Politics & Policy

Reagan, No Racist

Racing through the record.

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.

‐ In his memoir, An American Life, Reagan wrote: “My mother and father urged my brother and me to bring home our black playmates, to consider them equals…There was no more grievous sin at our household than a racial slur or other evidence of religious or racial intolerance.”

‐ In 1931, Reagan was on Eureka College’s football team. One night, Reagan biographer Lou Cannon recalls, an Elmhurst, Illinois hotelier refused lodging to two of Reagan’s black teammates. Reagan invited them to stay at his parents’ home, where Mr. and Mrs. Reagan welcomed them. Reagan “and one of the players, William Franklin Burghardt, remained friends and correspondents until Mr. Burghardt died in 1981,” Cannon wrote Sunday.

‐ As an adult, Reagan had a long history of bias-free fair-mindedness. As Cannon added:

As a sports announcer in Iowa in the 1930s, Mr. Reagan opposed the segregation of Major League Baseball. As an actor in Hollywood, he quit a Los Angeles country club because it did not admit Jews. In 1978, when preparing to run for president, Mr. Reagan opposed a California ballot initiative that would have barred homosexuals from teaching in the state’s public schools.

‐ Ronald Reagan Jr. recalls the day at a California barbecue when his father dived into a pool to save a black child from drowning.

‐ As president, Reagan named Samuel Pierce, a black man, as his secretary of Housing and Urban Development. While Pierce was outside Reagan’s inner circle, he was in Reagan’s Cabinet. In 1982, Reagan promoted Roscoe Robinson to become the Army’s first black four-star general. Reagan also helped place Clarence Thomas on his path to the United States Supreme Court by naming him chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Reagan’s critics may dismiss these appointees as “tokens.” Of course, they also would denounce Reagan for racism if he had zero appointees of color. Either way, Reagan loses.

‐ Bob Herbert’s deceptions notwithstanding, on June 29, 1982, President Reagan approved a 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

‘‘The right to vote is the crown jewel of American liberties, and we will not see its luster diminished,’’ Reagan said that day. “Citizens must have complete confidence in the sanctity of their right to vote, and that’s what this legislation is all about.’’ He added: ‘‘As long as I am in a position to uphold the Constitution, no barrier will come between our citizens and the voting booth.’’

Reagan signed this measure at a White House ceremony attended by some 300 people including Senator Kennedy and bipartisan members of Congress. Civil-rights veterans were there, too, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson; Benjamin Hooks, then-president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Urban League president John Jacob; the Rev. Joseph Lowery, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s widow, Coretta Scott King.

‐ Krugman whines that “Reagan opposed making Martin Luther King Day a national holiday.” Earth to Planet Krugman: On November 2, 1983, President Reagan made Dr. King’s birthday a federal holiday, the first and only such honor for a black American.

As the Associated Press reported back then, “Reagan originally had expressed concern over the cost of honoring King with a national holiday, and said he would have preferred a day of recognition.” Also, when asked at a press conference if he agreed with then-Senator Jesse Helms’s (R., N.C.) claims that sealed FBI files implicated some of King’s associates as Communists, Reagan said: “We’ll know in about 35 years, won’t we?” Reagan telephoned Mrs. King to apologize for that comment.

Reagan warmly honored King at the White House.

“In America, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, one of the important crises we faced was racial discrimination,” Reagan said. “The man whose words and deeds in that crisis stirred our nation to the very depths of its soul was Dr. Martin Luther Kings Jr.”

Reagan added that King “awakened something strong and true, a sense that true justice must be colorblind, and that among white and black Americans, as he put it, ‘Their destiny is tied up with our destiny, and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom; we cannot walk alone.’”

After endorsing the measure before some 200 guests, Reagan handed his signature pen to King’s widow.

As UPI’s then-White House correspondent Helen Thomas wrote: “When it was over, the guests joined in softly singing, ‘We Shall Overcome,’ the battle cry that symbolized King’s struggle for racial equality.”

According to the Washington Post, Jesse Jackson, who attended the event, said of Reagan that day: “We’ve all had high and low moments, and this is one of his high moments.”

“It was a beautiful day, and a beautiful statement was made,” Coretta Scott King told reporters in the Rose Garden. “And the president spoke as president of all the people today.”

‐ President Reagan named Lieutenant General Colin Powell America’s first black national-security adviser in November 1987. He served through Reagan’s second term and was a major player in Reagan’s diplomacy with the Soviet Union’s final leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

“He was not only my boss and commander-in-chief, both in my capacity as a soldier, but also as his national security adviser,” Powell recalled on CBS News after President Reagan passed away in June 2004. “We became very good friends, both during the two years I worked with him and in the year after he retired, as I did with Nancy Reagan.”

‐ Another of Reagan’s unsung achievements is his signature on the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988. This federal law green lighted the Indian casinos that dot America, from Connecticut’s enormous, eye-popping Mohegan Sun to the slightly more modest but still impressive Pechanga Casino in Temecula, California. Whatever one thinks of gambling, these enterprises earn billions for Indian tribes that had little beyond their traditions until Ronald Reagan freed them to capitalize on America’s betting jones. A true bigot would have let the red man stay poor and hopeless.

Krugman’s latest sludge bucket holds this lump of deep thought:

Reagan’s defenders protest furiously that he wasn’t personally bigoted. So what? We’re talking about his political strategy. His personal beliefs are irrelevant.

O.K., so Reagan loved blacks personally, but pushed us around politically to earn for himself and other Republicans the loyalty of bigoted white voters? So, let’s see: Reagan invited news cameras to capture him extending the Voting Rights Act in 1982 and signing the MLK holiday into law while sitting beside King’s widow in 1983. This clearly was part of Reagan’s effort to boost his standing among white bigots before seeking reelection in 1984.

And how about making Colin Powell America’s first black NSC chief and enriching Choctaws and Seminoles? Obviously, this was meant to galvanize white racists into electing Reagan’s successor, G. H. W. Bush.

“Why is this slur being floated now?” wonders Hoover Institution scholar Martin Anderson, Reagan’s long-time aide, chief White House domestic-policy adviser, and co-editor of several books documenting Reagan’s insightful, hand-written, speeches, and correspondence on public affairs. “I don’t know — maybe the 20th anniversary of Reagan’s departure from office, which is looming ahead, will show that his legacy is far more important than we knew. And that will be intolerable to a lot of people.”

Especially with the White House at stake, Leftist hacks like Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert will keep trying to smear Ronald Reagan as a racist. The obvious implication is that those of us who love America’s 40th president also are either racists or self-hating blacks.

These annoyingly immortal, liberal fantasies are just a steaming pile of lies.

Deroy Murdock is a Manhattan-based Fox News contributor and a contributing editor of National Review Online, and a senior fellow with the London Center for Policy Research.