On Ronald Reagan’s ‘Racism’: An Extended Analysis
Paul Kengor
by
Mark Reinstein/Shutterstock.com

I hate to address this subject again, and this needs to be my last time tackling it as an article. This piece is nearly 5,000 words in length, and, believe me, I’ve held back. I’ve tried to stay away from getting sucked into this vortex and rewarding the progressive mob for its feeding frenzy. Besides, this is a mob that will not be mollified.

Yet again this past week, I got two more emails from conservatives distraught at liberals trying to remove Ronald Reagan’s name from more public markers because of a single remark to Richard Nixon reported this past summer. This is immensely frustrating for me not only as a Reagan biographer but as a historian who deals regularly with a litany of highly offensive racial remarks from the likes of leftist icons such as Woodrow Wilson, LBJ, Hillary Clinton, FDR (on Jews especially), Margaret Sanger (on race generally), and so many others. Currently, I’m completing a manuscript on Karl Marx that has required me to read over a dozen biographies of the man and thousands of his writings. Marx’s vicious words toward blacks, Jews, and, quite literally, toward the entire world, are beyond vitriolic, and they are voluminous. The Left ignores it all with great hypocrisy, even happily naming things after the likes of Wilson and Sanger and others, and then clings to one completely out-of-character remark in the entire lifetime of Ronald Reagan to try to destroy his reputation, with no genuine care about whether the remark reflects the man’s true beliefs. It’s perverse. There’s a sick madness in liberalism.

All of that is current context to this follow-up to the piece I wrote back in August on Ronald Reagan’s remark to Richard Nixon in October 1971 about certain African delegates to the United Nations. I’ve been inundated with emails, phone calls, and typed and handwritten letters from people who knew Reagan in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s and witnessed remarkable things from Reagan on race, all of which have been positive and further affirm the public and private record demonstrating that Ronald Reagan was absolutely not a racist. Of that, there is no question and no debate.

Some leftists have — predictably — exploded over Reagan’s remark to Nixon. I understand that, especially for those unfamiliar with Reagan’s history. I don’t condemn their anger, though I do condemn the ideologically driven attempts to smear Reagan’s good name and lifetime of remarkable decency, and I do condemn the sad lack of charity by these leftists. Responding to the incessant attacks is exhausting. So many of these assaults are symptomatic of the Left’s racial McCarthyism. Liberals are on a racial rampage, digging under every crevice of a Republican’s past (only Republicans) to detect heretofore unseen, unknown, and unintended racial “dog whistles” (their version of McCarthy’s concealed list of names) that they alone are able to magically discern — courtesy of their years of leftist indoctrination in our awful universities. Their perceptive abilities are downright extraordinary, and downright selective, driven by emotion and biases. One marvels at liberals’ uncanny ability to sniff out “racism” in certain quarters while discerning not a whiff in others.

As for Reagan, they’re retrospectively micro-analyzing every campaign appearance, every statement about welfare, every question he had about the Civil Rights Act, and they’re off and running with their scarlet “R.” There’s rarely an honest attempt to try to dig into the history of sincere policy differences and debates for and against — many of them principled and by good people. They don’t bother with nuances. Their goal is to weaponize policy differences, to ideologize them, to racialize them. And one can go mad responding to each of them. It will not end, in large part because many of the weaponizers cannot be assuaged. They want Republican scalps.

Here, I’m sticking strictly with the Reagan remark to Nixon, because it’s a legitimate concern and (as I said emphatically in my previous piece) it’s hard to make sense of in light of Reagan’s record. Unlike so many alleged “dog whistles” that send liberals barking mad, this one is a legitimate beef.

As someone who has spent a lifetime studying Ronald Reagan, I continue to get well-meaning emails with various theories regarding the context and intentions of Reagan’s remark, with the insistence that he’s being misunderstood. These are pleas for Reagan’s innocence, which I understand, given that that remark is utterly one among a billion.

