Lou Cannon: Reagan’s Southern Stumble

[Lou Cannon is the author of five books on Ronald Reagan and a co-author of the forthcoming “Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy.”]

POLITICAL mythologies endure. One myth that is enjoying a revival in a year when Republican presidential candidates are comparing themselves to Ronald Reagan, their iconic hero, is the notion that Mr. Reagan defeated President Jimmy Carter in 1980 by a coded appeal to white-supremacist voters.

The core of this myth is the claim that Mr. Reagan scored a political masterstroke when he spoke on Aug. 3, 1980, at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi. At the fair, Mr. Reagan told a cheering and mostly white audience, “I believe in states’ rights” and that as president he would do all he could to “restore to states and local governments the power that properly belongs to them.”

He had been talking this way for two decades as part of his pitch that the federal government had become too powerful. What was different this day was not Mr. Reagan’s words but where he said them: Nearby Philadelphia, Miss., was notorious for the murders in 1964 of three civil-rights workers, killed in cold blood with police complicity.

In the wake of Neshoba, Mr. Reagan’s critics pounced. President Carter’s campaign operatives portrayed Mr. Reagan as a divisive racist. At a money-raising event in Chicago, Mr. Carter told his audience: “You’ll determine whether this America will be unified, or, if I lose this election, Americans might be separated black from white, Jew from Christian, North from South, rural from urban.”

The mythology of Neshoba is wrong in two distinct ways. First, Ronald Reagan was not a racist. Second, his Neshoba speech was not an effective symbolic appeal to white voters. Instead, it was a political misstep that cost him support....

Far from being a masterstroke, the Neshoba speech was a mistake made by a candidate who had not yet become the skilled operator the nation would see as president. Surveys by Richard Wirthlin, his pollster, showed that Mr. Reagan had little hope of winning black support but was competitive among moderate white voters who wanted a president who would be sensitive to minority issues. The Neshoba appearance hurt Mr. Reagan with these voters in the target states of Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania without bolstering his standing among conservative Southern whites.

Knowing that it would be damaging, Mr. Wirthlin urged Mr. Reagan to cancel the Neshoba speech. Mr. Reagan wouldn’t do it. He had a showman’s superstition that it was bad luck to cancel an engagement once it was booked....

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