Assassinating Reagan - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Assassinating Reagan
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Call it a coincidence that as Daniel Lucks’ book Reconsidering Reagan arrived in my mailbox, news arrived that John Hinckley was being released from confinement 40 years after attempting to assassinate Ronald Reagan.

Lucks’ book is reflective of a wider character assassination of Ronald Reagan by certain people on the left. There is an aggressive push to reconsider Reagan in the way that modern critical race theorists interpret things: through the prism of race, race, race, and critically, critically, critically, with little charity extended toward the targeted victim. The attacks are cruel and they are working, as leftists angrily besmirch Reagan’s reputation and look to remove his name from buildings, monuments, and whatever they can.

This is wrong. People should not be treated this way, especially when undeserved.

As for Lucks, all of Reagan’s actions are reinterpreted through a modern lens of race — or, I should say, racism, especially via the contemporary leftist charge of racial “dog whistles.” Dog whistles abound, heretofore unseen, but suddenly detectable everywhere by a person of proper leftist mind, training, and discerning abilities. Reagan actions are ascribed the worst intentions; intentions that require some shocking exaggerations and presuppositions by the author.

Lucks’ full title is Reconsidering Reagan: Racism, Republicans, and the Road to Trump. The last name in the title — Trump — really gets at the reappraisal and larger leftist-revisionist project at work here. Lucks presumes that Republicans are racists, with Donald Trump the culmination of their racism—a racism long ago stoked and honed by the likes of Ronald Reagan and other leading conservatives. What’s going on is captured well by Reagan biographer Marcus Witcher in his review of Lucks’ book for Modern Age:

The election of Donald J. Trump to the White House unleashed a torrent of new histories of the conservative movement. Most such books explain Trump’s “conservatism” as a product of the same movement that produced Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley, and Ronald Reagan. According to their authors, the thread that holds the conservative movement together is racism. As Daniel Lucks puts it in Reconsidering Reagan: Trump is “the product of a long progression that began back in 1964, when Reagan delivered his iconic ‘A Time for Choosing’ speech and the party of Lincoln nominated Barry Goldwater as their presidential nominee, and when the conservative movement rose to power in part by exploiting whites’ racial anxieties.” …

In Reconsidering Reagan, Lucks sets out to challenge what he views as the right-wing myth of Reagan by analyzing the fortieth president’s views and policies on civil rights. According to Lucks, Reagan should be viewed as a racist, or at best as a racially insensitive political opportunist who turned his back on “the racial liberalism of his youth by cozying up to George Wallace supporters.”

That’s indeed the larger goal at work. And Lucks goes after not just Ronald Reagan, but William F. Buckley Jr., National Review, Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, Barry Goldwater, and more.

Lucks’ book is at once polemical and terrible in its assumptions of Reagan. I regret taking the time to read it. I did not want to write a review. Nonetheless, as a Reagan scholar, I read everything, and as someone who has long researched Reagan on race, I had to attempt to push through this book. Unfortunately, I got mired down immediately in double-checking assertions by Lucks that did not make sense to me. As for writing a review, I felt I should do so for The American Spectator (a conservative magazine founded in 1967 with never a whiff of racism) to inform readers, particularly Republicans and conservatives, of just how bad the assault on an American icon like Ronald Reagan has become in this day of sickeningly sad, toxic, and ever-increasing racial animosity.

Oddly enough, Lucks had emailed me at the time of the release of his book. He and I had never corresponded before. He sent me a form email that he seemed to send to a bunch of Reagan scholars, switching out our names (mine began, “Dear Paul Kengor”). I didn’t know that he knew who I was. One wouldn’t know from his book. I’ve written eight books on Ronald Reagan, more than any other Reagan scholar, but the only one noted in Lucks’ book is The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism, which is included in a massively long endnote that runs two pages and lists roughly 50 to 100 books on Reagan (sort of a bibliography), some of which (certainly mine) he must not have read, as they are not cited in endnotes. His June 3 email to me makes a curious statement. “Whether or not Reagan was personally racist in mind my mind is immaterial,” he said, adding, “I don’t accuse Reagan of being a racist, he was personally a nice man.”

