Last Friday, David Brooks wrote that it was a "slur" to say that Ronald Reagan's 1980 Philadelphia, Mississippi campaign speech about "states rights" was a piece of unbridled racism. Reagan, according to Brooks, was possibly insensitive, but not exploiting racism, and the people who say he was are wicked and naughty and overly partisan:
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.
For this, Brooks has received a number of significant beat-downs from bloggers, which is nothing new for him. Then the Carpetbagger Report highlighted a response by Paul Krugman on his Times blog. It didn't name Brooks, of course, but it was unmistakable:
In 1982, when Reagan intervened on the side of Bob Jones University, which was on the verge of losing its tax-exempt status because of its ban on interracial dating, he had no idea that the issue was so racially charged. It was all an innocent mistake.
And the next year, when Reagan fired three members of the Civil Rights Commission, it wasn’t intended as a gesture of support to Southern whites. It was all an innocent mistake.
Poor Reagan. He just kept on making those innocent mistakes, again and again and again.
And yesterday, in the most direct and public volley yet, Bob Herbert used his column in the ink-and-paper Times to demolish Brooks. Herbert, politely, did not name Brooks. But we all know who he meant when he wrote:
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.
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.
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.
As the Times' public editor, Clark Hoyt, recently wondered,
How does the august Times, which has long stood for dignified authority, come to terms with the fractious, democratic culture of the Internet, where readers expect to participate but sometimes do so in coarse, bullying and misinformed ways?
For attempting to cover up the Republican party's decades of using racial division to achieve electoral victories, for defending Reagan's participation in the "Southern strategy" and thereby seeking to cleanse Reagan of the fully-deserved taint of vicious racism, and possibly to resuscitate that racist strategy for future use, David Brooks deserves far, far worse than a few blog posts excoriating him. By defying convention and effectively calling out a fellow columnist, Bob Herbert moved a step closer to the level of humiliation Brooks deserves, but we're not there yet.
Heaven forbid we should be coarse or bullying in clearing up the racist misinformation of one of your columnists, Mr. Hoyt, but as long as your paper continues to publish scum like this, you're going to have to live with some of us being a little coarse every now and then.