Columnist Wars, Round 3: Brooks, Krugman and Bob Herbert Fight Over "Racist" Reagan Claims

Ding ding! It's Round 3 in what's become a tag-team match-up of center-right Times columnist David Brooks against left-wing columnistsPaul Krugman and Bob Herbert. The contest? Whether Ronald Reagan was making a racist appeal when he began his successful 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers were slain in 1964. On Friday, Brooks argued no:

"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 is more complicated."

Brooks went on to explain how Reagan in fact spent most of the first week of his campaign appealing to black constituents, flying to New York to give a speech to the Urban League.

Times Watch, Timothy Noah at Slate and now James Taranto at Opinion Journal all recognize Brooks' target as Paul Krugman (and perhaps Bob Herbert, though Herbert's predictable paleo-liberalism makes him less prominent of a target).

Krugman responded online; today it's the less excitable columnist Herbert that counterattacks in print (all the while following Times custom and not attacking Brooks directly) in Tuesday's "Righting Reagan's Wrongs?"

After Herbert retells the tragic story from 1964, he leapt forward to 1980.

"The murders were among the most notorious in American history. They constituted Neshoba County's primary claim to fame when Reagan won the Republican Party's nomination for president in 1980. The case was still a festering sore at that time. Some of the conspirators were still being protected by the local community. And white supremacy was still the order of the day.

"That was the atmosphere and that was the place that Reagan chose as the first stop in his general election campaign. The campaign debuted at the Neshoba County Fair in front of a white and, at times, raucous crowd of perhaps 10,000, chanting: 'We want Reagan! We want Reagan!'

"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."

Herbert unfolded a laundry list, no item of which makes his case.

"And Reagan meant it. He was opposed to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was the same year that Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney were slaughtered. As president, he actually tried to weaken the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He opposed a national holiday for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He tried to get rid of the federal ban on tax exemptions for private schools that practiced racial discrimination. And in 1988, he vetoed a bill to expand the reach of federal civil rights legislation."

Herbert nudges Brooks near the end.

"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.

"To see Reagan's appearance at the Neshoba County Fair in its proper context, it has to be placed between the murders of the civil rights workers that preceded it and the acknowledgment by the Republican strategist Lee Atwater that the use of code words like 'states' rights' in place of blatantly bigoted rhetoric was crucial to the success of the G.O.P.'s Southern strategy. That acknowledgment came in the very first year of the Reagan presidency."

Incidentally, Democrat Michael Dukakis also spoke at the Neshoba County Fair early in his 1988 campaign (hat-tip Taranto).

Friday might be an interesting day (for once) in the Times editorial section, as both Krugman and Brooks fill their twice-weekly column slot. Will the sniping continue? Stay tuned.