One wouldn’t gather that from reading Lucks’ book. From the outset, on page two of the introduction alone, he sets the tone:

  • “Reagan … exploiting white racism for political gain without appearing racist” (p. 2)
  • “his racist politics and policies” (p. 2)
  • “Reagan’s woeful legacy on race” (p. 2)
  • “Reagan’s record on civil rights was just as racist as Trump’s” (p. 2)
  • Martin Luther King Jr. and Desmond Tutu allegedly “both branded Reagan as a racist” (p. 2)
  • quotes King on Reagan’s “disguised appeals to bigotry” (p. 2)
  • quotes Tutu calling Reagan “a racist pure and simple” (p. 2)
  • Reagan’s “racist War on Drugs” (p. 2)

That tallies up to eight examples from page 2 alone. This treatment goes on and on. By page 4, Lucks freely wields charges like “Reagan’s racism” and “Reagan’s divisive racial legacy.” He also recklessly brandishes a weapon throughout the book: the so-called various “racial dog-whistles” that Reagan supposedly deployed throughout his career. This includes everything from Reagan’s “racist War on Drugs that targeted Blacks” (an extraordinary assumption there) to “racial code words” like “states’ rights” and “law and order.”

Yes, conservatives, beware: when you speak of states’ rights, it is now deemed a racial “dog-whistle.” On this, a certain screaming faction of liberals are united in rage. To honor some level of states’ rights, as the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution demands, puts you in the same category as Jim Crow lynchers. (For the record, the 10th Amendment succinctly affirms: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”)

Reagan, you see, “usually cloaked his racism in terms of states’ rights, rather than overt racist rhetoric.”

Of course, Reagan understood states’ rights as conservatives and most Americans always have understood them: the 10th Amendment, federalism, James Madison’s “middle ground,” Thomas Jefferson’s position, and certainly never as cryptic code language for a white hood in the closet.

Lucks also repeatedly accuses Reagan of exploiting the “racially charged issue of welfare reform.” Reagan, we’re told, did this with the “racial trope” and “racially coded story” about a welfare queen from Chicago who abused the system.

Lucks is not the first to use this welfare-queen thing. It signals an enormous frustration that I’ve tried to correct among wealthy white, college-educated liberals for decades. Listen closely, liberals: Since the dawn of the welfare state, most people on government assistance have been white, not black. Conservatives know this, but liberals seem not to. Liberals’ misunderstanding is based on assumptions and obvious stereotypes. (READ MORE from Paul Kengor: Teen Vogue to Teen Girls: Marx Good, Reagan Bad)

Personally, I learned this reality not only from statistics but from growing up in an environment where every welfare recipient I met was white. In high school, my girlfriend’s mother was on welfare, and white (and a staunch Democrat). In junior high, my best friend’s mom was on welfare, and white. Her boyfriend was a drunk constantly scheming the welfare system and refusing to work, and white. Everyone I knew on welfare (not to mention on drugs) was white.

Those of us raised in the Hinterland understand this. But liberals, curiously, don’t think that way about welfare recipients. They assume that every conservative complaining about welfare is complaining about black people, because liberals evidently assume that welfare recipients are black. It’s an outrage they’ve gotten away with.

Anyway, back to Lucks’ indictment: Lucks somehow concludes that Reagan was possessed of a “belief that Blacks were lazy welfare chiselers.” He writes that on page 8, citing nothing.

In truth, neither anyone who knew or worked with Reagan nor Reagan scholars believe that, including the dean of Reagan biographers Lou Cannon, whom Lucks takes to task right off for “scant references to Reagan’s attitudes toward Black America and his racial policies.” The fact that Cannon, the Washington Post’s White House correspondent during the Reagan years, and prior to that covering Gov. Reagan in Sacramento, had spent more time with Reagan than any journalist-biographer, seems not to tell Lucks something about his own nasty perceptions on Reagan and race. Cannon has said repeatedly that Ronald Reagan was not a bigot and not intolerant.

Unlike Lucks, presumably, Cannon is not attuned to racial “dog-whistles.” Says Lucks disapprovingly: “Cannon exculpates him for an apparent absence of personal racism.”

Maybe there was good reason for that?

There are so many references like this in Lucks’ book that I began circling them first out of anger and then almost amusement. Even Reagan’s “attacks on crime, welfare, and taxes” were somehow “racially freighted” (page 14).

Yes, taxes!

And all of them, says Lucks, helps explain how “during his presidency Reagan was a polarizing political presence, and his approval ratings were often lower than his immediate predecessors.”

That itself is a plainly amazing claim. Bear in mind that this “polarizing political presence” was elected in 1980 by defeating an incumbent by 10 percent, taking 44 of 50 states, and winning the Electoral College 489 to 49, and then was reelected in 1984 with 49 of 50 states and sweeping the Electoral College 525 to 13. Reagan left office with the highest Gallup approval ratings of any president since Eisenhower. All at a time when there were far more registered Democrats than Republicans. He was the most approved-of political presence of the last half century or more.

Reagan got away with this despite “his racism” (p. 33).

