It’s always more complicated than you think

What 4 op-ed pieces in 11 days can tell us about ‘truth’

“There is no truth. There is only perception.”

–Gustave Flaubert

Truth is wet sand at the beach; you can mold it into endless combinations and you can shatter it at will. It’s always important to remember the fragility of your subjects’ certainties–how fragile their perceptions are, and how quickly they can be disproven. Nowhere recently has this been more clear than on the New York Times’ op-ed page, where in the past 11 days four columnists have offered different interpretations of the significance of a Ronald Reagan presidential campaign stop in 1980, the year Reagan unseated President Carter.

It’s always more complicated than you think

It’s always more complicated than you think

When the most recent retrospective on Reagan’s visit to Neshaoba County ran in the NYT today, I almost screamed: “Enough.” But I read it, and I commend the four pieces to you as examples of all the untidy nuanaces that wrapped inside the “facts” you think you have solidly nailed. You can find many Ronald Regans inside these commentaries: Prejudiced, unprejudiced, canny, clueless, misunderstood, nailed to a cross.

The parade began Nov. 9 when NYT columnist David Brooks took his crack at what he felt was a shard of unsupportable history:

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.

In reality, Reagan strategists decided to spend the week following the 1980 Republican convention courting African-American votes. Reagan delivered a major address at the Urban League, visited Vernon Jordan 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.

Lou Cannon of The Washington Post reported at the time that this schedule reflected a shift in Republican strategy. Some inside the campaign wanted to move away from the Southern strategy used by Nixon, believing there were more votes available in the northern suburbs and among working-class urban voters.

But there was another event going on that week, the Neshoba County Fair, seven miles southwest of Philadelphia. The Neshoba County Fair was a major political rallying spot in Mississippi (Michael Dukakis would campaign there in 1988). Mississippi was a state that Republican strategists hoped to pick up. They’d recently done well in the upper South, but they still lagged in the Deep South, where racial tensions had been strongest. Jimmy Carter had carried Mississippi in 1976 by 14,000 votes.

So the decision was made to go to Neshoba. Exactly who made the decision is unclear. The campaign was famously disorganized, and Cannon reported: ”The Reagan campaign’s hand had been forced to some degree by local announcement that he would go to the fair.” Reagan’s pollster Richard Wirthlin urged him not to go, but Reagan angrily countered that once the commitment had been made, he couldn’t back out.

The Reaganites then had an internal debate over whether to do the Urban League speech and then go to the fair, or to do the fair first. They decided to do the fair first, believing it would send the wrong message to go straight from the Urban League to Philadelphia, Miss.

Reagan’s speech at the fair was short and cheerful, and can be heard at: www.onlinemadison.com/ftp/reagan/reaganneshoba.mp3 . He told several jokes, and remarked: ”I know speaking to this crowd, I’m speaking to a crowd that’s 90 percent Democrat.”

He spoke mostly about inflation and the economy, but in the middle of a section on schools, he said this: ”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.”

The use of the phrase ”states’ rights” didn’t spark any reaction in the crowd, but it led the coverage in The Times and The Post the next day.

Reagan flew to New York and delivered his address to the Urban League, in which he unveiled an urban agenda, including enterprise zones and an increase in the minimum wage. He was received warmly, but not effusively. Much of the commentary that week was about whether Reagan’s outreach to black voters would work.

You can look back on this history in many ways. It’s callous, at least, to use the phrase ”states’ rights” in any context in Philadelphia. Reagan could have done something wonderful if he’d mentioned civil rights at the fair. He didn’t. And it’s obviously true that race played a role in the G.O.P.’s ascent.

Still, the agitprop version of this week — that Reagan opened his campaign with an appeal to racism — is a distortion, as honest investigators ranging from Bruce Bartlett, who worked for the Reagan administration and is the author of ”Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy,” to Kevin Drum, who writes for Washington Monthly, have concluded.

But still the slur spreads. It’s spread by people who, before making one of the most heinous charges imaginable, couldn’t even take 10 minutes to look at the evidence. It posits that there was a master conspiracy to play on the alleged Klan-like prejudices of American voters, when there is no evidence of that conspiracy. And, of course, in a partisan age there are always people eager to believe this stuff.

Brooks’ column prompted his liberal fellow NYT columnist Bob Herbert to take a swing four days later:

Let’s set the record straight on Ronald Reagan’s campaign kickoff in 1980.

Early one morning in the late spring of 1964, Dr. Carolyn Goodman, her husband, Robert, and their 17-year-old son, David, said goodbye to David’s brother, Andrew, who was 20.

They hugged in the family’s apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and Andrew left. He was on his way to the racial hell of Mississippi to join in the effort to encourage local blacks to register and vote.

It was a dangerous mission, and Andrew’s parents were reluctant to let him go. But the family had always believed strongly in equal rights and the benefits of social activism. ”I didn’t have the right,” Dr. Goodman would tell me many years later, ”to tell him not to go.”

After a brief stopover in Ohio, Andrew traveled to the town of Philadelphia in Neshoba County, Mississippi, a vicious white-supremacist stronghold. Just days earlier, members of the Ku Klux Klan had firebombed a black church in the county and had beaten terrified worshipers.

Andrew would not survive very long. On June 21, one day after his arrival, he and fellow activists Michael Schwerner and James Chaney disappeared. Their bodies wouldn’t be found until August. All had been murdered, shot to death by whites enraged at the very idea of people trying to secure the rights of African-Americans.