Some of those emails make very valid points, which I’ll address here at length. First, however, I’d like to circle back to a possible explanation that I raised in my column — namely, that Reagan’s remark to Nixon was an example of him mocking a stereotype, and not endorsing the stereotype. As examples of what I mean by that, I’ll start with three anecdotes.

Mocking a Stereotype

Exhibit A: An academic colleague of mine detests Donald Trump. He and I were discussing Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Tlaib. “Well, Paul,” this Trump-hater snaps, “let’s tell all three of them to go back to Africa!”

Question: Who is my colleague mocking with that joke? Obviously, he’s mocking Donald Trump, not the three women. The jab is directed at Trump, whom my colleague loathes. But if a transcript of our conversation appeared decades from now, readers wouldn’t know that he was slamming Trump rather than the women — not without knowing the full context. They might accuse my colleague of a racist smear.

Exhibit B: Hillary Clinton, in an exchange with a liberal interviewer, said of two prominent African American figures, Cory Booker and Eric Holder, “I know, they all look alike!”

Hillary Clinton cackles, and the liberal audience laughs. It’s highly offensive. And yet, when I mention it, liberals howl in protest, insisting that Hillary was joking. They say she was making fun of people who stereotype black people. Hillary, you see, was merely mocking a stereotype.

Exhibit C: Tony Dolan, Ronald Reagan’s chief speechwriter, recounts an Oval Office meeting when he, Reagan, and Ben Elliott (another speechwriter) were discussing a speech draft that included a biblical quotation. Elliott (a devout evangelical) and Reagan were arguing over the exact chapter and verse. As Reagan fetched a Bible, Dolan jumped in and chided, “Mr. President, I’m sorry I can’t help you with this, but, as you know, I’m Catholic.” Not missing a beat, Reagan looked at the Bible and deadpanned to Dolan, “Oh, they don’t let you look at this, do they?”

They all laughed.

Ronald Reagan was joking about a stereotype of Catholics — one that he personally didn’t endorse. You couldn’t find a more pro-Catholic president than Reagan, whose father and brother were both Catholic. (I know this well, having written at great length on Reagan and Catholics.) I know Catholics who thought Reagan might convert to Catholicism, such was his respect for the Roman Catholic Church. Reagan, of course, knew that Catholics were permitted to look at the Bible.

And yet, if today we saw only a transcript of what Reagan said during that Oval Office exchange, with no context, we might not realize he was role-playing, mocking a stereotype. Catholics reading that exchange cold in 2019 might see it as a slap at their faith. It wasn’t.

I mention these examples because, as I wrote here back in August, I’ve listened carefully to the Reagan-Nixon exchange, and I believe these three exhibits give us insight into Reagan’s real intention and attitude. Reagan had said to Nixon, “To see those, those monkeys from those African countries — damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!” Nixon chuckled.

I bristled as much as puzzled upon first reading that exchange. My reaction was, naturally, highly negative, even shocked. But my take was different upon listening to it. As I said in my original post, when you listen to the audio, it sounds like Reagan might be mocking a racist stereotype — that is, making fun of a nasty stereotype, and not engaging in or endorsing the nasty stereotype himself. Please, listen for yourself. The comment comes around the halfway point of the 12-minute conversation. (You can also listen to the snippet in the original post at the Atlantic, which seems to have cleaned-up sound quality.) Listen carefully to the inflection in Reagan’s voice as he delivers the line, which indeed sounds like a delivery. I think he’s mocking.

Some will say I’m going out of my way to defend Reagan. No, no. I understand the sinfulness of the human condition. And good grief, what human being hasn’t said something offensive during the course of a long lifetime? I also understand, as a bunch of observers have pointed out to me in the weeks since that recording was released, that Richard Nixon had an awful way of appealing to the worst elements in those around him.

“Richard Nixon brought out the very worst in people,” one Reagan staffer told me. “People seemed to want to talk tough, dirty, around Nixon. Where is Henry Kissinger any worse, ever, than on the Nixon tapes?” Similarly, one evangelical friend told me, “When did you ever see Billy Graham talking worse than he did to Richard Nixon?”

