Ronald Reagan didn't become governor of California by preaching the wonders of free enterprise; he did it by attacking the state's fair housing law, denouncing welfare cheats and associating liberals with urban riots. Reagan didn't begin his 1980 campaign with a speech on supply-side economics, he began it - at the urging of a young Trent Lott - with a speech supporting states' rights delivered just outside Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964.
Well the right wingers weren't going to stand for that, so Bobo Brooks stepped up to defend Reagan, on behalf of conservatives everywhere, with this retort:
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.
The truth is more complicated.
Bob Herbert was not about to take that Reagan pity party lying down:
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.
To see Reagan’s appearance at the Neshoba County Fair in its proper context, it has to be placed between the murders of the civil rights workers that preceded it and the acknowledgment by the Republican strategist Lee Atwater that the use of code words like "states' rights" in place of blatantly bigoted rhetoric was crucial to the success of the G.O.P.'s Southern strategy. That acknowledgment came in the very first year of the Reagan presidency.
Ronald Reagan was an absolute master at the use of symbolism. It was one of the primary keys to his political success.
The suggestion that the Gipper didn't know exactly what message he was telegraphing in Neshoba County in 1980 is woefully wrong-headed. Wishful thinking would be the kindest way to characterize it.
Today Krugman jumps in to support Herbert: Republicans and Race:
More than 40 years have passed since the Voting Rights Act, which Reagan described in 1980 as "humiliating to the South." Yet Southern white voting behavior remains distinctive. Democrats decisively won the popular vote in last year's House elections, but Southern whites voted Republican by almost two to one.
The G.O.P.'s own leaders admit that the great Southern white shift was the result of a deliberate political strategy. "Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization." So declared Ken Mehlman, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, speaking in 2005.
And Ronald Reagan was among the "some" who tried to benefit from racial polarization.
True, he never used explicit racial rhetoric. Neither did Richard Nixon. As Thomas and Mary Edsall put it in their classic 1991 book, "Chain Reaction: The impact of race, rights and taxes on American politics," "Reagan paralleled Nixon's success in constructing a politics and a strategy of governing that attacked policies targeted toward blacks and other minorities without reference to race — a conservative politics that had the effect of polarizing the electorate along racial lines."
Thus, Reagan repeatedly told the bogus story of the Cadillac-driving welfare queen - a gross exaggeration of a minor case of welfare fraud. He never mentioned the woman's race, but he didn’t have to.
There are many other examples of Reagan's tacit race-baiting in the historical record. My colleague Bob Herbert described some of these examples in a recent column. Here’s one he didn't mention: During the 1976 campaign Reagan often talked about how upset workers must be to see an able-bodied man using food stamps at the grocery store. In the South — but not in the North - the food-stamp user became a "strapping young buck" buying T-bone steaks.
Now, about the Philadelphia story: in December 1979 the Republican national committeeman from Mississippi wrote a letter urging that the party's nominee speak at the Neshoba Country Fair, just outside the town where three civil rights workers had been murdered in 1964. It would, he wrote, help win over "George Wallace inclined voters."
Sure enough, Reagan appeared, and declared his support for states' rights - which everyone took to be a coded declaration of support for segregationist sentiments.
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.
Why does this history matter now? Because it tells why the vision of a permanent conservative majority, so widely accepted a few years ago, is wrong.
The point is that we have become a more diverse and less racist country over time. The "macaca" incident, in which Senator George Allen's use of a racial insult led to his election defeat, epitomized the way in which America has changed for the better.
And because conservative ascendancy has depended so crucially on the racial backlash - a close look at voting data shows that religion and "values" issues have been far less important - I believe that the declining power of that backlash changes everything.
Can anti-immigrant rhetoric replace old-fashioned racial politics? No, because it mobilizes the same shrinking pool of whites - and alienates the growing number of Latino voters.
Now, maybe I’m wrong about all of this. But we should be able to discuss the role of race in American politics honestly. We shouldn't avert our gaze because we’re unwilling to tarnish Ronald Reagan’s image.
Ouch! Looks like David Brooks is gettin' his ass kicked! Well, only an arrogant fool like Bobo would challenge the mighty Krugman.
How Reagan-lovers must love our current president - only he can make Reagan look smart, competent and honorable in comparison.