law enforcement officials in Los Angeles, who told him they had a handle on violence in Watts that followed a dispute between local residents and the police. They were on the verge of controlling the situation, they told Anderson, so he decided not to send the guard into the situation, which then exploded into massive rioting over several days. He was defeated for re-election after no one less than Richard Nixon coached Anderson’s opponent. “I want everyone in California to believe that Glenn Anderson was responsible for Watts,” Nixon reportedly said.
In 1967, Michigan Gov. George Romney, faced with rioting in Detroit, had to turn to President Lyndon Johnson for federal troops because the Michigan National Guard was under strength. Romney was then the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination and Johnson was expected to run for re-election. Romney later attacked Johnson for an alleged 22-hour delay in sending the troops, though a White House spokesperson said Johnson ordered the troops to Michigan at 11:02 in the morning, six minutes after the request was received. In this case, blame was difficult to nail down, and the issue of why Romney had let the state guard’s strength decline so far was never addressed.
There have been other ways of handling these situations, though they require physical courage on the part of governors. In 1965 during the Watts riot in California, crazy rumors started up in Las Vegas that busloads of armed African Americans were on their way to Las Vegas and the city was on edge. Nevada Gov. Grant Sawyer and his aide Richard Ham – Ham was known to blacks as a civil rights advocate – WALKED around the black west side of the city, chatting with residents, stopping to visit at the Moulin Rouge casino frequented by African Americans. The situation calmed down and there was no violence. New York City Mayor John Lindsay later used similar walks through Harlem and other areas to reduce tension.
In 1968 after Martin King was assassinated and riots started in city after city, Robert Kennedy went to the Indianapolis ghetto, against the advice of local police. He talked to a crowd about his feelings about his brother’s murder, a topic he had rarely discussed in public. His moving remarks helped keep things calm in Indianapolis on a night when a hundred other cities burned.
There isn’t any sure and certain guide to handling these situations. Once we let our relations with each other get out of control, as often as not luck and happenstance have as much impact as planning and judgment. Certainly no such use of national guard units is anything to be celebrated.
Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.