The Meaning of Philadelphia

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In the suddenly-current debate over the speech Ronald Reagan delivered to “launch” his 1980 general election campaign in Neshoba County, Mississippi, near the hallowed civil rights ground of Philadelphia, those who try to contextualize or otherwise explain away the meaning of Reagan’s decision are, simply, wrong. That Reagan himself was not a bigot, which is the heart of Lou Cannon’s case, is a good thing, but irrelevant. And it is only marginally relevant that Reagan was criticized for the decision at the time, criticism that may have cost him with moderate white voters. Cannon’s argument seems to be that speaking in Neshoba was a bad campaign decision that backfired — and that therefore Reagan escapes responsibility. But was Reagan really unaware of why he was in Neshoba to begin with? And, regardless of his long history of supporting federalism, did he really not know what signal he would be sending by espousing “states’ rights” in a speech so close to the place where three civil rights volunteers were murdered? For the answer to both of those questions to be yes, we would have to believe that Reagan was a dim-witted pawn of his strategists and wife — not an argument you usually hear from Reagan admirers.

Paul Krugman, in his rebuttal column today, explores Reagan’s speech within the context of the GOP’s Southern strategy. He also cites some other ways that Reagan used language and imagery to tap into the racial biases of white voters. Krugman’s right. But this should not be a partisan debate. Those who believe Reagan was a great president do harm to history by trying to whitewash Reagan’s worst moments. He was a politician, not a saint.