In this era of incessant opposition research, no one — not even our greatest Americans — can be considered safe from, at the very least, overstatement.
Take Ronald Reagan, for instance. The last thing anyone accused “The Gipper” of was being a racist. Now, he reputation is under attack, as NYU professor Tim Naftali, working for Atlantic, has written voluminously of a 1971 telephone conservation between Mr. Reagan, then governor of California, and President Richard Nixon. Mr. Reagan was justifiably incensed at a United Nations vote to recognize the People’s Republic of China. In voicing his dismay in rather animated fashion, he referred to delegates from Africa as “monkeys ... still uncomfortable wearing shoes.” That was the extent of his racial comments during the 12-minute-long conversation. And apparently at any other time in his life.
As such, this hardly sounds like The Gipper, an eminently decent man. But tapes do not lie. He said it, and should be rightfully upbraided, even condemned, for it. But here’s the rub, as Reagan school Paul Kengor, author of eight books and myriad articles about the man, said, after reading (and writing) millions of words about Mr. Reagan, this was the only time he can be remotely accused of racism. What accounted for this time? Who knows? Frustration, even anger, at a critical vote? Perhaps.
Anyway, Mr. Kengor prefers a different story to establish Mr. Reagan’s non-racist bona fides. Back in the ‘30s, when Jim Crow prevailed to some extent even in Northern states, two of Mr. Reagan’s black college football teammates were denied accommodation at a hotel in the future president’s hometown, Dixon, Ill., solely on account of their skin color.
No worries, Mr. Reagan said, you’ll stay at my house. His teammates were skeptical, but when Nelle Reagan, his mom, opened the door and welcomed them with a warm smile, their concerns were totally allayed. As Mr. Kengor wrote, “They spent the night. I doubt that the typical home in America was like that. The Reagan home was.”
And so Mr. Kengor went on to emphasize: “Ask anyone who knew Ronald Reagan and they will tell you that he was not a racist, period.”