Did David Brooks Tell the Full Story About Reagan's Neshoba County Fair Visit?


Mr. Crespino is the author of In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution (Princeton, 2007).  He teaches American history at Emory University.

In his November 9, 2007, column in the New York Times, David Brooks discussed Ronald Reagan’s appearance at the Neshoba County Fair in 1980 and his use of the term “states’ rights.”  Brooks absolved Reagan of racism, but he ignored the broader significance of Reagan’s Neshoba County appearance. 

A full account of the incident has to consider how the national GOP was trying to strengthen its southern state parties and win support from southern white Democrats.  Consider a letter that Michael Retzer, the Mississippi national committeeman, wrote in December 1979 to the Republican national committee.  Well before the Republicans had nominated Reagan, the national committee was polling state leaders to line up venues where the Republican nominee might speak.  Retzer pointed to the Neshoba County Fair as ideal for winning what he called the “George Wallace inclined voters.” 

This Republican leader knew that the segregationist Alabama governor was the symbol of southern white resentment against the civil rights struggle.  Richard Nixon had angled to win these voters in 1968 and 1972.  Mississippi Republicans knew that a successful Republican candidate in 1980 would have to continue the effort.

On July 31st, just days before Reagan went to Neshoba County, the New York Times reported that the Ku Klux Klan had endorsed Reagan.  In its newspaper, the Klan said that the Republican platform “reads as if it were written by a Klansman.”  Reagan rejected the endorsement, but only after a Carter cabinet official brought it up in a campaign speech.  The dubious connection did not stop Reagan from using segregationist language in Neshoba County. 

It was clear from other episodes in that campaign that Reagan was content to let southern Republicans link him to segregationist politics in the South’s recent past.  Reagan’s states rights line was prepared beforehand and reporters covering the event could not recall him using the term before the Neshoba County appearance.  John Bell Williams, an arch-segregationist former governor who had crossed party lines in 1964 to endorse Barry Goldwater, joined Reagan on stage at another campaign stop in Mississippi.  Reagan’s campaign chair in the state, Trent Lott, praised Strom Thurmond, the former segregationist Dixiecrat candidate in 1948, at a Reagan rally, saying that if Thurmond had been elected president “we wouldn’t be in the mess we are today.”

Brooks’s defense of Reagan seemed to be a response to his fellow Times columnist Paul Krugman, who in his book, The Conscience of a Liberal,mentions the Neshoba County visit several times.  Krugman’s account of modern conservatism is not without problems.  He reduces the success of modern conservatism to the fact that “southern whites started voting Republican.”  Such a formulation singles out white southerners alone as providing the racist element in conservative politics.  It ignores the complex intersection of racial issues with cultural and religious concerns to which liberals have not always been sufficiently sensitive.  And it obscures the fact that Democrats continued to win elections in the South after the 1960s by appealing to populist economic issues—a history that Democrats today should recall before they start “whistling past Dixie.”

Brook’s column, however, is a good example of conservatives’ discomfort with their racial history.  Reagan is to modern conservatism what Franklin Roosevelt was to liberalism, so it’s not surprising that Brooks would feel the need to defend him.  But Brooks’s throwaway remark that “it’s obviously true that race played a role in the GOP ascent” understates what actually happened. 

Throughout his career, Reagan benefited from subtly divisive appeals to whites who resented efforts in the 1960s and 70s to reverse historic patterns of racial discrimination.   He did it in 1966 when he campaigned for the California governorship by denouncing open housing and civil rights laws.  He did it in 1976 when he tried to beat out Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination by attacking welfare in subtly racist terms. And he did it in Neshoba County in 1980. 

Reagan knew that southern Republicans were making racial appeals to win over conservative southern Democrats, and he was a willing participant.  Despite what Brooks claims, it’s no slur to hold Reagan accountable for the choice that he made.  Neither is it mere partisanship to try to think seriously about the complex ways that white racism has shaped modern conservative politics.     

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Vernon Clayson - 11/30/2007

Wow, you use my comments in a college class, I feel honored, something like Steve Martin in the movie The Jerk when he was so proud of getting his name in the phone book. When you speak of "redefining a term so as to avoid the point", did you use Bill Clinton's lawyerly definition of "is" when he was really avoiding a point? What were the five fallacies these freshmen found in my post of 11/14? Let's get a debate going on them?