Thus, I’m open to that possibility with Ronald Reagan in this bizarre instance with Nixon. And yet, Ronald Reagan, regardless, plainly never talked that way. No one ever witnessed a similar such sentiment from him.

It’s very important that those of us who have spent countless hours studying the man try to nail down the full context and intention — given a highly isolated incident. We should be willing to give the benefit of the doubt to someone with an otherwise sterling record. Nowhere else in the massive record of a lifetime of statements, oral and written, is there a comment like this from Reagan — quite the contrary.

Take the words of Reagan’s daughter, Patti: “If I had read his words as a quotation, and not heard them, I’d have said they were fabricated,” Patti wrote in the Washington Post. “I never heard anything like that from him. In fact, when I was growing up, bigotry and racism were addressed in my family by making it clear that these were toxic and sinister beliefs that should always be called out and shunned. I can’t tell you about the man who was on the phone with Richard Nixon that day in 1971. He’s not a man I knew…. That man held a small girl in his lap and answered her question about why people come in different colors. ‘God made all his creations in different colors,’ he said.”

This was “a conversation that stands in stark contrast to how he lived and how he taught his children to live.” These were, said Patti, whose testimonies about her father are usually accepted by liberals, “Words that, for those of us who knew Ronald Reagan, will always be an aberration.”

Precisely. I wouldn’t rush to the defense of any number of other politicians with suspect racial comments, Republican or Democrat. I’m defensive about Reagan not out of some sense of blind hero worship but because — having written eight books and countless articles on the man — I can say conclusively that that statement isn’t the real Reagan. Genuinely fair-minded liberals will agree.

The Tail Wags the Dog

But there may be still further context we’re missing.

My colleagues Craig Shirley and Frank Donatelli, both Reagan experts, wrote a compelling analysis of the Reagan-Nixon exchange. Reagan and Nixon were reacting to what had happened at the United Nations the night before their conversation. It involved the African delegation’s response to the moment when Mao’s China received enough country votes to be recognized by the United Nations. Shirley and Donatelli presented an October 26, 1971, UPI report noting that the Tanzanian ambassador “leaped to his feet and did a victory dance.” That ambassador was Salim Ahmed Salim. Footage of him and his delegation’s (as well as the crucial votes of other African nations that sided with Mao’s China) jubilation dominated the evening news. The communist Chinese were forever grateful for Salim’s support. You can see that in this tribute to Salim on communist China’s propaganda news channel.

Liberals, please try to understand this: That vote came immediately after the Chinese Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward that killed well over 60 million people (see, among others, Harvard University Press’s The Black Book of Communism). Mao’s Red China had just achieved the ignominious position of creating the largest killing field in human history. And yet, the likes of Tanzania’s ambassador danced in approval of the UN’s endorsement.

Reagan saw that footage on the evening news. Everyone did. That was the context of his conversation with Nixon. It was a devastating defeat for the forces of freedom and human dignity. It was a huge victory for the communists. To see the Tanzanian ambassador and others erupt in euphoria was truly sickening.

Of course, this would not justify referring to the man as a monkey as an intended racial slap. I’m not saying that at all. (Liberals, please control your emotions and try to read this without rage and lashing out with aspersions.) It does, however, make one wonder if Ronald Reagan was referring to a “monkeys” comment made by some other public figure at the time, which was reported and that he and Nixon knew about: leveled, perhaps, by a John Bircher, a Southern Democrat congressman, or another individual. Many Americans in those days talked in that offensive way. They talked that way about the Japanese during World War II, calling them “monkeys.” Look at the portrayals of the Japanese in old Dr. Seuss cartoons, not to mention Seuss portrayals of black Africans as grass-skirted savages and cannibals cooking white men in big pots.

Was Reagan referring mockingly to someone else’s “monkeys” comment? That’s entirely plausible.

Or did Reagan mean something else entirely?

Another possibility repeatedly raised to me by several emailers is one that many will immediately dismiss as a stretch, but there might be something to it.

