June 21, 2004

Was Jefferson Davis Really One of Ronald Reagan's Heroes?

Was Jefferson Davis really one of Ronald Reagan's heroes? Did Reagan really stand up at Stone Mountain, GA--in front of the fifty-foot tall bas-relief stone carvings of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and "Stonewall" Jackson--and say "Jefferson Davis is a hero of mine"?

Can this possibly be true? Or does Roger Wilkins have it wrong?

From the Lehrer News Hour:

ROGER WILKINS: Well, Reagan was an incredible combination of a person who was very optimistic, upbeat, but underneath there were some really ugly parts of his politics.

He was, I said once before on this program, he capitalized on anti-black populism by going to Philadelphia, Mississippi, for example, in the beginning of his campaign in 1980.

Nobody had ever heard of Philadelphia, Mississippi outside of Mississippi, except as the place where three civil rights workers had been lynched - in 1964 - he said "I believe in states rights."

Everybody knew what that meant. He went to Stone Mountain , Georgia , where the Ku Klux Klan used to burn its crosses, and he said "Jefferson Davis is a hero of mine."

He was rebuked by the Atlanta newspapers - they said we don't need that any more here. He went to Charlotte, North Carolina one of the most successful busing for integration programs in the country and he said I'm against busing and again the Charlotte papers rebuked him. And the impact of that plus his attacks on welfare women, welfare queens in Cadillacs, for example. And his call for cutting the government. He didn't cut the government; the military bloomed in his time. But programs for poor people diminished entirely and America became a less civilized and less decent place.

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Comments

Mr. Wilkins is correct. About the sudden rise of homelessness in America after the early 1980's recession, Mr. Reagan first said that there were no homeless in America, and then said, if there were any, they liked living out-of-doors. This helped delay federal assistance to the homeless until 1987. All of Reagan's "harmless" stories had negative public policy consequences for the poor and vulnerable among us. The stories, and his perspective on the poor and minorities who were their subjects, embraced a vicious politics of class and race which resulted in attempts at more discrimination (think tax breaks for private schools which discriminated in attendance policy by race, and the OCR's attempts to undermine the Voting Rights Act when it came up for renewal) and attempts to cut federal programs which benefitted the poorest Americans (ketchup as a vegetable was aimed at school children who received reduced price and free lunches as part of a policy aimed at good nutrition for all). Reagan was not just a genial hail-fellow-well-met; he promoted a vicious politics to the detriment of the least well off, weakest among us--the same politics followed with such vigor by today's incumbents.

Charles

Posted by: charles on June 21, 2004 12:46 PM

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Someone went through modern presidential candidates statements around 1980.

The most negative campaigner was Reagan. The least negative was Bush I.

Reagan's campaigns were based on the demonization of "the other".

He led the most indicted and convicted administration in modern times.

But he was just so damn telegenic.

Posted by: Matthew Saroff on June 21, 2004 01:07 PM

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OOPs. the campaign study was around 1990.

Posted by: Matthew Saroff on June 21, 2004 01:54 PM

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If my memory serves me right the real birth of homelssness in the US stemmed from Reagan cutting funding for treatment of mental illness. States were suppose to pick it up, according to Reagan, but of course they didn't so the mentaly ill that Reagan kicked out the door was the real original source of the homeless in the US.

I remember as a teenager in the 1950s on my first trip to New York taking a tour that included the Bowery to see the bums. Back then homelessness was so rare that it was actually a tourist attraction.

Posted by: spencer on June 21, 2004 02:07 PM

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Was Reagan following advice from Lee Atwater
at the time? Boy, there's someone who got
what he deserved in spite of the fox-hole conversion on his deathbed.

Posted by: Hedley Lamarr on June 21, 2004 02:08 PM

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Didn't Mr Reagan get a lot of his belief from movies he watched? Maybe he saw "Birth of a Nation" and JD became one of his heroes. Many still consider Davis to have been a traitor.

Posted by: bakho on June 21, 2004 02:09 PM

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Could it be that not everyone equates the Confederacy with support for slavery? Before then, many people, including some of the Founders, believed in the states' right of secession.

