Kengor Writes . . .
Paul Kengor is a professor of political science and the executive director of the Faith and Freedom at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania. Paul Kengor is the author of God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life (2004), The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (2007), The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007) and The Communist — Frank Marshall Davis: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor (Threshold Editions / Mercury Ink 2012).
On Ronald Reagan’s “Racism” — A Single Mistake Does Not a Racist Make.
There’s a provocative article by NYU professor Tim Naftali in the Atlantic titled “Ronald Reagan’s Long-Hidden Racist Conversation With Richard Nixon.” It reports an insulting statement made by Gov. Ronald Reagan to President Richard Nixon in October 1971. Naftali lays out the context and the exchange:
“The day after the United Nations voted to recognize the People’s Republic of China, then-California Governor Ronald Reagan phoned President Richard Nixon at the White House and vented his frustration at the delegates who had sided against the United States. ‘Last night, I tell you, to watch that thing on television as I did,’ Reagan said. ‘Yeah,’ Nixon interjected. Reagan forged ahead with his complaint: ‘To see those, those monkeys from those African countries — damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!’ Nixon gave a huge laugh.”
The statement is bad. No question. As you can imagine, it’s getting a lot of traction among race-obsessed liberals who discern white-hooded “dog whistles” in endless remarks from Republicans but can’t find space within their mental-ideological makeup to even mention something as shameful as, oh, Margaret Sanger’s May 1926 speech to the Silverlake, New Jersey, women’s chapter of the KKK, or any number of racially offensive zingers from a President like Lyndon Johnson or Woodrow Wilson. Their hypocrisy never ceases to outrage.
Make no mistake: They will never let Ronald Reagan escape this one. This line will be hoisted on a progressive petard as an eternal symbol of his views on race. Liberals will apply it unforgivingly and uncharitably in a manner they’d never do with their Democrat pals.
That said, as a Reagan biographer and historian, one who has published eight books and countless articles on the man, I’ve been asked to respond. What to make of this? How to interpret it?
To begin with, I personally cannot defend that statement. It needs to be condemned, certainly as written.
It’s very important to know, however, that Ronald Reagan was not a racist. This is the only — and I mean only — statement that I’ve ever read from him like this (and I’ve read just about everything). It’s so out of the norm that I find it hard to believe. Unlike nasty statements from the likes of L.B.J. and Harry Truman and Woodrow Wilson or even from Hillary Clinton (who jokes of Cory Booker and Eric Holder: “I know, they all look alike”) and Bill Clinton.
Naftali himself concedes, “Reagan’s racism appears to be documented only once on the Nixon tapes, and never in his own diaries.”
Why did Ronald utter this on this one occasion, which was completely out of character for him amid a very public life in which we have billions of on-the-record words from him, including thousands of private letters? Naftali says that Reagan was angry and frustrated in this instance, and thus expressed himself in a way that was insensitive and offensive. He says that Reagan “vented his frustration at the [African UN] delegates who had sided against the United States.”
I can’t say that I fully agree with that interpretation. I’ve carefully listened to the audio multiple times. Reagan doesn’t sound angry at all. It sounds like he might be mocking a racist stereotype. I honestly can’t tell for certain. Given that Reagan never spoke this way, and didn’t think this way, one ought to be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
To repeat, Ronald Reagan was absolutely no racist. This can be demonstrated at length in actions and statements literally from the time of his childhood. There are so many actions and statements that I’ve considered doing a book on Reagan and race, simply to show how unusual he was for his times — i.e., there wasn’t a racist bone in his body. I have a box, stuffed with folders, labeled “Reagan and race.” It’s loaded with examples that show Reagan to have been completely against racial prejudice and highly supportive of black Americans and their struggles, especially black actors in Hollywood when he ran the Screen Actors Guild. The problem, frankly, with responding to charges like this in a single article is that you just can’t begin to sufficiently respond, especially when the jury is packed with emotional liberals who want to see a racist under every Republican bed. Where to start? Where to end?
“I’ve lived a long time,” President Reagan told the National Council of Negro Women at the White House in July 1983, “but I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t believe that prejudice and bigotry were the worst of sins.”
He meant that literally. Racism, to Ronald Reagan, was a sin. Reagan learned that at home, as a boy, from his devout Christian mother and from his father.
Any Reagan biographer can tell you of an anecdote from a cold evening in Dixon, Illinois, in the early 1930s, when a young “Dutch” Reagan brought home two African American teammates from his college football team. The boys, William Franklin “Burgie” Burghardt and Jim Rattan, had been denied access to a local hotel because of the color of their skin. Burgie was Reagan’s best friend on the team; he played right next to Reagan on the offensive line. Reagan assured them they would be welcomed at his home. The two boys weren’t so certain. Sure, their friend seemed like an amiable guy, but these boys knew what it was like to be black in those days of rampant discrimination. Would the parents of this nice kid, Dutch, be as kind as he was?
“Come in, boys,” said Reagan’s mother, Nelle, with a warm smile as she greeted the boys. They spent the night. I doubt that the typical home in America was like that. The Reagan home was.
“She was absolutely color-blind,” said Reagan of his mom, recounting the story. “These fellows were just two of my friends. That was the way she and Jack [Reagan’s father] had always raised my brother and me.”
Ronald Reagan had learned racial, ethnic, and religious tolerance from his parents. It had been part of him since his early childhood.
While this anecdote about the two young black men, of which many more could be given from Reagan’s rich life and experiences, reflects Reagan’s hatred of racism, it also underscores his respect for the inherent humanity of all people, regardless of their skin color, their ethnic background, their religious beliefs. For Reagan, these were matters of basic human dignity.