William J. Stepp - 11/22/2007

I don't think Reagan was a racist, but his critics will obviously say anything about him to make him look bad. (I write as an anti-Reagan, anti-GOP, anti-states' rights--and anti-state and pro-free market--libertarian.)
This article by a black columnist sets the record straight on
Ronnie's Neshoba remarks, and points out some inconvienent facts about certain white political candidates, including the First Peanut Farmer and another loser.
The idea that Ronnie was more (or less) racist than the Peanut Farmer
or Dukankasore is popular among "liberals" but not borne out by the facts.

As for Reagan's position on Bob Jones U., while we might oppose its ban on interracial dating, the more important point is that taxation is theft, and in a better, libertarian world, the question of its tax-exempt status would be moot. His support for Bob Jones U. is not evidence of racism per se.


Dennis Showers - 11/21/2007

I had to look up the reference. Thanks.

Tim Matthewson - 11/21/2007

I would like to believe that President Reagan was not a racist, but the record points unfortunately in the other direction. His speech at the Neshoba county fair favoring states rights kicked off his third run for the presidency, a mark of distinction share by William Jennings Bryan, the midwestern buffoon who looked all the more foolish because of his three tries to become president. Had President Reagan not won the presidency, he would have looked just as ridiculous as Bryan, a buffoon in any age and Reagan was aware of the peril to his already imperiled reputation. So in 1980 at the Neshoba county fair, Reagan pulled out all stops, embraced Nixon's southern strategy, despite his instincts that told him that it was wrong to pander to racism and declared his support for states rights, a code word for racism. A long list of racist gestures flowed from Reagan over the years, including support for South Africa's apartheid regime, opposition to Civil Rights, and Voting Right bills supporting blacks Americans. In the end, Reagan achieve enough votes to become president and helped solidify the Republican Party in the Southern States, but he only won because of Jimmy Carter's blunders and bad luck, not because the American people held Reagan held him in high regard, for he was, after all, a buffoon.

Dennis Showers - 11/21/2007

Good. You didn't bite on the red herring.

However, you demonstrated another fallacy my class has studied: redefining a term so as to avoid the point. I did not use "charge" in the legal sense, but to describe a claim that Regan's actions imply pandering and racist motivations. That claim is as yet not refuted.

Additionally, on Monday my college freshmen found five different fallacies in your 11/14 post.

I must admit, I can't possibly refute your brilliant "Whatever!" I do assume that my students will see this as the modern form of "you're entitled to your opinion" which we already discussed as a way of distracting one from addressing the issue at hand.

Paul Goode - 11/21/2007

I'm missing the point here. It's not news that a candidate can be elected President without winning the popular vote. Anyway, how could Daley have possibly known on election night what the national popular vote was going to be?

Vernon Clayson - 11/19/2007

"..vindicate Reagan from a charge of pandering to a racist souther element." "Charge" indeed, I've long thought history was about reflection and speculation rather than charging individuals for their actions, whether good or bad. "Charge" is so harsh, are there plans to indict and prosecute Reagan in absentia/posthumously? Or would that have to be plans to impeach a dead man? Whatever!, keep that racist crap going, it has probably brought something to the attention of the Blacks in Mississippi that they had little concern with while it was allegedly going on.

Vernon Clayson - 11/19/2007

Max, it's hardly nonsense that JFK stole the 1960 election. He had the electoral majority but barely the popular vote and that is where there is conjecture that Daley's machine found enough names among the dead to carry Kennedy. It appears you are another worshiper at the halls of Camelot, but you should know by now that Jack Kennedy was not without fault. He was the first of the celebrity presidents but there was little substance in his presidency.

Dennis Showers - 11/19/2007

Sweet—a red herring on a red herring. I pointed out that the question of Hillary Clinton pandering for votes is a distracting argument from the question of whether Ronald Regan’s actions—including his speech at Neshoba—indicated an underlying racism. I then offered the issue of Republican hypocrisy vis-à-vis the “Hollywood elite” as an example of a similar distraction from the issue. Mr Clayson then bites—going after the red herring and not returning to his failed attempt to vindicate Regan from a charge of pandering to a racist Southern element.

(Watch this) Shining Star? His predecessor won a Nobel Prize, but I agree he was brighter than either of the Bushes. (Bet he bites.)

William J. Stepp - 11/19/2007

Ralph, Cannon elaborated his point in one of his books on Ronbo. Reagan would have carried Mississippi without going to Neshoba. In fact your dog would have won Mississippi against the First Peanut Farmer.
I still remember liberal friends in New York who hated the FPF and said they were voting for Ronnie. Oddly, Krugman et al. never mention how bad the economy was under the Peanut Farmer.
The GOP's win is mostly about race and the continuation of Nixon's southern strategy in their fairy tale. It wasn't.