Posted by: Jim on June 21, 2004 03:54 PM

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"Could it be that not everyone equates the Confederacy with support for slavery?"

Of course it's true that not everyone makes that equation. It's also true that those who don't make it are wrong.

Posted by: Bernard Yomtov on June 21, 2004 04:49 PM

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In retrospect, if we'd allowed secession, no Speaker Newt Gingrich.

yeah, sure, slavery had nothing to do with it. Whatever. It's probably time for you to find your way home now.

Posted by: Zizka on June 21, 2004 06:55 PM

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The festering boil known as Newt Gingrich was born in Pennsylvania.

We'd still have him.

Posted by: Matthew Saroff on June 21, 2004 07:12 PM

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Reagan thought local communities should provide "community based treatment" for the mentally ill. This was while he was governor of California, and closed the state mental institutions. Btw. it might have been a good idea if funding was part of the deal.

From here:

http://www.campusprogram.com/reference/en/wikipedia/l/le/lee_atwater.html

Lee Atwater (February 26, 1951 - March 29, 1991) was a Republican National Committee chairman during the latter part of the 1980s. Atwater was a trusted advisor of both President Ronald Reagan and President George H. W. Bush. Atwater's skills at promoting the negative aspects of his opponents, (such as the tactic of bounce polling, which he invented) brought him and his candidates success.

His greatest achievement came in the presidential campaign of 1988. A particularly aggressive television advertisement concentrating on a prison parole� who subsequently committed a rape, along with other campaign tactics against Michael S. Dukakis, allowed George H.W. Bush to overcome Dukakis's 17% lead in early polls and win the 1988 election for President.

During that election, Atwater was assigned a "minder" by the Bush campaign, George W. Bush. The younger Bush would later employ Atwater's tactics against John McCain in the 2000 Republican primary.

Posted by: cafl on June 21, 2004 07:57 PM

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I'll trundle over to Simi Valley after the mourning crowds have died down (sorry) to see if that particular speech hasn't been shredded. He may, of course, have gotten to the subject of Jefferson Davis via state's rights.

On prejudice: from "Ronald Reagan, The Great Communicator" by Kurt Ritter and David Henry (Greenwood Press, 1992) p. 43:

"Perhaps the most remarkable speech of Reagan's 1968 campaign was his address to the Women's Press Club in Washington, D.C. on the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. In the first quarter of his speech, Reagan presented his standard exposition on the creative society, especially as it applied to welfare programs and employment. Theen he abruptly changed his tone, as he observed: "But one problem overshadows all the others, and last night the cowardly hand of an assassin laid that problem on America's doorstep." What followed was both a denunciation of racial discrimination and a rejection of welfare programs as a solution. As Reagan moved back and forth between these themes, he sometimes digressed into a general attack on big government, citing his standard examples of bureaucratic indifference, incompetence, and waste. Yet he kept returning to the hard reality of racial bigotry in America.

"Reagan's speech did not win applause from liberals. Although he declared, "I deplore and detest the evil sickness of prejudice and those who practice it," he added: "I cannot believe...that we should open the door to government interference... There is a definite limit to what can be accomplished by law or legislation." Still, this speech was important because it reflected an expansion of Reagan's jeremiad. On other matters his appeal was merely restorative. In civil rights he discovered a forward-looking dimension in the American dream. African-Americans, he conceded, had been denied the benefits of American society. The ideal of American individualism need not just to be restored, but to be expanded. He spoke unflinchingly of "white racism," of the"poison of bigotry," and he challenged white America to make impotent "the night-rider and his more gentlemanly ally, the friendly neighborhood bigot" (10580-81).

There's more on this in the book...

Posted by: Lee A. on June 21, 2004 09:11 PM

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Regarding Lee Atwater (sorry for going OT) - I have a strong feeling I read somewhere that his deathbed conversion and apology for his political viciousness never actually happened -- that the words were put in his mouth after he was no longer there to deny them, by someone trying to make nice for him.

Is there anything to that notion? It may just be something I read somewhere; can't remember the source -- only that I ran across it not long after Atwater died.