As for Reagan’s “immediate predecessors” allegedly possessing higher approval, well, Reagan defeated one-termer Jimmy Carter in a landslide, and Carter never had numbers like Reagan. Carter defeated Gerald Ford, who never won an election. Ford replaced Richard Nixon, who resigned in disgrace. Nixon was preceded by LBJ, who was so unpopular that he refused to even seek his party’s nomination for another term.

In reality, during his presidency Reagan was the opposite of a polarizing political presence, and his approval was far higher than that of his immediate predecessors.

Who Cares?

Such crucial facts and statistics are often absent in this book. And some of those that are highlighted are questionable.

For instance, Lucks cites (p. 13) an incredible poll claiming that “0 percent [emphasis original] of Blacks thought he [Reagan] cared about their problems.”

This claim really struck me. It’s hard to imagine, especially given that Reagan received over 1.2 million black votes in 1980. Granted, he didn’t receive a huge percentage of the black vote (14 percent), but he didn’t get zero.

I looked into the poll. As a source, Lucks cites this in his endnote: Black Issues Polling, January 1982, Melvin Bradley Files, Box 2, Black Issues 1982, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library; “Mr. Reagan and Black America,” New York Times, May 7, 1982, p. A30.

The Times citation is an editorial. The editorial states, “In January, a New York Times/CBS Poll found that when blacks were asked if Mr. Reagan cared about their problems, zero percent said yes.”

Puzzled by this, I tracked down the poll and the codebook, which included frequency distributions. In total, 1,540 people were surveyed. The poll actually had nothing to do with race or creed. It sought the attitudes of Americans toward their president during a time of a bad recession. It asked a basic question: “DOES REAGAN CARE ABOUT PEOPLE LIKE R.” The “R” designated the “Respondent.” So, the question was, “Does Reagan Care About People Like Respondent?”

To repeat, the question had nothing to do with race. It simply asked people to what degree they felt that Reagan cared about them. The options for respondents were “A Great Deal,” “Some,” and “Not Much.” Of the 1,540 respondents, only 168 were black (an obviously unscientific sample size), and they either did not respond to the question at all or they answered “Not Much.” Once the results were collected, the poll then listed the respondents by various groupings, including the percentage who were black.

The poll didn’t specifically seek out black people to ask them if they felt that Reagan cared about them and their problems as black people. The New York Times editorialist grossly misrepresented the poll. Lucks didn’t do any better. In his defense, Lucks did trust the Times, and got burned. Still, he should have checked it out, because it smacks as unbelievable.

Reagan and Burgie

Even at moments when Lucks should commend Reagan on race, he resists or abandons efforts. A stark example is Reagan’s very dear and lifetime friend, William Franklin “Burgie” Burghardt, one of the few black students at Reagan’s Eureka College and actually Ronald Reagan’s best friend there and one of his closest friends for life. In fact, Reagan in a January 1986 speech at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Washington, D.C. (on the first official Martin Luther King Jr. Day) called Burgie “probably the closest friend I ever had.”

Reagan had no racial problem. His family engaged in no racial discrimination, period.

It was Burgie who a young Reagan at Eureka College tellingly brought to his parents’ home, along with fellow black teammate Jim Rattan, when the two boys were denied entrance to a hotel because of the color of their skin. Reagan did not hesitate to ask his coach for cab fare to bring the boys to his house instead. When they arrived, Reagan’s mother smiled and said, “Come on in, boys.”

Burgie marveled at how Reagan not only never held his race against him but saw race as completely irrelevant. “I just don’t think he was conscious of race at all,” Burghardt told the Washington Post in 1981.

Precisely. And yet Lucks seems to interpret that statement as an indictment of Reagan. Here’s the full quote from Burgie in the Post: “Burghardt recalled that Reagan told their coach, ‘why don’t you give me cab fare, and I’ll take these two guys home with me.’ ‘He only lived 10, 15 miles away. So that’s what he did. I just don’t think he was conscious of race at all.’ ”

Not included from Lucks is the remainder of the quote from Burgie: “You have listened to the Carter debate during the [1980] campaign. Reagan said that when he was growing up they didn’t know they had a racial problem. It was the dumbest thing a grown person could say, but he’d never seen it. I believe that hotel was his first experience of that sort.”

Reagan had not seen it because Reagan had no racial problem. His family engaged in no racial discrimination, period. Your race was irrelevant. Burgie was not to be seen as a “black friend” any more than Reagan’s non-black friends at Eureka should be seen as “white friends.” All were simply friends. Friends were neither viewed nor judged by skin color.

Sadly, in the new America where race-hyped ideologies are taking hold, everything is viewed and judged by skin color. As stated by Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist, “There is no such thing as a not-racist idea. There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy.”

