So the other day I read the quote, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. It left me.”
Which is a great line. I’ve often heard it said. What I didn’t know, I’m embarrassed to say, was that it was first said by Ronald Reagan. This fascinated me since, little as I know about Reagan, it didn’t quite add up.
But I assumed I must be wrong. After all, it was a Monday, and pretty much any day of the week that ends in a “y” is a day I’m likely to be wrong at least twice. And that’s just before breakfast.
So I googled it and, sure enough, Reagan said it. And then I read a couple online bios. And sure enough, the line is both great—snappy, memorable—and complete nonsense.
There are two major milestones in the history of the Democratic Party in the past half century or so, times at which it could perhaps be argued that the party took a radical turn.
One of those dates was July 2, 1964. The other was January 22, 1973.
The first, of course, was when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. He knew exactly what he was doing. You want to talk about signing statements? LBJ knew from signing statements. His statement at the time of signing was, “We have just lost the south for a generation.”
Time has since proven that prediction to be wildly optimistic.
The second date, of course, is when the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe v. Wade was handed down.
Otherwise, the basic policy beliefs of President Franklin Roosevelt are basically those put forth by the Democratic Party today. The Democratic Party hasn’t really changed. That may be why it’s lost so many elections for the past fifteen or twenty years. Because it’s held onto its bedrock beliefs. And has done a terrible job of explaining to people why those beliefs are good ones, beliefs which make for a better world for all us. Things like society security and voting rights, for instance—you know, really wacky ideas like that.
As opposed to ideas like fiscal responsibility. The Democrats have now picked up on that one, since it was discarded six years ago and someone had to give a damn about future generations.
But back to Reagan. Reagan supported FDR. Reagan supported President Harry Truman. Reagan was still a Democrat as late as the sixties, not switching parties until shortly before he ran for governor of California in 1966.
So in what way did the Democratic Party change between the 40s and the 60s? Roe v. Wade can’t be the rationale, as it is for other former Democrats I know, since Roe v. Wade was still some seven years in the future.
Hmm…well, there’s really only that one other major shift—but it was a biggie. And that would be the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When President Johnson decided that black Americans should have all the same rights as white Americans.
Not so coincidentally, that’s the exact point at which Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina, the bluest of the blue states going all the way back to Reconstruction, suddenly turned bright red, and have stayed that blushing color ever since.
Here’s a map of which state went for which candidate in the 1960 election. Confusingly, the Republican party is blue in this map and the Democratic Party is red, due to the custom of the time.
Now look at this map of the 1964 election—again the Republicans are blue and the Democrats are red.
What do you notice? Could it be that all the previously died-in-the-wool, hardcore Democratic southern states are now hardcore Republican? Why, yes, that’s exactly what you notice.
And what is it that happened there? What could possibly account for that stunningly dramatic shift over the course of four years?
Hmm…in that first election they all voted for that Catholic northerner, while in the second election they’ve got a chance to vote for a Protestant good ol’ boy from Texas…but don’t. Well now, that doesn’t make any sense. Why wouldn’t they choose their local son overwhelmingly? Hm. What on earth could explain that radical change?
We all know exactly what explains that radical change. We just don’t like to talk about it.
So, no, the Democratic Party didn’t leave Reagan; he ran screaming from the Democratic Party. And that’s just fine by me. Because the only way his “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, it left me” whine makes any kind of sense at all is if it’s not very subtle code for “I don’t believe black folks should have the same rights as white folks.” In which case, I’m glad he got the hell away from my party.
Which brings us to the latest debate in DC. As anyone who’s watched any of the debates knows, the current GOP candidates won’t say the name “Bush” at gunpoint, but will coo “Reagan” over and over and over again, in the fervent hope that some of his teflon magic will ooze all over them.
Which is why Reagan’s record on racial matters is in the news again. David Brooks has been claiming that Reagan’s getting unfairly tarred with the racist brush and in an extremely uncommon turn of events, two of his fellow columnists at the Times have now called him on his revisionist history.
Look, do I really think Reagan was a racist? I have absolutely no way of knowing what was in his heart. But here’s what I do know: he frequently used the same language that racists use, which means he either was one or he found it politically expedient to reach out to them. Either way, this beloved president from our past is far from a shining example of Americanism, but someone to be rather ashamed of.
Righting Reagan’s Wrongs?
By BOB HERBERT
Let’s set the record straight on Ronald Reagan’s campaign kickoff in 1980.
Early one morning in the late spring of 1964, Dr. Carolyn Goodman, her husband, Robert, and their 17-year-old son, David, said goodbye to David’s brother, Andrew, who was 20.
They hugged in the family’s apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and Andrew left. He was on his way to the racial hell of Mississippi to join in the effort to encourage local blacks to register and vote.
It was a dangerous mission, and Andrew’s parents were reluctant to let him go. But the family had always believed strongly in equal rights and the benefits of social activism. “I didn’t have the right,” Dr. Goodman would tell me many years later, “to tell him not to go.”
After a brief stopover in Ohio, Andrew traveled to the town of Philadelphia in Neshoba County, Mississippi, a vicious white-supremacist stronghold. Just days earlier, members of the Ku Klux Klan had firebombed a black church in the county and had beaten terrified worshipers.
Andrew would not survive very long. On June 21, one day after his arrival, he and fellow activists Michael Schwerner and James Chaney disappeared. Their bodies wouldn’t be found until August. All had been murdered, shot to death by whites enraged at the very idea of people trying to secure the rights of African-Americans.
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.
That won’t wash. Reagan may have been blessed with a Hollywood smile and an avuncular delivery, but he was elbow deep in the same old race-baiting Southern strategy of Goldwater and Nixon.
Everybody watching the 1980 campaign knew what Reagan was signaling at the fair. Whites and blacks, Democrats and Republicans — they all knew. The news media knew. The race haters and the people appalled by racial hatred knew. And Reagan knew.
He was tapping out the code. It was understood that when politicians started chirping about “states’ rights” to white people in places like Neshoba County they were saying that when it comes down to you and the blacks, we’re with you.
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.
Congress overrode the veto.
Reagan also vetoed the imposition of sanctions on the apartheid regime in South Africa. Congress overrode that veto, too.
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.
Ronald Reagan was an absolute master at the use of symbolism. It was one of the primary keys to his political success.
The suggestion that the Gipper didn’t know exactly what message he was telegraphing in Neshoba County in 1980 is woefully wrong-headed. Wishful thinking would be the kindest way to characterize it.