Shorter David Brooks: Telling the truth about Ronald Reagan is the same as telling vicious lies about other people, because Truth is complicated. And besides, Kevin Drum, radical Leftist, agrees.
The Background: Fresh from gaining the Republican Presidential nomination he'd been chasing for sixteen years, The Great Communicator heads to a fair outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, epicenter of the Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman murders, where he mentions "States' Rights" in his speech (Brooks, by the way, avoids the capitalization). The ensuing twenty-five years of viciously accurate reporting of the incident leaves David Brooks unable to fully enjoy any of the thousands of public airports, roadways, bridges, naval vessels, laser-based weapons system development programs, scenic overlooks, or minority housing projects his party has named for The Gipper in the interim.
Obligatory, Doomed-to-Failure Compromise Offer: If I promise never to mention this again, will you promise never again to claim the Soviet Union collapsed because Ol' Dutch ordered the Berlin Wall removed?
Systematic Destruction of the Argument in Light of the Collapse of Compromise Talks:
The speech is taken as proof that the Republican majority was built on racism.
As proof? Proof? C'mon, that's the word you come up with? And even if it were, it's not like the incident occurred in a vacuum or anything.
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.
Which can be taken as proof that Reagan's strategists understood he had a problem dating at least to his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and that, unlike the days when he was a Goldwater spokesmodel, overt opposition to racial equality would no longer fly (at least so long as the Dixiecrat-Republican migration remained incomplete). If Reagan hit the chitlin' circuit, it's not exactly proof he had a hankerin' for some soul stew.
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.
Well, that's an interesting way to avoid claiming Reagan campaigned for African-American votes, North or South. Lou Cannon made with the punditry at the time? Did he happen to mention later which side won?
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).
When they name an airport after him let me know.
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.
Which leads us to conclude the Yellow Dog South didn't suddenly break out into Republicanism for the love of
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.
So off goes stalwart Ronnie, brave and true, refusing to renege on someone else's promise, even though nobody knows whose, and despite a conflict over which he should do first, which seems to cast just the teeniest doubt on the idea that the whole thing was just an innocent misstep. And it's kinda funny that his theoretical support for theoretical States' Rights included theoretical elimination of the federal Department of Education, but not the elimination of the federal subsidy buffet for Bob Jones University.
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.
And 100 percent white.
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.
Because the meaning, to the crowd, to the reporters, and to Ronald Wilson Reagan, was unequivocal.
I'm not sure if the explanation is that Brooks, whose major area of study during the Civil Rights era was Go Potty, has simply never bothered to learn anything about it, settled for the happy-ending re-write, in which MLK went from Commie troublemaker to sainted sermonizer, rendering the issue closed business, or if he's lying. It's a fairly common thing for Reagan idolaters of a certain age to claim that their party's refusal to adopt a Frankly, Negroes Are Just Not All That Bright platform during their adult lives means there were no racist appeals dating back to the earliest reaches of American political history (circa 1980).
We might explain this as a heretofore unknown form of Lexical Drift, wherein words or phrases not only take on new, even opposite meanings but have the effect of changing the language retroactively; thus Reagan's speech becomes a defense of local toll booths on interstate highways, and Mark Twain turns into a Klansman. And Bleak House, where Sir Leicester "leans back and breathlessly ejaculates," becomes the most highly respected novel of silent onanism in English lit.
Or he could be lying:
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.
So, went there, said that, and The Party of Lincoln does indeed have a little problem with regard to race dating to the ascendancy of the Reagan/Goldwater wing. Where's the slur--in disagreeing with Brooks' notions of its importance? Or are we redefining "calumny" now:
HAMLET: If thou dost marry, I'll give thee this plague
for thy dowry: be thou as chaste as ice,
as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape disagreeing with David Brooks.