Writing on National Review, Mark Hemingway attempts to dismiss criticism of Ronald Reagan's speech in Philadelphia, MS by saying "Reagan isn't a racist":
Krugman's mentioned the Reagan/Nashoba incident four previous times over the last two years; Bob Herbert has mentioned it eight previous times going back to 1997. Enough already. Nobody believes Reagan is a bigot.
UPDATE: I'm getting a lot of emails pointing out that of course people believe Reagan was a bigot. Let me clarify what I meant — nobody who has seriously examined the man and his political career believes that Reagan is a bigot.
That is, of course, not the question. Reagan’s personal attitude is of no consequence. The question is whether he deliberately appealed to bigots, as a political tactic. And he did.
I would add that we can't know Reagan's true personal attitudes. But we can evaluate his record on the issue of race. And as I wrote (see here and here), Reagan did exploit the issue of race during his political career, though the speech in Mississippi has been exaggerated.
The issue recurs in today's New York Times op-ed by Lou Cannon defending Reagan, which focuses entirely on his personal views except for this parenthetical:
(Mr. Reagan was understandably anathema in the black community not because of his personal views but because of his consistent opposition to federal civil rights legislation, most notably the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.)
Reagan was a politician. His political views are what matters. And during the crucial civil rights fights of the mid-1960s, Reagan stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the forces of white supremacy. How important Reagan's background as an anti-civil rights activist was to his 1980 election win seems debatable — I've previously noted that it wasn't a close election and the objective facts about the late 1970s would have made it extremely difficult for Carter to win re-election under any circumstances — but Reagan's record is his record, and his views about political issues are personal views, whether or not some of his best friends were black.
I've been struck by the use of this tactic since one of my first columns for Spinsanity on John Ashcroft's Attorney General nomination. Ashcroft's defenders won it by shifting the focus of the debate from his inflammatory public statements about race to his (unprovable) feelings about race by claiming his critics were calling him a racist:
This rhetorical trick left Ashcroft's opponents reeling. By most accounts, Ashcroft is a decent person who does not personally hate people on the basis of race - and no one can definitively prove otherwise (hence President Bush: "This is a good man; he's got a good heart"). But this does not mean that Ashcroft should be exempt from criticism for capitalizing on racial animus and being indifferent to civil rights in his political career...
In the end, Ashcroft's supporters created a standard that is effectively insurmountable, precluding race-related criticism of the more ambiguous political appeals, statements and positions that constitute the vast majority of American politics...
Sound familiar? In the end, the motive dodge is deeply undemocratic; it prevents us from judging public figures on their public actions. Debates about candidate's personal motives and beliefs are inherently futile.
Update 11/19 9:05 AM: Krugman addresses this point in his column today:
Reagan’s defenders protest furiously that he wasn’t personally bigoted. So what? We’re talking about his political strategy. His personal beliefs are irrelevant.
One more point: what, exactly, is the reasoning behind the Hemingway defense? Does he actually think that one must be a racist to exploit the issue of race? The logic of the response makes no sense to me.
Update 11/19 12:40 PM: Time's Jay Carney agrees that Reagan's personal views are irrelevant.