Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Reagan Knew What He Meant

Bob Herbert adds his voice to the chorus of those who are enlightening David Brooks and his apologia for Ronald Reagan’s visit to Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1980 and his invocation of “states rights” at the Neshoba County Fair.

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.

If it seems like I’m harping on this issue — after all, it happened over 27 years ago — it’s because this is the kind of revisionist history that people like David Brooks and other members of the right wing like to put out there to put lipstick on the pig that is the history of race in the Republican Party, or any other uncomfortable reminder of their past intolerance, including their sucking up to the Christian fundamentalists with their gay-bashing and misogyny.

When they’re caught at it, though, it is usually followed by some lame version of “So’s your old man,” like bringing up Sen. Robert Byrd’s Klan membership from the 1950’s, as if that is the same thing. As I’ve noted before, the righties have this strange ability to see all things as equal; Hillary Clinton got a parking ticket while George Bush robbed the bank, yet they’re both criminals. It’s their way of justifying their sordid past by saying that everybody does it, or, in a classic case of transference, accuse the accuser of their own sins. This is the typical response of the guilty. Well, they may have gotten away with that sort of thing in elementary school, but now we’re calling them out on it.

It will be interesting to see if Mr. Brooks has a reply to these reactions. Will he acknowlege his transgression, will he hit back, or will he ignore it and move on to something else as if he’d never dropped this turd on the lawn? For what it’s worth, his column today is a complete suck-up job to John McCain. That pretty much answers the question for now, but we’ll be waiting.