By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Wrong about Reagan

New York Times columnist David Brooks today claims that Ronald Reagan is being retroactively tainted by a partisan liberal smear of recent vintage. He writes:

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.

What dastardly deed is Brooks referring to? In August 1980, Reagan’s campaign managers decided to kick off the post-convention final push by having the Gipper appear in Philadelphia, Miss., a shrine to the civil-rights movement thanks to the murder of three young activists 16 years earlier. Reagan spoke to a white crowd and endorsed “states’ rights,” code for segregation. This, Brooks fulminates, is — in some sort of latter-day re-invention — being “taken as proof that the Republican majority was built on racism.”

But though Brooks wants you to believe that the idea of Reagan’s general-election campaign beginning with a racially insensitive act is a new one, he’s careful to add the caveat that it’s “been around for a while.” Well, yes. I followed the 1980 campaign avidly. And I distinctly remember that Reagan was accused at the time, repeatedly and vociferously, of playing to the prejudices of white southern voters.

Here’s a sampling of coverage from the 1980 campaign:

  • Newsweek, Aug. 18: “Reagan’s courtship of the black vote last week started out in a way that made many blacks suspicious. Speaking to a nearly all-white crowd at a county fair in Philadelphia, Miss. — the town where three civil-rights workers were murdered in 1964 — he spoke in favor of states’ rights, the code words for segregation in the 1950s.”
  • U.S. News & World Report, Aug. 25: “In early August, Reagan made a three-day trip to Mississippi, New York and Chicago that attracted mixed reviews. He spoke to a mostly white audience at the Neshoba County (Miss.) Fair and declared support for states’ rights. The outing may have helped him in a state that Carter narrowly carried in 1976, but it drew criticism from blacks. Neshoba County is where three civil-rights workers were slain by Ku Klux Klansmen in 1964 with the help of local lawmen.”
  • The Associated Press, Sept. 16: “It was the pulpit of the late Martin Luther King Jr., and Carter invoked his memory in urging that blacks exercise their hard-won right to cast ballots. ‘You’ve seen in this campaign the stirrings of hate and the rebirth of code words like states’ rights in a speech in Mississippi and a campaign reference to the Ku Klux Klan relating to the South,’ Carter said. ‘That is a message which creates a cloud on the political horizon.’ “
  • The Washington Post, Sept. 28: “Philadelphia, Miss., was the worst place in the world to mention ‘states’ rights.’ Whatever the term might mean to Ronald Reagan now and whatever it might mean to others, it means something else to Jimmy Carter. It was always a code phrase for racism. It did not mean that the state had some sort of right to tell the government to shove it when it came to occupational safety. It meant, bluntly, that the state could deprive blacks of their civil rights and there wasn’t a thing the federal government could do about it.”
  • The New York Times, Oct. 15: “Andrew Young, campaigning on behalf of President Carter, told an audience in Ohio last week that Ronald Reagan’s advocacy of ‘state’s rights’ in a speech last August in Philadelphia, Miss., ‘looks like a code word to me that it’s going to be all right to kill niggers when he’s President.’ ” (The White House distanced itself from that one.)

I could go on (and on), but you get the idea. The point is that, despite what Brooks would like you to believe, Reagan’s pit stop in Mississippi was one of the most controversial moments in the 1980 campaign. Liberals didn’t start attacking Reagan over that visit a few months ago — they did it repeatedly 27 years ago.

You don’t have to believe Reagan was a racist. You just have to look at the record. The truth is contained in Brooks’ caveat; the main thrust of his column is a gross distortion.

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  1. Stella

    Truth and Brooks ought not be used in the same sentence. Brooks has always been a toady, and belittles the NYT.

  2. Anonymous

    So Reagan being a racist is proved by the coverage of a single event in Mississippi 27 years ago? “Just look at the record” what record?

  3. Dan Kennedy

    I never said Reagan was a racist. What I said was that Brooks is wrong in claiming that Reagan’s appearance in Philadelphia, Miss., was not an issue until recently. Clearly it was one of the biggest issues of the 1980 campaign.

  4. Anonymous

    In your entire entry, you did not once mention the context in which Reagan used the term “states rights”.Permit me to assist you:Programs like education and others should be turned back to the states and local communities with the tax sources to fund them. I believe in states’ rights. I believe in people doing as much as they can at the community level and the private level.”He mentioned states rights in the context of how large a role the federal government has in regulating and funding education. Now with NCLB, liberals are starting to complain about the federal government interfering in education.You did an excellent job of proving how correct Mr. Brooks is in his assessment of how progressives have manipulated two innocent words into alleged hate-mongering.

  5. jvwalt

    Well, Anonymous, your explanation isn’t quite as innocuous as you’d like it to be. Reagan mentioning states’ rights in the context of regulating education is the clearest possible code word to the segregationist crowd. Some of the most emotional battles of the civil rights’ movement were in the area of education. (To name two, Brown v. Board of Education, and George Wallace’s “stand by the schoolhouse door” to try to keep the University of Alabama lily-white.) In this contect, mentioning federal regulation of schools and colleges was a clear message to white voters who wanted to turn the clock back. Besides, there’s a clear historical record that Reagan did as much as anyone to advance Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” — turning the Democratic South into a solid Republican base, by neglecting black voters and appealing to whites. I really don’t think Reagan himself was a racist. But he did pursue racist votes without a second thought, and they did help elect him President twice. And they have helped every Republican candidate ever since.

  6. John Galt

    Well said jvwalt.The “Southern Strategy” was the only winning formula the G0P had, and Reagan pursued those votes with vigor. I was living in the south then and Reagan was spoken about in a “wink, wink” manner by the white electorate.

  7. Lis Riba

    Don’t know if you’ve seen, but since your post, Paul Krugman made some similar points.

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