David Brooks has the latest installment in the never-ending effort to sanitize the late President Ronald Reagan’s track record. In his op-ed column in today’s New York Times, Brooks makes his case that the charge “that Reagan opened his campaign with an appeal to racism — is a distortion,” referring to Reagan’s 1980 campaign launch in Philadelphia, Mississippi, most famous as the site where three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner were murdered in 1964.
It is impossible to prove what Reagan intended to do on that occasion. Certainly, those who were involved in the decision and who are still alive would be unlikely to admit that it was a deliberate effort to exploit racial animosity. For the same reason, it is equally-impossible to disprove his intentions. What is known is what Reagan said on that day, and Brooks quotes him:
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.
Brooks expects his readers to believe that the use of the term ‘states’ rights’ in that town was not intended to evoke segregationist sympathies, even when the previous sentence makes it clear that education is the primary issue here. What Brooks doesn’t provide is a little more background on Reagan’s views on racial justice, as does Sydney Blumenthal in his article in The Guardian:
Reagan opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (calling it “humiliating to the South”), and ran for governor of California in 1966 promising to wipe the Fair Housing Act off the books. “If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house,” he said, “he has a right to do so.” After the Republican convention in 1980, Reagan traveled to the county fair in Neshoba, Mississippi, where, in 1964, three Freedom Riders had been slain by the Ku Klux Klan. Before an all-white crowd of tens of thousands, Reagan declared: “I believe in states’ rights.
Alec Dubro points out in his TomPaine.com article ‘Reagan White As Snow” that Reagan also vetoed anti-apartheid legislation and did what he could to screw up it’s implementation after the veto was overridden.
The reason Reagan’s record has any relevance to today’s politics is that the current GOP field is so weak that they feel a need to repeatedly invoke Reagan’s name as a touchstone to recall better times for their Party. Brooks and other Republicans, however, would be wiser to say as little as possible about Reagan’s racial views and policies.