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Columnists War Breaks out at 'NYT'

New York Times columnists Bob Herbert, Paul Krugman and David Brooks battle it out over Reagan and racism.
 
 
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NEW YORK -- The New York Times Op-Ed page hasn't been this hot in a long time. Now we are experiencing Columnist Wars, with Bob Herbert today joining in a rapidly escalating battle between Paul Krugman and David Brooks -- largely over an incident involving Ronald Reagan at a local fair over 27 years ago.

None has mentioned a colleague by name, while tossing around charges such as "woefully wrongheaded" and "agitprop."

Krugman kicked it off with a Sept. 27 column on the Republicans' continuing problems in attracting minority voters. "Republican politicians ... understand quite well that the G.O.P.'s national success since the 1970s owes everything to the partisan switch of Southern whites," he declared. "Since the days of Gerald Ford, just about every Republican presidential campaign has included some symbolic gesture of approval for good old-fashioned racism."

Then came this kicker, as Krugman charged that GOP godfather, Ronald Reagan, who "began his political career by campaigning against California's Fair Housing Act, started his 1980 campaign with a speech supporting states' rights delivered just outside Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers were murdered."

Brooks took awhile, but fired back on Nov. 9, opening his column: "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," Brook explained, "is more complicated." He claimed that Reagan had actually attempted to court black votes right after the 1980 convention. Brooks then offered as an excuse for the Mississippi trip: the Reagan campaign "was famously disorganized," and he was forced to go when locals promised he would be there. When he got there he gave a "short and cheerful" speech: "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."

Brooks concluded: "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. ...

"Still, the agitprop version of this week -- that Reagan opened his campaign with an appeal to racism -- is a distortion." Then he smashed Krugman: "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."

Krugman, no fool, knew Brooks was referring to him and hit back with a post on his www.nytimes.com Web page: "So there's a campaign on to exonerate Ronald Reagan from the charge that he deliberately made use of Nixon's Southern strategy. When he went to Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1980, the town where the civil rights workers had been murdered, and declared that 'I believe in states' rights,' he didn't mean to signal support for white racists. It was all just an innocent mistake.

"Indeed, you do really have to feel sorry for Reagan. He just kept making those innocent mistakes." He then recalled other Reagan "race-baiting" whoppers and added: "Similarly, when Reagan declared in 1980 that the Voting Rights Act had been 'humiliating to the South,' he didn't mean to signal sympathy with segregationists. It was all an innocent mistake.

"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." Oh, then there was the fact that "Reagan opposed making Martin Luther King Day a national holiday."

No word of reply from Brooks, so far, but now Bob Herbert has pushed the envelope with an angry column today which starts, "Let's set the record straight on Ronald Reagan's campaign kickoff in 1980."

He charged: "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. ...

"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. ...

"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."

Your move, Mr. Brooks.

Greg Mitchell ( gmitchell@editorandpublisher.com) is editor of E&P and author of nine books. A collection of his columns on Iraq and the media will be published in March. His new blog is at: http://gregmitchellwriter.blogspot.com/