I’ve had a number of people email me arguing that Reagan was suggesting that the Tanzanians were “monkeying” or “parroting” the lead of the communists, who were pulling them along. One emailer, Eric, wrote to me:

I listened to the tape and I had a different take than you and was curious of your thoughts on it. When Reagan uses the term monkeys it seems he is referring to the idea that they were trained or going along with what others coached them to do, he was not using this in a racially charged form. Nixon appears to take it that way cause he laughs and says right after “the tail wags the dog there, doesn’t it.” That’s what I thought.

Eric argues that Reagan used this term to characterize sycophantic nations following Red China like a trained monkey. In retrospect, he adds, it was — of course — a “poor word choice, even in a private conversation,” but “Nixon’s reaction is evidence that Reagan meant it in this context, not in a racially charged one.”

Eric adds this: “Remember Reagan worked with a trained monkey in his film Bedtime for Bonzo. It stands to reason he may have been using it in this context.”

Again, this might at first seem like a stretch, as it did to me, but it’s worth considering if we’re looking at various possible explanations that are being raised.

Along these lines, I have in my office an image of Ronald Reagan from Bedtime for Bonzo holding his trained monkey — in this case with an image of the face of Hillary Clinton transposed — and feeding it a bottle labeled “reality.” The online image was given to me by a student back in 2008 because I had written books on the faith of both Reagan and Hillary. The cut-and-paste of Hillary was intended to convey Reagan training Hillary in reality. Again, emphasis on the word “training.”

For the record, I can’t say for certain whether this theory is accurate or not; to the contrary, I’d go with other explanations. It’s interesting, however, that I’ve gotten more emails offering that argument than any other. That particular emailer went on to write an op-ed that he tried to place (without luck) in a newspaper in his home state of New Jersey, where liberals in Elizabeth pounced on Reagan’s remark to launch a drive to remove his name from a local public school (in a state, ironically, where endless things are named for Woodrow Wilson, who had indisputably insulting views on race).

Still, think about it: Were Reagan and Nixon referring to that? Again, note Nixon’s immediate assessment: “The tail wags the dog there, doesn’t it? The tail wags the dog.” What else could that mean?

Interestingly, Tim Naftali, the Nixon scholar who raised this whole incident to begin with in his piece for the Atlantic, does not mention even once in his long piece Nixon’s immediate response to Reagan about the tail wagging the dog. Why? How could Professor Naftali leave that out? He only noted that Nixon laughed, not Nixon’s reply, and then he went on at length to try to argue that Nixon exploited this as an intentionally racist comment.

How could anyone leave out Nixon’s immediate reply? Could that be something meaningful that undermines Naftali’s entire thesis?

To repeat, look at Nixon’s reaction. Why would Nixon say that? Is there a further context here that we’re missing?

Reagan Mimicking Others

Though Ronald Reagan didn’t talk this way about people, he did act, and he did mimic. He mocked as a form of comedy.

This will sound simplistic, but apparently it’s worth suggesting: For a quick and easy tutorial on types of humor, click this source, which is a basic guide that anyone in comedy and acting knows. (It took me 10 seconds to find this online; sorry, but apparently such illustrations are necessary here.) Reagan — a trained actor, of course — might have been engaging in a form of comedic acting known by any number of descriptions: blue humor, risqué, off-color, deadpan, dry, droll, hyperbolic, ironic, mordant, satirical, or even a form of burlesque based on imitating with caricature or exaggerated characterization. That is what the audio sounds like. It doesn’t read that way, but it sounds that way.

Ronald Reagan was in this business from the 1930s through the 1960s. He saw it all. As head of the Screen Actors Guild, where he was a stalwart defender of white and black actors alike, he represented the best in the business — Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Don Rickles, George Burns, all of them his good friends.