We are to be not only race-conscious but race-obsessed. The new CRT advocates want you to view your black neighbor as “Black.”

As two modern professors ripping Reagan on race put it, Reagan was guilty of “the ideology of colorblindness.” Colorblindness is now deemed bad because it opposes “any and all race-conscious remedies to racial injustice.”

Reagan’s devout Disciples of Christ mother and Irish Catholic father taught him that all human beings should be viewed as children of God.

Again, quite remarkably, Reagan referred to Burgie — who’s mentioned only once in Lucks’ entire book — as “probably the closest friend I ever had.” Burghardt said of Reagan, “We seem to have a mutual respect and admiration…. [H]e and I drew close and seem to have drawn closer through the years.”

Reagan looked at Burgie as foremost a person and a friend, not as a black man. Yep, Reagan was color blind. Following the exhortation of Martin Luther King Jr., he judged people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.

MLK Holiday

Speaking of the Rev. Dr. King, I’ll wrap up with this, in an already too-lengthy review when I could say so much more about Lucks’ treatment. It’s an important element of Reagan on race as president that leftists are not presenting fairly and where Reagan’s legacy is taking a terribly unjust hit.

Lucks writes very negatively of Reagan’s views on creating a national holiday for King. He says that when Reagan in October 1983 signed the bill officially creating a formal Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday — a big deal by Reagan — he did so only “reluctantly” (p. 2) and privately “thought King unworthy of a holiday” (p. 189).

The history of Reagan and the King holiday is very different than this suggests and requires much more detail.

For starters, conspicuously and tellingly absent from Lucks’ five-page section (pp. 188–93) on Reagan and MLK Day is the most important statement from Reagan on creating a national holiday — namely, his first statement. It came during a press conference on May 10, 1982, when Reagan said of the suggestion of a King holiday: “I have the deepest sympathy for it. I know what he means and what he has meant to a movement that I think is important to all of us.”

Yes, Reagan had the “deepest sympathy” for a King holiday. Here’s the full exchange with the press:

Q: Mr. President, there’s a thrust on the part of many in this country to have the birthdate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., declared a national holiday. Have you taken a stand on that?

The President: No, I haven’t taken a stand one way or the other. And I certainly can understand why the black community would like to do that. I know that from some of the past — I just have to confess with all that’s been going on, I haven’t been able to dig as deeply as I want to into it.

But one of the problems from those who have preceded me in this office with regard to that is the discovery of how many — we’re quite a mix in this country — how many other people there are with — people who just as sincerely want them also. We could have an awful lot of holidays if we start down that road.

Now, whether there’s something that could be worked out that would protect against that, I don’t know. But, as I say, I have the deepest sympathy for it. I know what he means and what he has meant to a movement that I think is important to all of us.

Q: Would you be in favor of such holidays?

The President: Well, would you allow me to say here that I want to study more about the ramifications of all those other requests before I give an answer that definitely — because it might be that there’s no way that we could afford all of the holidays that we would have with people who are also revered figures in the history of many of the groups that make up our population here in America.

Quite amazingly, this statement is nowhere in Daniel Lucks’ book. He clearly is aware of it. He cites the New York Times’ report on the press conference, published the next day (May 11, 1982) under the title, “Reagan Sympathetic, but Cautious on a King Day.”

Lucks nowhere in his text acknowledges that explicit Reagan sympathy. Nor does Luck include statements from Reagan such as him referring to King as “a great American hero,” as he said in an admiring January 15, 1988, talk (on MLK Day) to students at Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School in Washington, D.C.

Instead, Lucks concludes that Reagan ultimately signed the bill creating a national holiday for King only “reluctantly” (p. 2), of which he gives no supporting evidence.

To be sure, Reagan initially was undecided on whether or not to create a federal holiday, but from the outset he was supportive of some sort of day of national remembrance. As the New York Times noted (Steven Weisman, “Reagan May Back Dr. King Holiday,” August 7, 1983), Reagan questioned the idea of “a national holiday in the sense of business closing down and government closing down, everyone not working.” He asked his White House team to do a cost assessment. He noted that there was not even a federal holiday reserved for Abraham Lincoln, who freed black Americans from slavery. As his lead adviser on this issue, Mel Bradley (special assistant to the president, and black), noted in an August 3, 1983 memo, the only two figures honored with a “federal legal public holiday” were Christopher Columbus and George Washington, linked to the discovery and founding of America. That was it.