Posted by: WarblogTHIS on June 21, 2004 10:23 PM

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"Could it be that not everyone equates the Confederacy with support for slavery?"

Well, here's somebody explaning that the war really WAS about slavery, and denouncing Federal claims to be "saving the Union" as mere propaganda::

"They have come to disturb your social organization on the plea that it is a military necessity. For what are they waging war? They say to preserve the Union. Can they preserve thee Union by destroying the social existance of a portion of the South? Do they hope to reconstruct the Union by striking at everything that is dear to man--by showing themselves so utterly disgraced that if the question was proposed to you whether you would combine with hyenas or Yankees, I trust every Virginian would say, 'Bring me the hyenas.'?"--Jefferson Davisa, 1862

Posted by: rea on June 22, 2004 04:46 AM

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Lee A.,

Sounds like a lot of talk and no action to me.

What about Reagan opening his 1980 campaign in the same place in Mississippi that the 3 civil rights workers were murdered?

Futhermore, the letters to the editor from African-Americans on Reagan during the week of national mourning that I saw were extremely negative. Not necessarily a representative sample, but a breath of fresh air during that week.

Posted by: liberal on June 22, 2004 04:47 AM

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Wait a minute. I'm no fan of Ronald Reagan, but what did Jefferson Davis do that was any worse than what Thomas Jefferson did? (Other than lose his war, of course.) They both rebelled against the government, they both owned slaves (although Davis never fathered children on his).

Davis was a capable man who served the United States with distinction in many posts before the Civil War. After the war, he served his prison time with dignity (five years with no charge -- so much for a "speedy and public trial"), and built a new life for himself and his family after his release. We respect the slave-owning founding fathers while disagreeing with their peculiar blind spot. Why should we not respect Davis? Just because everybody hates a loser?

As for treason, he was never charged with it, and so remains presumptively innocent.

Posted by: Amos Newcombe on June 22, 2004 10:49 AM

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Well Amos, I guess the question is whether Reagan ever used Jefferson Davis as a code, to garner the votes of anti-black populists, as Roger Wilkins maintains. Because he couldn't have been so ignorant as to not know what that meant.

Posted by: Lee A. on June 22, 2004 11:13 AM

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Amos Newcombe wrote, "We respect the slave-owning founding fathers while disagreeing with their peculiar blind spot."

(a) We do more than merely 'disagree'. Jefferson's taken a lot of hits recently because of his relationship to slavery. (See e.g. Gary Will's recent book, _The Negro President_, largely about the three-fifths clause, IIRC.)

On the other hand...

It's well-known that Washington specified that his slaves be freed upon his death, *despite* the wishes of his wife and her family. Alexander Hamilton, due to childhood experiences (in the West Indies, IIRC) abhorred slavery. John Quincy Adams fought against pro-slavery gag rules in the House (well into the 19th century) and was the defense lawyer for the _Amistad_ rebels.

These actions of these men are celebrated, and deservedly so.

(b) It's not like there was no progress on the acceptability of slavery between the founding of the Republic and the founding of the Confederacy.

Posted by: liberal on June 22, 2004 02:18 PM

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Lee: So now we are criticizing him not for what he actually said, but for what we assume he must have meant because we can't believe he actually meant what he said? If his policies damaged the social fabric of the country by using inflammatory rhetoric to pit rich against poor, then let us criticise him for that. We don't need to make stuff up, simply because "everybody knows it".

This kind of thread reminds me of myths like the "liberal media", or "liberals are communists". People repeat these without thought because "everybody knows it".

The way to decrease the level of partisanship in the public dialog is to stop doing it.

liberal: True. But if Reagan had called Thomas Jefferson his hero, or even Robert E. Lee, nobody would be looking for coded signals of racism.

My original question still stands: what is there about Jefferson Davis that inspires this feeding frenzy?

Posted by: Amos Newcombe on June 22, 2004 04:25 PM

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Amos: come again?

This isn't about Jefferson Davis the man. It's about Roger Wilkin's allegation of Ronald Reagan's tribute to the leader of the Confederacy--which, IN THAT TIME AND PLACE, was playing the "race" card.

