Rea­gan’s racism re­vealed

The Prince George Citizen - - Front Page - Mor­gan KRAKOW, Tim EL­FRINK

It was Oc­to­ber 1971, and the United Na­tions had just voted to recognize the Peo­ple’s Re­pub­lic of China.

Then-Cal­i­for­nia Gov. Ronald Rea­gan was in­fu­ri­ated that del­e­ga­tions from Africa did not align them­selves with the U.S. po­si­tion – that the UN should recognize Tai­wan as an in­de­pen­dent state – and wanted to get then-U.S. Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon on the phone. He was ap­par­ently dis­gusted af­ter watch­ing del­e­gates from Tan­za­nia cel­e­brate the UN de­ci­sion to sup­port Chi­nese sovereignt­y over Tai­wan.

“To see those, those mon­keys from those African coun­tries – damn them, they’re still un­com­fort­able wear­ing shoes!” Rea­gan said.

Nixon replied with a big laugh. “Well and then they – the tail wags the dog, doesn’t it? The tail wags the dog.” Nixon said.

The con­ver­sa­tion be­tween Rea­gan and Nixon was pub­lished in The At­lantic.

Tim Naf­tali, a his­tory pro­fes­sor at NYU and the for­mer di­rec­tor of the Nixon Pres­i­den­tial Li­brary, worked to get the tape re­leased and wrote the sub­se­quent ar­ti­cle for The At­lantic.

The Na­tional Archives with­held the racist com­ments in the record­ing’s first re­lease in 2000, which Naf­tali says was ap­par­ently in pro­tec­tion of Rea­gan’s pri­vacy. But af­ter Rea­gan’s death in 2004, and amid con­tin­ued re­view process by the Na­tional Archives, Naf­tali was suc­cess­ful in get­ting the full con­ver­sa­tion re­leased.

“It was worse than I ex­pected,” Naf­tali said, re­fer­ring to the au­dio on the tape. “It was the com­bi­na­tion of the slur by Rea­gan and then Nixon’s re­peat­ing it, not once but twice in later con­ver­sa­tions. This was not just re­veal­ing about what Ronald Rea­gan thought about Africans in 1971, and ar­guably later, it was also a re­minder of how Nixon could hold racist views but not think of him­self as a racist.”

Af­ter the call with Rea­gan, Nixon phoned Sec­re­tary of State Wil­liam Rogers and then em­ployed the same lan­guage Rea­gan used as he de­scribed the frus­tra­tions over the UN de­ci­sion.

“As you can imag­ine, there’s strong feel­ing that we just shouldn’t, as (Rea­gan) said, he saw these, as he said, he saw these – these, uh, these can­ni­bals on tele­vi­sion last night, and he says, ‘Christ, they weren’t even wear­ing shoes, and here the United States is go­ing to sub­mit its fate to that,’ and so forth and so on,” Nixon said in the recorded phone call.

In a sec­ond con­ver­sa­tion with Rogers on the same day, Nixon spoke about Rea­gan’s dis­gust once again. He was recorded say­ing Rea­gan “prac­ti­cally got sick at his stomach,” and that the Cal­i­for­nia gover­nor said “this bunch of peo­ple who don’t even wear shoes yet, to be kick­ing the United States in the teeth,” char­ac­ter­iz­ing Rea­gan’s feel­ings about what had hap­pened, ac­cord­ing to Naf­tali.

But Nixon had also been un­happy about what tran­spired at the UN that Oc­to­ber. Even be­fore his phone call with Rea­gan, he had al­ready re­quested can­cel­la­tions of fu­ture meet­ings with African lead­ers whose votes had dif­fered from that of the United States, ac­cord­ing to Naf­tali.

At the time, Nixon’s State De­part­ment said Bri­tish and French deal­ings were to blame for the de­ci­sion to can­cel the meet­ings.

“Don’t even sub­mit to me the prob­lem that it’s dif­fi­cult to turn it off since we have al­ready ac­cepted it,” Nixon was recorded telling then-deputy na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Alexander M. Haig. “Just turn it off, on the ground that I will be out of town.”

Rea­gan bi­og­ra­phers and his­to­ri­ans are still wrestling rec­on­cil­ing the newly re­vealed au­dio with the pres­i­dent’s per­sonal record. As Naf­tali noted in The At­lantic, Nixon’s racist views have been well doc­u­mented, but Rea­gan’s per­sonal diaries are free of any sim­i­lar rhetoric. Some of Rea­gan’s most di­vi­sive poli­cies – like em­brac­ing the apartheid gov­ern­ment of South Africa and in­vent­ing the trope of the “wel­fare queen” – may take on a dif­fer­ent light now.

“I leave it to Rea­gan schol­ars to take this and then con­nect it to com­ments about wel­fare queens and what this may or may not say about Rea­gan’s gen­eral view of race,” Naf­tali said.

One such scholar de­scribed the new au­dio as “shock­ing.”

“I’m kind of taken aback. This is stun­ning,” said Bob Spitz, au­thor of Rea­gan: An Amer­i­can Jour­ney. Spitz gained ac­cess to Rea­gan’s per­sonal archives for the work and said he found no hint that the pres­i­dent would hold the kinds of views he con­veyed to Nixon.

“In all of my very care­ful re­search into his pri­vate papers, I never found an in­stance where I felt that Rea­gan was racist,” he said.

“Gen­er­ally when some­one says, ‘I don’t have a racist bone in my body,’ I’m in­stantly skep­ti­cal, but in this case af­ter all my work I found my­self kind of nod­ding my head. So this is shock­ing.”

Naf­tali said he hopes his re­search en­cour­ages others to plum the vo­lu­mi­nous records avail­able on all pres­i­dents. The Rea­gan au­dio should also spark new con­ver­sa­tions about pres­i­den­tial views on race, he said, and how it im­pacts real world pol­icy.

“Un­der­stand­ing how our pres­i­dents think about race is not a mat­ter of char­ac­ter as­sas­si­na­tion, it’s about un­der­stand­ing what drives their de­ci­sion mak­ing,” he said.

“It’s not par­ti­san games­man­ship, it’s about how these peo­ple with the power we gave them as re­sult of an elec­tion have used it. If their minds are poi­soned by prej­u­dice, we need to know.”


In this Nov. 13, 1981, photo pro­vided by NASA, thenU.S. Pres­i­dent Ronald Rea­gan is briefed by John­son Space Cen­ter di­rec­tor Christo­pher C. Kraft Jr.

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