Ralph E. Luker - 11/19/2007

Brother Stepp, All Cannon does is to *assert* that Reagan's appearance at Philadelphia, MS, hurt his candidacy. He offers no evidence than it damaged his campaign in any way. Nor does he show evidence that Reagan made no appeal to "states rights" in Philadelphia. In fact, Reagan carried Mississippi in 1980 against an incumbent Southern white Democrat President. There's no setting of the record straight in Lou Cannon's op-ed.

William J. Stepp - 11/18/2007


Here are the facts, which are very different from those alleged by Mr. Crespino.
In fact Reagan's Neshoba remarks hurt his bid for the presidency.

Max J. Skidmore - 11/16/2007

My comment was to Dennis Showers, and certainly not to Clayson, who complains of trivialization while diverting discourse from substance to chamber pots and outhouses. Showers is absolutely on target. Clayson is--well, I leave that to those less polite than I to describe.

Max J. Skidmore - 11/16/2007

Well said. You forgot George Murphy.

Max J. Skidmore - 11/16/2007

Prof Parmet is absolutely correct, and I speak not as an eastern "elitist" since I was born in Missouri and live in Kansas. Also, check your facts before spreading the nonsense that JFK stole the 1960 election. He could have GIVEN Nixon the electoral votes of Illinois, and would still have had more than enough votes to win.

Vernon Clayson - 11/15/2007

Sanitize? Neshoba is an American town, whatever its citizenry is made up of or how they conduct themselves, they are part of the great American social fabric. Why is it big city liberals, I presume that is your persuasion, think that white men in small towns are not part of the American social fabric, they aren't all Bull Connors and Lester Maddox types, many are even educated and tolerant and most of them have not hung a black man from the town water tower or burned a cross on a black tenant farmer's yard. It takes all kinds, regardless of race, no one wants trouble, all want criminals arrested and to live in peace and security. Inidividuals like yourself thrive on placing fault, you've waited almost thirty years to fault Reagan, if you were truly looking at it as history, you would find it remarkable that a second rate actor reached for the highest office and got it. Trying to make his appearance in Neshoba as pivotal in his quest seems rather a stretch. He was a midwesterner, he might better have looked for voters in Illinois graveyards, it worked for JFK.

Vernon Clayson - 11/14/2007

Red Herring indeed, Mr. Showers. Ronald Reagan was astonishingly insightful and intelligent, while not the greatest president he surely lent dignity to the office that few others have, for heaven's sake, he was a shining star compared to his predecessor and successors. The other entertainers you mention were lightweights but certainly no worse than the other lightweights occupying congressional offices, think Dennis Kucinich here. I thought my list of things that Hillary Clinton would do to grab black votes was rather insightful - and really imaginative.

Dennis Showers - 11/14/2007

I want to thank Mr Clayson for a marvelous example of a red herring argument which I can use in my class on political rhetoric. The question is whether criticism of Ronald Regan is fair given the Neshoba incident and other cited evidence. Whether or not Hillary Clinton is as bad or worse has nothing to do with it. But he certainly turned the discussion to outhouses and chamber pots. As I will point out to my students, the red herring tactic is the first line of defense for someone unwilling or unable to confront the question at issue.

To throw down my own red herring: why is it that the Party that most often criticizes the Hollywood elite about political agendas has in fact elected Fred Grandy, Sonny Bono, Fred Thompson, Arnold, and Saint Ronald Regan to governorships, Congress and the Presidency?

Vernon Clayson - 11/12/2007

Blithe joviality, indeed, perhaps Reagan felt himself above the pettiness of the issues that seem to be pervasive in the common mind, it seems he saw the presidency as more than an office to enrich himself. His concerns were closer to the intended noble duties of the presidency, national defense and leadership of the ship of state rather than getting down into the muck of politics, pigs swilling at the public trough. He was above the fray, he gave every impression that the members of Congress were fractious irritants to be tolerated, not partners in piracy of the nation's riches.

Hollis Robbins - 11/12/2007

Thank you for your intervention! Reagan's blithe joviality continues to provide a defense against the facts on the ground but indeed, how could he have gone to the fair and not have known? Regardless of his own mind, his staffers clearly knew the politics of the fair and the region.

Vernon Clayson - 11/12/2007

If Andrew Jackson could have an outhouse, I think "massa" could. Visit Jackson's Hermitage, it's directly behind the mansion, if I recall correctly it was called a convenient in the guide book, old Andrew probably used the less formal s--thouse. I imagine he also, as you said, had a chamber pot to preclude nocturnal visits to the convenient. I think it's perfectly clear that I meant that Hillary Clinton will go to any end to keep her black supporters. Where have you been, did you miss that silly business where she told a black audience that she had come a long way and was no wise, (ways) tarred (tired) in an voice that she apparently meant to sound like a tired old mammy.

