With the 2008 presidential race in fifth gear, two Leftist commentators are trying to sideswipe the Right by running over the late, great Ronald Wilson Reagan. They are driving the ugliest vehicle available: accusations of racism.
“Since the days of Gerald Ford, just about every Republican presidential campaign has included some symbolic gesture of approval for good old-fashioned racism,” columnist Paul Krugman wrote last September. Consequently, he continued, Ronald Reagan “started his 1980 campaign with a speech supporting states’ rights delivered just outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were murdered.”
Krugman alluded to the 1964 Ku Klux Klan killings
of three Congress
of Racial Equality freedom riders, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. This case was dramatized in the 1988 film
, Mississippi Burning
Columnist Bob Herbert then exacerbated Krugman’s act of grave desecration.
“As president, he [Reagan] actually tried to weaken the Voting Rights Act of 1965.” Herbert wrote. “He opposed a national holiday for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” Herbert added: “Throughout his career, Reagan was wrong, insensitive and mean-spirited on civil rights and other issues important to black people. There is no way for the scribes of today to clean up that dismal record.”
Of course, rubbish like this routinely blows along Manhattan’s sidewalks.
While defending Reagan against these outrageous charges, columnist David Brooks cites an invaluable online recording created August 30, 2006, long before this controversy erupted anew. David Hixson, a broadcaster who retired from Denver’s KEZW radio, presents an amateur audio tape of Reagan’s August 3, 1980, appearance at the Neshoba Country Fair. It seems to be the only available recording of this speech.
“The Fair is a recognized must appearance for any serious Mississippi political candidate and could be a deciding factor for Mississippi votes in the upcoming presidential campaign,” Hixson explains. “Pete Perry, [Neshoba] County GOP Chairman, used this strategy successfully in making the arrangements with the Reagan team on very short notice.”
Democrat Jimmy Carter narrowly won Mississippi in 1976, so that state was quite competitive in 1980. Team Reagan found this particular event attractive after reading a June 1980 National Geographic magazine article titled “Mississippi’s Grand Reunion at the Neshoba County Fair.” Though some staffers worried about this appearance, Reagan believed in honoring his scheduled commitments, not canceling them. Pollster Dick Wirthlin’s advice to the contrary went unheeded.
Rather than addressing a race rally, the tape finds Reagan speaking jovially for 15 minutes to an overflow crowd. He discusses Carter’s failures including inflation, high taxes, runaway spending, and myriad foreign-affairs blunders. Reagan also tells plenty of jokes.
“People have been telling me that Jimmy Carter has been doing his best,” Reagan quips. “And that’s our problem.”
“I know why he’s so interested in poverty,” Reagan says of Senator Ted Kennedy (D., Mass.). “He never had any when he was a kid.”
Reagan invokes his experiences with welfare reform in California. While he easily could have used that theme to stir racial animus against minority-group members on public assistance, Reagan empathizes with those on relief:
I don’t believe the stereotype, after what we did, of people in need who are there [on welfare] simply because they prefer to be there. We found the overwhelming majority would like nothing better than to be out, with jobs for the future, and out here in the society with the rest of us. The trouble is, again, that bureaucracy has them so economically trapped that there’s no way they can get away. And they’re trapped because that bureaucracy needs them as a clientele to preserve the jobs of the bureaucrats themselves.
Next, Reagan prescribes federalism — the basic conservative, constitutional principle of devolving power and resources as close to localities as possible.
I believe there are programs like that, programs like education and others that should be turned back to the states and the local communities with the tax sources to fund them, and let the people [inaudible].
The crowd roars over the end of that sentence. Reagan continues:
I believe in states’ rights. I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level. And I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the Constitution to that federal establishment. And if I do get the job I’m looking for, [applause] I will devote myself to trying to reorder those priorities and to restore to the states and local communities those functions that properly belong there.
Examined honestly, the diabolical phrase, “state’s rights,” which Krugman and Herbert decry as a plea for white power, dissolves into an innocuous call for Conservatism 101: A smaller federal government with revenues and public programs left as close to the people as possible. If Krugman and Herbert are unfamiliar with this concept, they can start by reading the 10th Amendment.
A clearly frustrated Reagan later wrote about this controversy: “Because I said I believed states should be allowed to regain the rights and powers granted to them in the Constitution, he [President Carter] implied I was a racist pandering to Southern voters.”
Federalism may be hemlock to big-government Leftists like Krugman and Herbert, but advocating it is not Morse code for bigots. If it were, Reagan’s largely white, rural, Mississippi audience would have welcomed the words “states rights” with cheers rather than silence.
Krugman and Herbert failed to mention that after supposedly wooing white supremacists with encrypted Klan rhetoric, Reagan flew from Mississippi to Manhattan to address the Urban League the next day. He promoted the idea of low-tax, deregulated “enterprise areas” to stimulate economic growth in America’s ghettoes.
“I am committed to the protection of the civil rights of black Americans,” Reagan told the Urban League. “That commitment is interwoven into every phase of the programs I will propose.” This overture to black Americans presumably dimmed the flaming crosses of the very same voters who Reagan allegedly tried to woo just one day earlier.
Krugman and Herbert’s anti-Reagan rage so totally blinds them that they neglected to discuss Democrat Jimmy Carter’s racially insensitive remarks in his 1976 campaign. That April, Carter said he opposed government programs “to inject black families into a white neighborhood just to create some sort of integration.” He added: “I have nothing against a community that is made up of people who are Polish, or who are Czechoslovakians, or who are French Canadians or who are blacks trying to maintain the ethnic purity of their neighborhoods.”
As the April 19, 1976 Time reported:
Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson last week postponed plans to endorse Jimmy Carter and angrily exclaimed: “Is there no white politician I can trust?” Jesse Jackson, director of Chicago’s Operation PUSH, called Carter’s views “a throwback to Hitlerian racism.”
Krugman and Herbert also forgot to chide 1988 Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis for speaking at…the Neshoba County Fair! The Massachusetts governor ignored Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner on the 24th anniversary of their murders, which were committed about 12 miles away.
Krugman and Herbert’s liberal limousine glides right past numerous inconvenient truths about Reagan’s record on race:
As the future president was growing up, “The Reagans were so poor that he played in the street with black children and thought little of it,” Nicholas Wapshott remembered in the November 14 New York Sun.