Did David Brooks Tell the Full Story About Reagan's Neshoba County Fair Visit?Historians/History
In his November 9, 2007, column in the New York Times, David Brooks discussed Ronald Reagan’s appearance at the Neshoba County Fair in 1980 and his use of the term “states’ rights.” Brooks absolved Reagan of racism, but he ignored the broader significance of Reagan’s Neshoba County appearance.
A full account of the incident has to consider how the national GOP was trying to strengthen its southern state parties and win support from southern white Democrats. Consider a letter that Michael Retzer, the Mississippi national committeeman, wrote in December 1979 to the Republican national committee. Well before the Republicans had nominated Reagan, the national committee was polling state leaders to line up venues where the Republican nominee might speak. Retzer pointed to the Neshoba County Fair as ideal for winning what he called the “George Wallace inclined voters.”
This Republican leader knew that the segregationist Alabama governor was the symbol of southern white resentment against the civil rights struggle. Richard Nixon had angled to win these voters in 1968 and 1972. Mississippi Republicans knew that a successful Republican candidate in 1980 would have to continue the effort.
On July 31st, just days before Reagan went to Neshoba County, the New York Times reported that the Ku Klux Klan had endorsed Reagan. In its newspaper, the Klan said that the Republican platform “reads as if it were written by a Klansman.” Reagan rejected the endorsement, but only after a Carter cabinet official brought it up in a campaign speech. The dubious connection did not stop Reagan from using segregationist language in Neshoba County.
It was clear from other episodes in that campaign that Reagan was content to let southern Republicans link him to segregationist politics in the South’s recent past. Reagan’s states rights line was prepared beforehand and reporters covering the event could not recall him using the term before the Neshoba County appearance. John Bell Williams, an arch-segregationist former governor who had crossed party lines in 1964 to endorse Barry Goldwater, joined Reagan on stage at another campaign stop in Mississippi. Reagan’s campaign chair in the state, Trent Lott, praised Strom Thurmond, the former segregationist Dixiecrat candidate in 1948, at a Reagan rally, saying that if Thurmond had been elected president “we wouldn’t be in the mess we are today.”
Brooks’s defense of Reagan seemed to be a response to his fellow Times columnist Paul Krugman, who in his book, The Conscience of a Liberal,mentions the Neshoba County visit several times. Krugman’s account of modern conservatism is not without problems. He reduces the success of modern conservatism to the fact that “southern whites started voting Republican.” Such a formulation singles out white southerners alone as providing the racist element in conservative politics. It ignores the complex intersection of racial issues with cultural and religious concerns to which liberals have not always been sufficiently sensitive. And it obscures the fact that Democrats continued to win elections in the South after the 1960s by appealing to populist economic issues—a history that Democrats today should recall before they start “whistling past Dixie.”
Brook’s column, however, is a good example of conservatives’ discomfort with their racial history. Reagan is to modern conservatism what Franklin Roosevelt was to liberalism, so it’s not surprising that Brooks would feel the need to defend him. But Brooks’s throwaway remark that “it’s obviously true that race played a role in the GOP ascent” understates what actually happened.
Throughout his career, Reagan benefited from subtly divisive appeals to whites who resented efforts in the 1960s and 70s to reverse historic patterns of racial discrimination. He did it in 1966 when he campaigned for the California governorship by denouncing open housing and civil rights laws. He did it in 1976 when he tried to beat out Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination by attacking welfare in subtly racist terms. And he did it in Neshoba County in 1980.
Reagan knew that southern Republicans were making racial appeals to win over conservative southern Democrats, and he was a willing participant. Despite what Brooks claims, it’s no slur to hold Reagan accountable for the choice that he made. Neither is it mere partisanship to try to think seriously about the complex ways that white racism has shaped modern conservative politics.