“Ronald Reagan was the ultimate shtick-ster,” one former Reagan staffer told me after the remark to Nixon was reported. He begged me not to identify him because of today’s toxic racial-political environment, knowing the Left will vilify him, too, with the scarlet “R.” “Ronald Reagan mocked stereotypes all the time. He did vaudeville acts. The man would’ve never said that [remark to Nixon] in a literal or mean way. He’s making fun of a stereotype there.”

Was Reagan capable of that kind of role-playing to lampoon others? Absolutely he was.

Remember that example from Tony Dolan at the start of this article. And that was hardly unusual. In fact, it was typical of Reagan.

Reagan would imitate people and voices often, and always in humor. Bill Clark, another devout Catholic close to Reagan, told me that Reagan could veer into a hilarious imitation of Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, the Vatican’s papal nuncio, whom Reagan loved. Reagan would slip into his best Italian accent, make rapid hand gestures, the whole deal.

Another speechwriter, Peter Robinson, who agrees that Reagan’s remarks to Nixon “are 100 percent singular, I can confirm that,” also confirms that “Reagan did an excellent Casaroli.” Peter remembered an incident when Vice President Bush came back from getting a haircut and told Peter (who then wrote speeches for Bush) and another staffer about a great joke he had just heard from Reagan imitating Casaroli and Pope John Paul II speaking to each other in St. Peter’s Square, imitating Casaroli in flawless Italian dialect, imitating John Paul II in Polish, and even mimicking the Italian crowd in the square offering their hearts to the pope and shouting “Papa, papa, take-a-my-heart, take-a-my-heart.”

Peter Robinson documents this and numerous other jokes in his memoir on the Reagan years (see pages 149–55). He shares the example of Reagan breaking into a “wildly exaggerated brogue” jabbing Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants at the Knights of Columbus conference in 1986. Himself an Irish Protestant, Reagan was notorious for his Irish imitation. Reagan made fun of the Irish, Italians, the Soviets, American farmers, and on and on. Other speechwriters like Dana Rohrabacher could rattle off at will a farmer joke from Reagan’s repertoire of a hundred or so. Reagan opened practically every cabinet meeting with a joke. Every time Reagan met with Mikhail Gorbachev he delivered cracks about Russians. There are books and videos with titles like Stand-Up Reagan.

“Reagan simply told jokes,” notes Peter Robinson.

Reagan imitated, as actors did, to entertain others. My late friend B. Kenneth Simon saw Reagan and impressionist Rich Little on stage together each playfully imitating the other. Ken said it was one of the funniest things he ever saw. The audience was cracking up.

For kicks, watch Reagan and his old Hollywood buddies needle each other — all in fun — in the special “Dean Martin Roast” of Reagan (click here). Most notable, watch (at the 15:30 mark) Nipsey Russell, a wonderful black comedian of the day, pretending to be Reagan’s “twin brother” and making a series of racial jokes that Nipsey is directing at Reagan, making fun of Reagan’s “afro” and calling him “the white sheep of the family.”

And yet, that said, I’ve never heard of even one occasion of Reagan mimicking a black person or telling a racial joke. Not one amid a million kinds of jokes delivered by Reagan.

A Crack Against African Countries?

Having said all of that, I’m open to another possible option or theory for Reagan’s remark to Nixon in October 1971, and this one makes a lot of sense.

Shortly after the remark was reported this past summer, Jay Nordlinger of National Review emailed Lou Cannon, which is something I had planned as well (Nordlinger beat me to it). Few living Americans, and no living Reagan biographer, personally observed, reported on, and knew Reagan like Lou Cannon, from Sacramento in the 1960s to Washington in the 1980s as White House correspondent for the Washington Post. Cannon said this to Nordlinger:

Reagan was often cavalier in what he said about African nations in contrast to what he said about black Americans. One of his lines was the following (about African nations): “It wasn’t so long ago that, when they had you for dinner, they had you for dinner.” When Reagan used this line he would emphasize the second “for” and it usually drew a laugh from his mostly white audiences. In one of my books I used this as an example of something that Reagan could get away with that most politicians couldn’t. Not sure when he stopped using this line. But he definitely was using it at the time of the cited exchange with Nixon.