Carol Hamilton - 11/12/2007

The "massa" (of a plantation) didn't have an outhouse; he had chamber pots. That said, I don't know what Vernon Clayson means by this allusion, or by picking cotton, or by driving a mule "to appeal to black voters."

Ralph E. Luker - 11/12/2007

Dear Vernon: 1) It was Brooks who dragged this out in the first place. He doesn't usually say unpleasant things about the Republican Party. 2) You expect no history at History News Network? 3) You use the word "infer" incorrectly. You mean "imply." There's more, but I'm not being paid to correct your paper.

Vernon Clayson - 11/12/2007

This ancient history was dragged out, not to fault Reagan but to infer that the Republican Party does, in fact, have more than its share of racists. It's slandering to offset the pandering of Hillary Clinton and her clique, Reagan was appealing to the majority whites for votes, Hillary Clinton would clean the massa's outhouse, drive his mule or pick his cotton to appeal to black voters. There is no dignity in politics, truth is unnecessary and often in the way, whatever time spent away from cameras is spent planning the next session before the cameras. The word petty should always precede the word politics.

Michael Green - 11/12/2007

I would like to commend Mr. Crespino and Mr. Carmichael above, but offer one thought. I have read enough of David Brooks to know that whether he understood the context of Ronald Reagan's comments was of no matter to him. Consistent reading of his columns shows that, as is unfortunately typical of conservative columnists, he has a great deal of troubling dealing with the truth when it makes his side look bad.

Leonard Steinhorn - 11/12/2007

There's even more to the story than what Professor Crespino includes.

Brooks accuses Democratic partisans of slandering Reagan and condemns them for their failure to “even take 10 minutes to look at the evidence.” But perhaps it’s Brooks who needs a better look at the evidence. What he fails to report is the most racially coded part of the speech, one in which Reagan appealed directly to Southern whites aggrieved by the federal government’s enforcement of civil rights laws, promising to “restore to states and local governments the power that properly belongs to them.” Everyone there knew exactly what he meant.

Brooks also omits an important part of the larger narrative. He says that Reagan gave a major address at the Urban League, which is true, but he leaves out the fact that Reagan agreed to give this speech only after receiving considerable criticism for refusing to attend the NAACP convention earlier in the summer.

It’s not that Reagan was trying to gain black votes by addressing the Urban League; rather, as has been widely documented, his campaign knew that an image of racial intolerance would alienate the white moderate voters Reagan was so desperately trying to attract.

As president, Ronald Reagan initially opposed extending the Voting Rights Act, supported a tax break for racially segregated schools, fought affirmative action, tried to gut the United States Civil Rights Commission, and watered down enforcement of anti-discrimination laws. If Brooks wants to correct that record, he better have far better evidence than what he writes in his column.

Herbert Samuel Parmet - 11/12/2007

My just published contribution to the Library of American Biography series amply demonstrates how closely Reagan's southern campaigning was to Nixon's use of Wallace for his southern strategy. I respect David Brooks but have rarely found him so far off-base as in his attempt to sanitize Reagan's Neshoba speech.
Herbert S. Parmet

Lorraine Paul - 11/12/2007

I live in Australia but have studied 20thC American History at University.

If a woman from halfway around the world understands the 'not-so-hidden' message in Reagan's speech, then certainly those attuned to racist language would not be left misunderstanding Reagan's use of such language.

Reagan is not considered a figure of admiration in Australia...in fact, it would be fair to say that he is more considered a figure of fun!

Much as is the present incumbent!

Wade Carmichael - 11/12/2007

I, too, read Mr. Brooks column in the Times with a bit of dismay. As is typical, he obviously did not understand the context of Reagan's statements. I am very happy that Professor Crespino has corrected the record. As a native Mississippian, I am extremely interested that my state's history be portrayed honestly and truthfully. Many have tried, but only Mr. Crespino have succeeded, in my opinion. As for his excellent book, every Mississippian should read it, because I think that many people don't fully understand why they behave the way that they do.

Reagan's people, without a doubt, knew what they were doing by going to the Neshoba County Fair. It is a primarily white event. Furthermore, to use terms like "young buck" and "state's rights" in that context, was a tacit endorsement of racism. Anyone that believe otherwise doesn't fully understand Mississippi.