AMNA NAWAZ: A recently unearthed audio recording
of Ronald Reagan from 1971 has raised questions
about the former president’s views on race.
Lisa Desjardins takes a closer look now at
the comments made nearly fifty years ago,
and Reagan’s complicated legacy.
LISA DESJARDINS, PBS NEWSHOUR POLITICS CORRESPONDENT:
In the early 1970s, Ronald Reagan was governor
of California, and already a national name
in Republican politics.
On the morning of October 26, 1971, Reagan
called up President Nixon at the White House.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
RICHARD NIXON, FORMER PRESIDENT: Hello?
RONALD REAGAN, FORMER PRESIDENT: Mr. President?
Hope I didn’t get you out of bed.
RICHARD NIXON: No, I’m —
(END AUDIO CLIP)
LISA DESJARDINS: Their 12-minute chat was
captured on President Nixon’s White House
tapes, and was released in full by the National
Archives just last month.
It includes Governor Reagan using a racist
slur to describe a group of African diplomats
at the United Nations.
RONALD REAGAN: Last night, I tell you, to
watch that thing on television, as I did.
RICHARD NIXON: Yes.
RONALD REAGAN: To see those monkeys from
those African countries — damn them, they’re
still uncomfortable wearing shoes.
LISA DESJARDINS: Reagan was reacting to
this U.N. session the day before, where the
U.S. lost major votes over the rise of China,
and whether Communist China should be seated
as the official Chinese delegation.
Beijing won with a coalition of nations that
included many developing nations.
The result led some, including the Tanzanian
delegation, to burst into celebration.
For historians, the audio of Reagan’s reaction
to that moment is a new data point.
Brands is a Reagan biographer, and professor
at the University of Texas at Austin.
Reagan’s 1971 words to Nixon surprised him.
BRANDS, THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN:
I read his diaries, I read his letters, I
hadn’t heard him say anything like this.
So I was frankly curious, and a bit puzzled.
Reagan wrote two memoirs and in both of them,
he made a point of the fact that his father
Jack Reagan had taught him and Reagan’s brother
to not engage in discrimination because Jack
the father was Irish– an Irish Catholic–
and he himself had suffered discrimination.
So he made a point to his sons that this is
not the way you should behave.
LISA DESJARDINS: When Reagan launched his
1966 bid to become California governor, his
30-minute ad showed two sides of thinking.
One was get tough on crime, at one point comparing
violent areas to jungles.
RONALD REAGAN: The only thing that’s gone
up more than spending is crime.
Our city streets are jungle paths after dark.
LISA DESJARDINS: The other was soaring rhetoric
RONALD REAGAN: Those few who chose to walk
with prejudice, will walk alone.
Never again should any parent know the heartbreak
of explaining to a child that he is to be
denied some of the good our country has to
offer, because in some way he’s different.
LISA DESJARDINS: Brands has his own theory
about the new audio, that Reagan’s slur was
an attempt to sway President Nixon, who is
now known to have made racist comments, privately.
BRANDS: At least part of it, Reagan is using,
I think, this language operationally– to
try to move Nixon in the direction he wants
Nixon to go.
LISA DESJARDINS: But other historians disagree
deeply about this new audio.
LEAH WRIGHT RIGUEUR, HARVARD UNIVERSITY:
So, my reaction was a little bit of surprise
but not shock.
LISA DESJARDINS: Historian and Harvard associate
professor Leah Wright Rigueur is thinking
of the long debate over Reagan’s view of black
Under Reagan, African-Americans saw poverty
and incarceration rise.
Historians have debated why.
LEAH WRIGHT RIGUEUR: Now, we actually have
a broader context about Ronald Reagan — one
wherein he is using racial slurs and that
he is, you know, he is talking about black
people, and in this case Africans, in a pejorative
and negative and regressive sense.
So, now, what we have to do is reconcile that
prejudice with Ronald Reagan’s actual policies
and programs and the things that he did on
LISA DESJARDINS: Reagan’s record offers
much to examine.
He stressed states’ rights during his 1980
presidential campaign, a phrase associated
with small-government philosophy but also
RONALD REAGAN: I’m trying to prevent discrimination
with this idea, as I say, of eliminating quotas.
LISA DESJARDINS: He fought affirmative action,
decried those with welfare benefits as gaming
the system, and increased prison rates for
All, he argued, as part of slimmer, safer
government that encouraged people to stand
on their own feet.
Reagan did extend the Voting Rights Act for
25 years, though he initially tried to soften
some of the law’s protections.
And, while he was reluctant to establish a
national holiday to celebrate Martin Luther
King, Reagan did ultimately sign legislation
to do so.
RONALD REAGAN: Let us not only recall Dr.
King, but rededicate ourselves to the commandments
he believed in and sought to live every day.
LISA DESJARDINS: For some, like H.W.
Brands, Reagan disdained discrimination but
he focused on other policies and problems.
BRANDS: Reagan never pretended to be a hero
of civil rights.
He really did believe that laws that were
made at the state level were generally better
than laws that were made at the national level.
Reagan was a small government conservative.
LISA DESJARDINS: But, in Leah Wright Rigueur’s
assessment, it’s more about sizing up his
policies against his messaging.
RONALD REAGAN: It’s morning again in America.
LISA DESJARDINS: Like Reagan’s iconic 1984
“Morning in America” campaign ad, which shows
many different faces of Americans.
NARRATOR: Under the leadership of President
Reagan, our country is prouder, and stronger,
LEAH WRIGHT RIGUEUR: Over the course of
his career, Reagan and his strategists and
his advisers figure out that one of the most
politically powerful and insulating things
that they can do is actually use the language
and symbolism of inclusivity and tolerance
even as they are having different kind of
conversations with audiences like White Southerners
around states’ rights that have traditionally
held racialize and discriminatory meaning
LISA DESJARDINS: Both historians note that
other modern presidents also have complicated
histories on this subject.
Consider President Lyndon Johnson.
BRANDS: Lyndon Johnson grew up in Texas,
which is a state of the confederacy.
And Lyndon Johnson had to deal with all sorts
of rampant racists in Texas.
And when he was speaking to them, he spoke
a language that they could understand, a language
that e wouldn’t speak in public a language
they wouldn’t speak in other contexts.
But he was also one who is very effective
at getting people to go along with him.
LEAH WRIGHT RIGUEUR: We have somebody like
Lyndon Johnson on tape saying all kinds of
awful things about race, saying racist things,
saying discriminatory things, saying sexist
We also know that during his presidency, he
is instrumental in really forcing Congress
to pass the most comprehensive civil rights
bill the nation had ever seen.
And so, all of those things can be true and
coexist at the same time.
LISA DESJARDINS: The renewed debate over
President Reagan and race comes as he has
become a touchstone for leaders in both parties.
Last month, Democratic House Speaker Nancy
Pelosi referred to some of Reagan’s pro-immigrant
words to rebuke President Trump.
NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): He is denigrating all
the newcomers that come to our country, in
complete opposition to the beautiful words
of Ronald Reagan in the last speech that he
made to the country as president of the United
RONALD REAGAN: The doors were open to anyone
with the will and the heart to get here.
LISA DESJARDINS: Reagan, the great communicator,
knew the power of words.
RONALD REAGAN: Mr. Gorbachev —
LISA DESJARDINS: Now, there is even more
debate over how he used them.
For the “PBS NewsHour”, I’m Lisa Desjardins.
RONALD REAGAN: So we may be, always, free.