I personally have never encountered such Reagan cracks at African nations, but I’ll take Cannon’s word. Those cracks were typical of the day, in old black-and-white movies, in TV shows, and elsewhere. (Again, see Dr. Seuss.)

Africa aside, if you want to see brutal Reagan jokes about countries, take a look at his long list of epic insults ripping communist countries, which outnumber his jokes about African countries by, oh, about 100,000 to one.

Notably, several emailers have contacted me arguing that Reagan in that comment was ripping African nations — certainly not black Americans — and insisting that there must be a separation of the two in our understanding of Reagan and what Reagan was saying. Some, of course, will argue with this, especially political opponents with ideological motivations to not be charitable to Reagan. They will say that the comment is racially offensive regardless of whether it applies to black Africans or black Americans. I get that.

As one emailer told me, however, it’s crucial to understand that when Reagan said he didn’t have a racist bone in his body, that was absolutely true because he never harbored prejudice toward black Americans who had so long been discriminated against. He had the deepest empathy for them. He called such racism “the worst of sins.” That’s what we generally mean when we describe a racist in America — namely, someone who is prejudiced against black Americans.

Thus, you will not find a remark from Reagan referring to black Americans in the sort of insulting language he used against UN delegates toward African nations. To Reagan, black Americans were not African delegates to the United Nations.

For the record, as Nordlinger further notes, Lou Cannon wrote this of Reagan and black Americans in his seminal biography, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime:

I do not believe that Reagan was racially prejudiced in the normal meaning of the term. He had been taught by his parents that racial intolerance was abhorrent, and the many people I interviewed who knew him as a young man were unanimous in believing that he absorbed these lessons. In his autobiography Reagan tells how he volunteered to take Eureka College’s two black football players into his home in Dixon after they were refused admission at a hotel.… The players were welcomed by Reagan’s parents, as Reagan had known they would be. One of these players was William Franklin Burghardt, who had played center on the line next to Reagan. The two became friends and corresponded regularly until Burghardt’s death in 1981.

Precisely. And if liberals can’t accept such assurances of everyone from Lou Cannon to Patti Davis, neither of them right-wingers, and both popular go-to sources for liberals, then they will not accept the assurances of anyone. And sadly, for certain angry ideologues, no assurances will stop them from smearing Reagan.

It’s crucial to understand here that Reagan often denigrated countries, specifically communist countries or rogue nations, without the intent of denigrating the people. For instance, his Evil Empire remark: Reagan always carefully made a distinction between an evil Soviet regime and the Russian people, whom he did not and would not call evil, feeling only sympathy for them. Consider communist China. It was precisely during this same time that Reagan, again in a private setting (an August 3, 1971, letter to his friends Lorraine and Elwood Wagner), referred to the Chinese as “a bunch of murdering bums.”

Question: Was Reagan there referring to the Chinese people, all one billion of them? No, obviously not. He was referring in that letter to the “Red Chinese” (his words) communist leadership.

***

To sum up, I’ll stick with my original point that this remark from Reagan is, on its face, something that conservatives should not want to defend, even as I’m forced to address it as a biographer. It is, however, something so out of character, and so contrary and nonsensical to Reagan’s lifetime of truly impressive if not extraordinary racial tolerance to black Americans — I know of no president prior to Reagan with such a commendable record with black people so early in life — that we should be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. We should be inclined to try to understand if he meant something contrary to what many negatively assume or charge.

Again, I know that liberals will say that I and Reagan’s admirers are bending over backwards to exonerate our hero. No. As I said in my piece in August, conservatives must be willing to admit that their man wasn’t perfect, was sinful like all of us, and made his mistakes, and we should let him take his falls. And that indeed may well be the best explanation in this case. But my intention here is to try to make sense of one offensive comment that flies in the face of everything else.

I’m betting that this remark was another Ronald Reagan sarcastic statement, reflective not of Reagan’s racial insensitivities but of Reagan mocking the racial insensitivities of others.

Paul Kengor
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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