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.

Everybody watching the 1980 campaign knew what Reagan was signaling at the fair. Whites and blacks, Democrats and Republicans — they all knew. The news media knew. The race haters and the people appalled by racial hatred knew. And Reagan knew.

He was tapping out the code. It was understood that when politicians started chirping about ”states’ rights” to white people in places like Neshoba County they were saying that when it comes down to you and the blacks, we’re with you.

And Reagan meant it. He was opposed to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was the same year that Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney were slaughtered. As president, he actually tried to weaken the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He opposed a national holiday for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He tried to get rid of the federal ban on tax exemptions for private schools that practiced racial discrimination. And in 1988, he vetoed a bill to expand the reach of federal civil rights legislation.

Congress overrode the veto.

Reagan also vetoed the imposition of sanctions on the apartheid regime in South Africa. Congress overrode that veto, too.

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.

This prompted Reagan biographer Lou Cannon to offer his analysis on Sunday:

SUMMERLAND, Calif.– Political mythologies endure. One myth that is enjoying a revival in a year when Republican presidential candidates are comparing themselves to Ronald Reagan, their iconic hero, is the notion that Mr. Reagan defeated President Jimmy Carter in 1980 by a coded appeal to white-supremacist voters.

The core of this myth is the claim that Mr. Reagan scored a political masterstroke when he spoke on Aug. 3, 1980, at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi. At the fair, Mr. Reagan told a cheering and mostly white audience, ”I believe in states’ rights” and that as president he would do all he could to ”restore to states and local governments the power that properly belongs to them.”

He had been talking this way for two decades as part of his pitch that the federal government had become too powerful. What was different this day was not Mr. Reagan’s words but where he said them: Nearby Philadelphia, Miss., was notorious for the murders in 1964 of three civil-rights workers, killed in cold blood with police complicity.

In the wake of Neshoba, Mr. Reagan’s critics pounced. President Carter’s campaign operatives portrayed Mr. Reagan as a divisive racist. At a money-raising event in Chicago, Mr. Carter told his audience: ”You’ll determine whether this America will be unified, or, if I lose this election, Americans might be separated black from white, Jew from Christian, North from South, rural from urban.”

The mythology of Neshoba is wrong in two distinct ways. First, Ronald Reagan was not a racist. Second, his Neshoba speech was not an effective symbolic appeal to white voters. Instead, it was a political misstep that cost him support.

Any fair-minded look at Mr. Reagan’s biography and record demonstrates that he was not a bigot. In 1931, when Mr. Reagan was on the Eureka College football team, two black players were refused admission to a hotel in Elmhurst, Ill., where the team was playing. Mr. Reagan took them with him to Dixon, Ill., to spend the night at his parents’ home. He and one of the players, William Franklin Burghardt, remained friends and correspondents until Mr. Burghardt died in 1981.

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. He was widely credited for its defeat. (Mr. Reagan was understandably anathema in the black community not because of his personal views but because of his consistent opposition to federal civil rights legislation, most notably the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.)

Far from being a masterstroke, the Neshoba speech was a mistake made by a candidate who had not yet become the skilled operator the nation would see as president. Surveys by Richard Wirthlin, his pollster, showed that Mr. Reagan had little hope of winning black support but was competitive among moderate white voters who wanted a president who would be sensitive to minority issues. The Neshoba appearance hurt Mr. Reagan with these voters in the target states of Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania without bolstering his standing among conservative Southern whites.

Knowing that it would be damaging, Mr. Wirthlin urged Mr. Reagan to cancel the Neshoba speech. Mr. Reagan wouldn’t do it. He had a showman’s superstition that it was bad luck to cancel an engagement once it was booked.

It was one of many blunders Mr. Reagan made in August 1980 when he was an undisciplined candidate who lacked an effective campaign manager. He sent his running mate, George H. W. Bush, on a mission of reassurance to China, then undermined Mr. Bush by praising Taiwan. He provoked an uproar at a veterans’ convention by calling the Vietnam War a ”noble cause.” He gave a rambling answer to a reporter’s question that seemed to endorse creationism.

Mr. Reagan was rescued by his secret weapon: his wife, Nancy Reagan. She brought in his onetime California political manager, Stuart Spencer, who helped focus both the candidate and the campaign. Once Mr. Spencer arrived, Mr. Reagan talked no more of Taiwan, creationism or states’ rights. Instead, he focused on the failed leadership of Mr. Carter and his unpopular economic policies, borrowing from Franklin D. Roosevelt to ask Americans if they were better off than they had been four years ago.

In November, Mr. Reagan won the presidency in an electoral landslide. Neshoba had nothing to do with it.

Which led leftist NYT columnist Paul Krugman a take his cut this morning:

Over the past few weeks there have been a number of commentaries about Ronald Reagan’s legacy, specifically about whether he exploited the white backlash against the civil rights movement.

The controversy unfortunately obscures the larger point, which should be undeniable: the central role of this backlash in the rise of the modern conservative movement.

The centrality of race — and, in particular, of the switch of Southern whites from overwhelming support of Democrats to overwhelming support of Republicans — is obvious from voting data.

For example, everyone knows that white men have turned away from the Democrats over God, guns, national security and so on. But what everyone knows isn’t true once you exclude the South from the picture. As the political scientist Larry Bartels points out, in the 1952 presidential election 40 percent of non-Southern white men voted Democratic; in 2004, that figure was virtually unchanged, at 39 percent.

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.