Most people think Reagan was not a racist. Black people, with an event like this in mind, will have a very different opinion. This pretty much would have thrown it in their faces! I watched Wilkins say it on the Newshour--he was upset.

So then, what exactly is a racist? Do we need another category of definitions for "heroes" with feet of clay? Or for politicians stumping up votes? Will we have to wait for guidance on this question from blacks who (say they) LIKED Reagan, such as Colin Powell or Clarence Thomas?

I know you aren't suggesting that politicians needn't be mindful of the symbols they wield, nor heedless of who it will hurt. And I know you are not suggesting we shouldn't find out about history. So what is your point? And how are we "making stuff up"?

Posted by: Lee A. on June 22, 2004 10:25 PM

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Amos Newcombe wrote, "But if Reagan had called Thomas Jefferson his hero, or even Robert E. Lee, nobody would be looking for coded signals of racism."

But Jefferson did some very good things---presumably those would be the source of the hero worship.

For Davis, the only reasons someone would worship him would be (a) racist attitudes, or (b) a mistaken belief that the Confederacy was mainly about states' rights.

General Lee? More mistaken beliefs...

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Well, the definition of who is a racist is simple. A person who believes one or more 'races' are superior to others is a racist. A person who wants to maintain a status quo that embodies white privilege is most likely either an active or 'subtle' racist.

I happened across this thread because of a discussion at another blog where conservatives began declaring Ronald Reagan irrelevant after I brought up his having kicked off his campaign in Neshoba County, Miss., in 1980. (Yes, the same conservatives where declaring Reagan very relevant just weeks ago.) Anyway, it is interesting to see there are still people speaking up against racism in the blogosphere. Sometimes, it seems those of us who sincerely care can be counted on one hand.

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I may be a lowly auditor that merely audited the food programs for the poor, but they were fraught with fraud. People collected under numerous names. The suppliers of the food would falsify records as to inflate reimbursements. Beneficiaries were pawning their coupons that allowed them to purchase furniture for 50 cents on the dollar to vendors. Individuals were collecting welfare checks under multiple names. This knee jerk reaction against leaders who recognize abuse are racist bigots is a unjustified nexus. Everyone knew what was going on, just no one had the political courage to address it.

As for Jefferson Davis, he did nothing that the Constitution did not specifically provide for. To make up motives to suit your premise is neither productive, nor truthful. President Davis on more than one occassion stated that the issue on which secession was premised was "States Rights." The "War Between The States" was the second revolution. We seceded from England because of taxation without representation. The South felt the Federal government, dominated by the Northern interests, was legislating to their detriment. Is that too simple an answer to what the war was about. Previously there were some New England states that threatened to secede but a compromise was reached.

It is obvious when people with agendas come to overly simplistic conclusions to meet their agendas. Open a book, and your mind, before assigning evil motives to necessary, and courageous actions taken by men of principle.

Posted by: Bart on August 3, 2004 07:09 AM

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I may be a lowly auditor that merely audited the food programs for the poor, but they were fraught with fraud. People collected under numerous names. The suppliers of the food would falsify records as to inflate reimbursements. Beneficiaries were pawning their coupons that allowed them to purchase furniture for 50 cents on the dollar to vendors. Individuals were collecting welfare checks under multiple names. This knee jerk reaction against leaders who recognize abuse are racist bigots is a unjustified nexus. Everyone knew what was going on, just no one had the political courage to address it.

As for Jefferson Davis, he did nothing that the Constitution did not specifically provide for. To make up motives to suit your premise is neither productive, nor truthful. President Davis on more than one occassion stated that the issue on which secession was premised was "States Rights." The "War Between The States" was the second revolution. We seceded from England because of taxation without representation. The South felt the Federal government, dominated by the Northern interests, was legislating to their detriment. Is that too simple an answer to what the war was about. Previously there were some New England states that threatened to secede but a compromise was reached.

It is obvious when people with agendas come to overly simplistic conclusions to meet their agendas. Open a book, and your mind, before assigning evil motives to necessary, and courageous actions taken by men of principle.

Posted by: Bart on August 3, 2004 08:43 AM

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