Was Ronald Reagan a racist? It may seem a moot point, it being 19 years after he left the Oval Office for his horse ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif., and more than three years after his state funeral.
The question is newly salient because it has been suggested that by advocating "states' rights" at the launch of his 1980 presidential campaign at the Neshoba County Fair near Philadelphia, Miss., Reagan knowingly appealed to Southern white racists.
The charge is all the more serious because Philadelphia was the site of the 1964 murders of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney by white supremacists.
The controversy has ignited a rare disagreement among the usually well mannered columnists of the New York Times, with David Brooks, the token conservative, insisting that although Reagan was "callous, at least" to use "states' rights" in such a context, it is nonetheless a "distortion" to assume Reagan was consciously inciting racism.
A colleague of Mr. Brooks, Bob Herbert, countered that there was no other way to interpret the remark. "Reagan may have been blessed with a Hollywood smile and an avuncular delivery," he wrote, "but he was elbow deep in the same old race-baiting Southern strategy of Goldwater and Nixon."
So much for opinion. What about facts? Reagan wrote in his memoir "Where's the Rest of Me?" that he was brought up not quite on "the wrong side of the tracks, but within the sound of the train whistles." The Reagans were so poor that he played in the street with black children and thought little of it.
In his autobiography, "An American Life," he recalls: "My mother and father urged my brother and me to bring home our black playmates, to consider them equals. … My brother's best friend was black, and when they went to the movies, Neil sat with him in the balcony."
He recalled playing on a mixed-race football team while at school in Eureka, Ill., and that, returning to nearby Dixon, the hotelier refused the black players a room for the night. Reagan immediately invited his black teammates home to stay with his parents. His mother, Nelle, didn't bat an eyelid. "There was no more grievous sin at our household than a racial slur or other evidence of religious or racial intolerance," Reagan recalled.
His father, Jack Reagan, a traveling shoe salesman, had "grown up in an era when some stores still had signs at their door saying, 'No dogs or Irishmen allowed,'" and was so opposed to prejudice he refused to stay in hotels that barred Jews. As he explained to one racist innkeeper, "I'm a Catholic. If it's come to the point where you won't take Jews, then some day you won't take me either."
Running in the California governorship primaries, Reagan found his Republican opponent, George Christopher, happy to imply Reagan was a racist. After one such slur at a meeting of black Republicans, Reagan stormed out.
"I fumed about it for a moment or two, stood up, and said (some people there say I shouted) to Christopher that he was wrong, that I'd never been a bigot and I deeply resented his attack on my integrity. … I'd grown up in a home where no sin was more grievous than racial bigotry, and I wasn't going to take it," he wrote.
He was similarly indignant about Jimmy Carter's accusations of racism in the 1980 presidential campaign. And here we get to the nub of his intention at the Neshoba County Fair. "Because I said I believed states should be allowed to regain the rights and powers granted to them in the Constitution, he implied I was a racist pandering to Southern voters," he wrote.
His "pent up anger … over Carter's claims that I was a racist" led to the killer quotation in the presidential television debate, when Reagan shook his head and told the peanut farmer: "There you go again ..."
There are many examples of Reagan's color blindness, including a story proudly told by his progressive son, Ronald Reagan Jr., about how he dived in to a swimming pool at a California barbecue to rescue a drowning black youth. Charges of racism are always hard to shake off, but in Reagan's case he appeared not to have a scintilla of racial prejudice in him.
The Reaganites concur. "Reagan is not a racist, not a bigot," his press officer, Lyn Nofziger, wrote. Reagan appointed a black to his Cabinet, Samuel Pierce as secretary of Housing and Urban Development, though they were hardly close.
So what about Neshoba? Certainly his strategist Lee Atwater knew full well that "states' rights" were code words the white audience would understand. But did Reagan know what he was saying? According to Mr. Herbert, there is no doubt "Reagan knew," and those who claim he didn't are "woefully wrong-headed." According to Mr. Brooks, "Reagan could have done something wonderful if he'd mentioned civil rights at the fair. He didn't."
Alas, we may never discover the truth. Reagan was all too capable of being misled or misdirected, as the Iran-Contra debacle attests, and he could remain startlingly oblivious of what was going on around him.
To assume that Reagan reneged on the Christian beliefs he had held since childhood seems most unlikely. Having trawled through all aspects of his life this last couple of years, I would be prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Mr. Wapshott's "Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: A Political Marriage" has just been published by Sentinel.