By 1970, Richard Nixon badly wanted to be rid of his Housing and Urban Development secretary, a liberal Republican and former governor of Michigan named George Romney. Romney had a strange dedication to racial integration and had been generally making a hash of the president’s “Southern Strategy” by withholding housing funds from projects that barred black families. But Nixon found it difficult to fire people himself (he preferred to have H.R. Haldeman or John Ehrlichman do it, until he had to fire them), and so he instead got Romney to agree to cease promoting integration in suburbs. The president’s strategy was to convince Romney to go away. Romney, who seemed to have gone into government out of a sincere desire to serve, stayed on.
There was a great deal of wrenching irony in this tactic. Nixon had only given Romney the job at HUD — a “liberal” Cabinet agency that had been recently created by a Democratic administration and Congress — to keep him out of the president’s way in the first place. The early “reform”-minded Nixon administration further marginalized Romney by making prominent liberal Daniel Patrick Moynihan the head of the newly created “Council on Urban Affairs,” a panel that appeared to have a policy mandate pretty much identical to that of Romney’s Cabinet agency, but with a more direct line to the president. Nixon didn’t actually care about urban policy or the status of the African-American community. He cared about getting good press, which his feints toward progressive urban policy won him until white communities began resisting — at which point the president no longer had an urban policy to speak of. Romney stayed on in the Cabinet, powerless and ignored, until after Nixon’s 1972 reelection. With a new Nixon team taking shape for the second term, Romney finally resigned, to what must have been the great relief of the president.
“I don’t know what the president believes in,” Romney reportedly told a friend after Nixon effectively told him to stop doing what he’d been explicitly appointed to do. “Maybe he doesn’t believe in anything.”