Decoding David Brooks
Psst! His latest column is an attack on Times colleague Paul Krugman.
Incidentally, my quick Nexis search turned up one other prominent columnist who writes frequently about Reagan's 1980 speech in Philadelphia, Miss.: Bob Herbert, yet another colleague of Brooks' on the Times op-ed page. (See here, here, and here.) But I think Brooks mainly had Krugman on the brain.
Update, Nov. 11: Krugman hits back at Brooks in his New York Times blog, "The Conscience of a Liberal":
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.
Krugman goes on to cite other, similar "mistakes": Reagan's use of the term "young buck" in 1976 to describe a young male African American on food stamps; Reagan's declaration in 1980 that the Voting Rights Act had been "humiliating to the south" (his Justice Department would later figure out that it was, more urgently, an electoral boon for congressional Republicans); Reagan's insane (and ultimately unsuccessful) attempt in 1982 to preserve the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University, which banned interracial dating; Reagan's firing of three members of the Civil Rights Commission in 1983; and Reagan's opposition to making Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday.
I would add to this litany the country-club-Republican moment when Nancy Reagan, during a 1980 speech in Chicago, expressed pleasure at "looking out over all these beautiful white faces." Oops!
Krugman doesn't name Brooks, of course, as the perpetrator of this "campaign to exonerate Ronald Reagan." But I'm pretty sure he isn't talking about L. Brent Bozell III, whose fulimination over the alleged injustice to the Gipper went ignored at the time of Reagan's death.
Update, Nov. 13: Today Bob Herbert entered the fray on Krugman's side. He began by writing, "Let's set the record straight on Ronald Reagan's kickoff in 1980." Like Brooks, Herbert didn't say who created this faulty record, but of course he meant Brooks:
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.
Brooks is in desperate need of reinforcements, but he won't have much luck recruiting Gail Collins, Nicholas Kristof, Tom Friedman, Frank Rich, Maureen Dowd, or Roger Cohen. Maybe William Safire can be lured back from retirement? Though, even Safire might consider Brooks' case too weak to defend. Just as Kaiser Wilhelm II at the start of the Great War abruptly shifted the field of battle from Serbia to Belgium, Gen. Brooks might find it necessary to invade the Weekly Standard, which under ordinary circumstances probably would prefer to remain neutral. War is hell!
Update, Nov. 19: The skirmishing continues. On Nov. 18 Lou Cannon, who covered Reagan for the Washington Post and subsequently authored multiple Reagan biographies, weighs in on Brooks' side. Cannon writes that it's a "myth" that Reagan "defeated President Jimmy Carter in 1980 by a coded appeal to white-supremacist voters." The "core of this myth" is that Reagan pandered to white racists in his Philadelphia, Miss., speech. True, he used the expression "states' rights," but Reagan "had been talking this way for two decades as part of his pitch that the federal government had become too powerful."
Well, yes and no.
It's true that Reagan had long advocated devolving responsibilities of the federal government to the state and local level. But Joseph Crespino, in his book, In Search of Another Country:Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution, writes that the speech Reagan gave that day was not his standard stump speech, and that "reporters following Reagan could not remember him using the term ["state's rights"] before...." (Crespino, an assistant professor of history at Emory University, offers his own two cents on the Brooks-Krugman smackdown here.)
Cannon writes that Reagan was no racist, which, as Krugman points out in his Nov. 19 column, is neither here nor there. (You don't have to be a racist to pander to racist voters.) Cannon also argues that the Philadelphia speech hurt Reagan more than it helped him because it cost him votes from moderates in Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania "without bolstering his standing among conservative Southern whites." If true, that merely demonstrates that Reagan's pander to white racists backfired, not that Reagan never pandered in the first place.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.