The issue of creating a federal holiday for King was not so cut and dry. It was wholly unprecedented. As president, Reagan tasked advisers to look into it before approving it on the spot the first time it was raised to him at a press conference. What else would one expect him to do? In the real world, that’s how these things develop. To retroactively assume that Reagan’s pause to consider the question and the costs was a sign of racial insensitivity if not racism is very unfair. Ronald Reagan always hated how people politicized these things and turned them into divisive racial issues.

I would advise Lucks to click this link for just one file from the Reagan Library showing how Reagan and his administration carefully considered the question and financial costs of an official MLK holiday (the file includes the comprehensive Mel Bradley memo). He’ll find nothing in that 30-page batch of documents suggesting that Reagan was anything but sympathetic to honoring King. And ultimately, by August 1983, Reagan concluded that King merited a federal holiday, only a year after pledging to first investigate the option.

Worse, Lucks goes so far as to assert of Reagan, “In private, he thought King unworthy of a holiday.”

That assertion on page 189 ends a paragraph and is not accompanied by a supportive quotation from Reagan or any other figure. It does contain an endnote, which I quickly scrambled after to eagerly find out where Lucks got that information. The endnote cites the landmark book Reagan, In His Own Hand, by Kiron Skinner and Annelise and Martin Anderson. Lucks cites the book as “Skinner, Anderson, Anderson, and Schultz, Reagan in His Own Hand, 634.” That citation is incorrect, including the added author of “Schultz,” who actually is not an author of that volume. I’m guessing that perhaps Lucks is referring to George Shultz (correct spelling), who wrote the foreword to the volume.

More important, the book has no page 634. It ends at page 550. I’m guessing that Lucks is referring to pages 385-386, which contains the only mention of King in the Reagan, In His Own Hand volume. That mention happens to be not a private writing. It was one of Reagan’s very public nationally syndicated radio addresses in the late 1970s, this one from November 1977. There, Reagan focused on what he called “a very questionable proposal [that] has been made for a holiday to honor slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Somehow I doubt that he would consider it an honor.” Reagan was commenting on a proposal in the state of Michigan to change the state’s official observance of King’s birthday from the Sunday nearest to January 15 to a working day on the Monday nearest the date.

To do so would presumably create a state holiday, with state courts and banks closed and employees affected. One state senator, Jack Welborn, opposed the change. As Reagan noted, this predictably led to charges that Welborn was “a callous individual opposed to the idea of honoring the slain Rev. King. This of course could lead to the additional charge of racism.” Said Reagan: “Well Sen. Jack Welborn is neither callous nor racist but what he had in mind was something far more suitable as a memorial than a paid holiday for public employees…. What he proposed instead was something in the nature of a living memorial to the victim of an assassin’s bullet.”

Instead, noted Reagan, Welborn offered two programs that he felt better honored King and that Reagan believed King himself would see as a better way to honor him, including a statewide King scholarship program for disadvantaged students.

Now, one today can certainly dispute Reagan’s assertion that the Welborn proposal would have been a better way to honor King, or Reagan’s claim that King himself would have felt that way (actually, King probably would have felt that way, selflessly advocating for the programs instead, given his commitment to young blacks and education), but either way, this hardly seems to reflect what Lucks summed up in nine words as “In private, he thought King unworthy of a holiday.” What Lucks cites to back that up does not say that.

It hardly sounds like private disdain. And actually, a more measured assessment of this Reagan statement from November 1977 is interesting to Reagan scholars because it presages his thinking when he first considered a national paid federal holiday for King as president. It also presages the predictable attacks on Reagan (like Welborn) as a racist because of perceived hesitancy about the King holiday (again, the Reagan hesitancy as president was to consider the costs of the holiday, not hesitancy about honoring King).

And either way, Reagan wasn’t president yet. Once he was, he was openly deeply sympathetic to the holiday.

*****

In sum, these are only a few things in Daniel Lucks’ book that struck me as odd and prompted me to dig. Frankly, I don’t want to proceed any further. I’m bracing myself to see how the Neshoba, Mississippi, section is represented. I got to a point in the book where I was pleading for mercy and decided to stop.

This whole larger attack on Ronald Reagan by people on the left is a shame. Reagan was a man of high character who treated black people kindly his entire life, from boyhood. He actually stands out for his exceptional decency on race, as completely atypical for his time and place. He was one of the least racist men we ever had in the Oval Office. This is a very unfair impugning of his character.

“I’ve lived a long time,” President Reagan told the National Council of Negro Women at the White House in July 1983, “but I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t believe that prejudice and bigotry were the worst of sins.”

That’s the true Ronald Reagan on race.

Paul Kengor
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Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College in Grove City, Pa., and senior academic fellow at the Center for Vision & Values. Dr. Kengor is author of over a dozen books, including A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Communism, and Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.
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