american society, politics, USA

Was Reagan A Racist?

One presidential candidate is lighting up the New York Times Opinion page with impassioned attacks and defenses. No, it’s not Barack Obama, Ron Paul, Hillary Clinton, Mike Huckabee, Jon Edwards, Rudy Giuliani, Dennis Kucinich, or Mitt Romney. It’s Ronald Reagan.

Ronald ReaganThe crucial question of the day, if you’re reading the New York Times Opinion pages at least, is whether or not Ronald Reagan was making a veiled appeal to the Southern white electorate in his 1980 campaign.

The claim, made many times by columnists Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert, is that Reagan, by speaking about “state’s rights” when he visited the Neshoba County Fair outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1980, was sending a conscious message to white racists that he was on their side. Because Philadelphia was famously the location of the murder of three civil rights activists in 1964, the choice of location was both an intentional and powerful message by the Gipper that, like Nixon and Goldwater before him, he wanted the vote of Southern white supremacists.

To Krugman especially, this is absolute proof that the Republican party was racist and is thus worthy of little more than disdain. It’s one of his central, and oft-mentioned problems with Republicans. It was mentioned at least three times in his recent book, The Conscience of a Liberal.

So it was hard to ignore when David Brooks, a rather conservative columnist at the Times, took issue with the claim. In last Friday’s column, “History and Calumny,” Brooks made his opinion completely clear, even as he obfuscated about who was really to blame.

Today, I’m going to write about a slur. It’s a distortion that’s been around for a while, but has spread like a weed over the past few months. It was concocted for partisan reasons: to flatter the prejudices of one side, to demonize the other and to simplify a complicated reality into a political nursery tale.

The distortion concerns a speech Ronald Reagan gave during the 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., which is where three civil rights workers had been murdered 16 years earlier. An increasing number of left-wing commentators assert that Reagan kicked off his 1980 presidential campaign with a states’ rights speech in Philadelphia to send a signal to white racists that he was on their side. The speech is taken as proof that the Republican majority was built on racism.

Brooks then goes on to explain–with no shortage of credible citations to emphasize his point–that the week after receiving the nomination, Mr. Reagan was actually trying to recruit black voters–mostly Democrats since the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt–to join the Republican movement. As Brooks says, “Reagan delivered a major address at the Urban League, visited Vernon Jordan [a black lawyer, activist, and adviser to President Clinton] in the hospital where he was recovering from gunshot wounds, toured the South Bronx and traveled to Chicago to meet with the editorial boards of Ebony and Jet magazines.”

As Timothy Noah made clear on Slate that same day, Brooks column was clearly about Krugman, though it (intentionally) failed to mention him by name. After reading Noah’s piece I thought the matter was rather finished. That is until I read Tuesday’s page, in which Bob Herbert renewed the claim with full force: Reagan was aware of and happy with his racist provocation in Mississippi. In Mr. Herbert’s words:

The murders were among the most notorious in American history. They constituted Neshoba County’s primary claim to fame when Reagan won the Republican Party’s nomination for president in 1980. The case was still a festering sore at that time. Some of the conspirators were still being protected by the local community. And white supremacy was still the order of the day.

That was the atmosphere and that was the place that Reagan chose as the first stop in his general election campaign. The campaign debuted at the Neshoba County Fair in front of a white and, at times, raucous crowd of perhaps 10,000, chanting: “We want Reagan! We want Reagan!”

Reagan was the first presidential candidate ever to appear at the fair, and he knew exactly what he was doing when he told that crowd, “I believe in states’ rights.”

Reagan apologists have every right to be ashamed of that appearance by their hero, but they have no right to change the meaning of it, which was unmistakable. Commentators have been trying of late to put this appearance by Reagan into a racially benign context.

That won’t wash. Reagan may have been blessed with a Hollywood smile and an avuncular delivery, but he was elbow deep in the same old race-baiting Southern strategy of Goldwater and Nixon.

Mr. Herbert, like Mr. Brooks, doesn’t explain that the primary “Reagan apologist” he’s concerned with is a fellow Times columnist.

Comparing the two columns, its undeniable that Brooks makes a more persuasive case about Reagan’s goal during the first week of his campaign. Mr. Herbert’s rebuttal completely ignores the strong and credible argument made by Kevin Drum (and cited by Mr. Brooks) at the left-of-center Washington Monthly that though Reagan’s history on racial issues is embarrassing–notable for his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights act, his ignorance of South African apartheid, and his attempts to roll back the 1965 Voting Rights Act–this story is overblown.

Perhaps Mr. Reagan was a racist and a race-baiter, but I’m not sure why it’s worth debating in a newspaper. The obvious interpretation, as is so often the case in questions of history, is that the past is serving as a proxy for the present. By highlighting this story Krugman and Herbert intend to raise questions about racism in the modern Republican party. Brooks defense is an attempt to claim that race is a non-issue to the party and its backers.

But I just wish the New York Times Opinion page would stop using the 1980 Philadelpha Speech as a stand-in for legitimate questions of modern politics. Let’s honestly address an interesting and non-emotional question, like if “law-and-order conservatives,” who oppose anything but wholesale deportation for illegal immigrants, are really just racists. I’m sure that’s an issue we can all talk about in a relaxed and detached manner…

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