In the heat of the presidential campaign, political analysts revived a debate over whether Ronald Reagan made an appeal to racist sentiment by launching his 1980 campaign with a state supporting “states rights” at Mississippi’s Neshoba County Fair.
What the commentators said
Reagan knew what he was doing, said Bob Herbert in The New York Times (free registration). When you start “chirping about ‘states’ rights’ to white people in places like Neshoba County” you are “saying that when it comes down to you and the blacks, we’re with you.” So forget Reagan’s “Hollywood smile” and “avuncular delivery.” The man “was elbow deep in the same old race-baiting Southern strategy of Goldwater and Nixon.”
That’s nothing but a tired old “slur,” said David Brooks, also in the Times. In reality, Reagan strategists spent the week following the 1980 convention “courting African-American votes.” Sure, it was “callous” for Reagan to mention states’ rights when he should have been talking about civil rights. But accusing Reagan of playing to “Klan-like prejudices” is a purely partisan “distortion.”
Liberals are foaming at the mouth over the speech now, said James Taranto in OpinionJournal.com, but at the time they thought nothing of it. The problem is that this generation’s liberals missed out on the chance to actually do some good during the civil rights era. They “yearn for their elders' moral authority.” The truth doesn't matter, because “badmouthing” Reagan can earn them their stripes.
Don’t let Reagan off quite so easy, said Kevin Drum in his Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal. Emory University history professor Joseph Crespino says Reagan’s Neshoba address was carefully scripted, and marked the first time the candidate had used the term “states’ rights” in a public appearance. “If this is true it wraps up this argument on pretty much every level, both substantive and semantic.”