Chroniclers of the life of Ronald Reagan are simply gutted to find that the man who coined the “welfare queen” stereotype and championed apartheid also spoke racist words aloud to his good friend Richard Nixon.
Recently, The Atlantic published recordings of then-California Governor Ronald Reagan railing against African delegates’ refusal to support the U.S. position that the U.N. should recognize Taiwan’s independence, so much so that he arranged a call to have a bit of a white supremacist gab session with his good friend Dick Nixon: “To see those, those monkeys from those African countries—damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!” Reagan told Nixon on the call.
According to The Washington Post, the conversation made Reagan biographers awfully sad because, while Reagan was surrounded by noted bigots, like Nixon, opposed the Civil Rights Act, and opposed Martin Luther King Jr. Day, they never before had to attempt to explain away actual recorded evidence of Reagan giddily using a racial slur like a high school bully intoxicated by his own capacity for meanness.
“I’m kind of taken aback. This is stunning,” said Bob Spitz, author of Reagan: An American Journey... 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.”
Shocking as Spitz may find it, the Post notes Reagan’s history of aligning himself closely enough with groups like the Ku Klux Klan to win votes while staying far enough away to pretend like he didn’t want those votes, the same Southern Strategy that’s worked for white men running for office for decades.
Tim Naftali, a history professor at New York University and the former director of the Nixon Presidential Library, was the man who worked to get the tape released, hoping conversation around the racist rhetoric between two former presidents might facilitate conversation about how that rhetoric is still shaping 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.”