War of words on NYT op ed page over Reagan's 1980 visit to Philadelphia, Mississippi

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In a single week three New York Times columnists have addressed the question of Ronald Reagan's intentions in 1980 in starting his campaign for the presidency near Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of the notorious murders of civil rights activists, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney.

First was David Brooks, the Times's sole in-house conservative columnist, in a piece titled, History and Calumny, which started with a thinly veiled allusion to fellow NYT columnist Paul Krugman's attack on Reagan in his new book, The Conscience of a Liberal.

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.

A day later came Krugman's response on his NYT blog:

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.

Then, two days later, came the response of Bob Herbert, the Times's only black columnist: Bob Herbert:

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.

Related Links

  • Joseph Crespino: Did David Brooks Tell the Full Story About Reagan's Neshoba County Fair Visit?

  • Carol V. Hamilton: Is David Brooks a Good Historian?

  • Timothy Noah: Decoding David Brooks

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