Too Little, Too Late

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon Shows Us How Not to Govern

The late arrival in Ferguson, the disastrous curfew—the governor’s handling of the shooting of Michael Brown reveals how little our politicians have learned from the riots of the 1960s.

08.19.14 9:45 AM ET

The images from Ferguson, Missouri, of protesters clashing with the police, of looters raiding local shops, the sirens, the tear gas, the gunshots, recall the long, hot summers of the 1960s. It’s fair to ask what, if anything, local elected officials have learned in the intervening decades.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon is a far cry from Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who stood in the schoolhouse door to defy integration, or Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor, who turned fire hoses and attack dogs on peaceful demonstrators in Birmingham.

Nixon comes across as a textbook case of too little, too late, the personification of a white male establishment out of touch with the African-American community. He took too long to acknowledge the seriousness of Michael Brown’s death, an under-reaction given the excessive use of force against the unarmed teen. Then he inflamed the situation by imposing a curfew.

Now that Nixon has called in the National Guard, he’s got President Obama declaring in his press conference Monday that he’ll be watching to see if the Guard’s involvement helps or hurts.

“I don’t envy a governor in this situation,” says Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College. “If you act too fast, you’re overriding local authority and you run the risk of triggering a counter-response. If you wait too long, things get out of control.”

Unfortunately, Nixon managed to get it wrong coming and going, letting too much time pass before he showed his face in Ferguson, triggering angry retorts from residents that as a Democrat he only cared about them on Election Day, then super-imposing a curfew Saturday and Sunday nights only to withdraw it Monday under withering criticism.

“It’s been a mess all around,” says William Galston, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. “Nobody has yet figured out a way of bringing peace to the streets of Ferguson and simultaneously addressing the concerns of people who are showing up in peaceful protest.” The opportunistic looting by what Obama termed a “violent criminal element” has created dilemmas for the police and put civil activists on the defensive, complicating the story line from all sides.

“Still, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that a more artful and sensitive handling of this situation at the beginning could have averted a lot of this aftermath,” says Galston. That’s where Nixon shoulders some blame for failing to step in early and effectively. His apparent inability to read the black community in his state is puzzling, as African Americans are such an important part of the Democratic coalition. “He doesn’t seem to have a feel for that community in a way that a lot of Southern Democratic governors do have,” says Galston.

Before Nixon was elected governor in 2008, he served four terms as Missouri’s attorney general, winning plaudits for a reform agenda on cleaning up corruption, reinstating campaign contribution limits, suing big tobacco, and creating a No-Call list for telemarketers that is a national model. Since his reelection as governor in 2012, he’s been quietly promoting himself as a “common-sense moderate,” elected repeatedly in a red state, someone who could put Missouri in the Democratic column as, say, Hillary Clinton’s running mate.

That dream is over. Now Nixon is just trying to get through the night. From being barely visible in the first days of the crisis in Ferguson, he is now turning up on every talk show that will have him. It may be too late, but he seems finally to understand the burden of communication that he carries, that he owes it to the citizens in Ferguson, and elsewhere, to be clear about what’s ahead. The wheels of the criminal justice system move slowly. The grievances in Ferguson are deep and long-standing, and there has to be a strategy for the short term, reinstating calm, and the longer term, making sure justice is served.

For historical perspective, I reached out to Michael Barone, a resident fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, who was just starting his career in Detroit when riots broke out in the early morning of July 23, 1967, sparked by a police raid on an unlicensed bar. “I can’t claim to remember everything clearly,” he wrote in an email, “but I remember being at one point in a conference room alone with the mayor and the governor. That a 22-year-old intern could be in such a place shows how harum-scarum things were.”

The governor was George Romney, a Republican and Mitt’s father, and the mayor, Jerome Cavanagh, was a Democrat. They were not political allies, but they were not bitter adversaries, either, Barone recalls. “My recollection is that Governor Romney sent the National Guard in within 24 hours,” he says. “I am pretty sure that Mayor Cavanagh requested or agreed with this.” Romney also traveled to Detroit to meet with the mayor and the police commissioner.

The National Guard proved ineffectual, having been sidelined throughout the Vietnam era as a “kind of a weekend club rather than a fighting force,” in Barone’s description. Cavanagh wanted federal troops, and Romney, though initially reluctant, came around to that view. President Johnson and Attorney General Ramsey Clark were initially wary, too, “for good reason,” says Barone. “You probably don’t want federal troops patrolling civilian streets as a general rule.” But the time line for debate was short, the need urgent, and after the second full day of rioting, Johnson gave the order for thousands of paratroopers to enter Detroit.

“They came in, patrolled riot areas, and showed good discipline in not scattering gunfire everywhere. At one point the commanding general, General Throckmorton, was told that there was gunfire raking a street. He didn’t think this was correct (apparently you can hear gunshots a mile away) and walked down the middle of the street. No shots were fired at him,” Barone says.

Gov. Romney had presidential ambitions, and so did Cavanagh, but after the riots broke out, the 39-year-old mayor realized that his political career was over. Romney went on to allege that Johnson had delayed the federal response for political reasons, but LBJ declined to run for reelection, and Romney didn’t make the cut in 1968. The toll for the Detroit riots, which went on for five days, was 43 dead, more than 1,000 injured, 2,500 stores looted, hundreds of homes burned, and some $50 million in property damage.