I promise you that I could go on and on with heartwarming stories of Reagan’s love and kindness toward African Americans. There was his relationship with the likes of celebrities from Muhammad Ali to Rosie Grier to Meadowlark Lemon, to name only three off the top of my head. I could name names you’ve never heard of, with stories that would make you cry — Reagan and Rudy Hines, Joe Bullock, Willie Sue Smith, Mildred Jefferson. Again, there are too many to adequately describe here. These are touching relationships that few self-righteous liberals or any of us have experienced.
Even in his Evil Empire speech, famous for calling out the USSR, Ronald Reagan paused to call out his own country, the United States of America, for its past sins of racism.
“There is sin and evil in the world,” said Reagan, “and we’re enjoined by Scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might.” That applied, he said, to “our nation,” which had a “legacy of evil with which it must deal. . . . There is no room for racism, anti-Semitism, or other forms of ethnic and racial hatred in this country.”
This wasn’t something that Reagan was expected to say in a foreign-policy speech. He expressed it because he felt it; he believed it.
Ask anyone who knew Ronald Reagan and they will tell you that he was not a racist, period.
As for the author of the piece in the Atlantic, Tim Naftali, he deserves some criticism, not for reporting this remark from Reagan, but for how, in turn, he thus speaks conclusively of “Reagan’s racism” (a phrase he used twice), as if this one comment can allow us to judge Reagan as a whole and as a person. The fuller picture of the man shows the opposite. In fact, I would advise Naftali to be careful about constructing such a standard. Naftali, a biographer of John F. Kennedy, notes, “As I write a biography of J.F.K., I’ve found that this sort of racism did not animate President Kennedy.”
Naftali seems to have chosen his words carefully there, prompting me to ask him here: Has he encountered racially offensive remarks from J.F.K.? Or other Kennedy family members?
Hey, I like J.F.K., too. Naftali better be careful, however. He may well come across something similar from the annals of the Kennedy clan that he doesn’t like — and far more than one example. Liberals create such standards to apply them mercilessly to Republicans, not realizing that such standards will come back to bite them when they find untidy skeletons among their progressive icons. This they learned with their black-face campaign. Beware the Democrat, dear progressive — who donned black-face?
As for Reagan, it is really unfair to take one statement from a man’s past — one that goes against every statement he ever made about black people — and try to argue that it makes him a racist, especially when the man is no longer alive to explain the remark. It’s a bad remark, but it’s far from the total picture. It’s like looking at Harry Truman’s offensive statements about Jews (more than one of those) and ignoring his wonderful work ensuring that America recognize the new nation of Israel, which Truman pursued against his entire cabinet. (For a genuinely ugly track record of statements and actions against Jews and a homeland for them in Palestine, see Franklin Roosevelt.)
To liberals, I say this: Don’t be hacks. Don’t smear a decent man and his long life of decency, including on race, because he’s a Republican and not one of your Democrat buddies. Have the decency to treat a decent man with decency.
To Reagan admirers, I say this: Let your hero — a man who is a human being, not without sin — take his falls. No one is perfect. Ronald Reagan wasn’t, and this remark from October 1971 certainly seems like it’s probably an indicator of that.
Review of Mark Levin’s Unfreedom of the Press
The opening words of the Bill of Rights, i.e., the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, spell out these freedoms:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press. . . .”
Ask many conservatives today, especially religious conservatives, and they’ll tell you that freedom of religion is the freedom most under assault by the political-cultural left. Ask conservatives suffering on the typical college campus, and they’ll add freedom of speech to the targets of today’s fundamental transformers.
And yet, those threats wouldn’t have the strength they have if a free press wielded its freedom properly, fairly, apolitically, and non-ideologically. Unfortunately, America has a dominant press that for decades has freely acted as an arm and agent of the Democratic Party and of liberalism. What the press reports — and, equally important, what it fails to report and willfully omits — shapes America, its politics, its culture, and does so dutifully according to the Democratic Party’s ongoing and evolving ideological agenda. Make no mistake: So many of today’s “news sources,” from CBS and CNN to the Washington Post and New York Times, primarily serve as propaganda organs for Democrats. With occasional exceptions, they toe the party line. This has been true for a long time, and it constituted a near-monopoly until the advent of Fox News, talk-radio, and web technology that has opened other avenues, even as the “mainstream media” remain dominated by left-wing sources.
The fact that this mess exists, and has long been the case, is the subject of Mark Levin’s latest book, Unfreedom of the Press, which has rapidly become Levin’s biggest seller — which itself is telling.
It must be stated here from the outset that Mark Levin’s books stand out among books by major media personalities. Many pundits, particularly in talk-radio, bang out books written by ghostwriters. I’ll always remember a moment with a well-known media figure who asked me in the TV studio to sign a copy of one of my books. “How much of that did you write?” he asked. A little stunned, I said, “Well, all of it.” He replied that he didn’t write a word of his recent bestseller. Sadly, that’s not unusual. Mark Levin is the complete opposite. He does his own writing and research, and his books are testimony to his considerable knowledge and mind. Unfreedom of the Press is the latest case in point. The writing is cogent, the research is exceptional, as is the marshalling of facts in support of his arguments.
“Unfreedom of the Press is about how those entrusted with news reporting in the modern media are destroying freedom of the press from within,” Levin begins, underscoring a theme of his book, namely: the liberal press consistently undermines its own credibility. He notes that the problem isn’t one of government oppression or suppression, but the dominant media’s political and social activism, its “progressive group-think, Democratic Party partisanship, opinion and propaganda passed off as news, the staging of pseudo-events, self-censorship, bias by omission, and outright falsehoods,” too often substituted for “old-fashioned, objective fact gathering and news reporting.”
Levin gives countless examples, and I could as well, where liberal reporters and editors come up with endless reasons not to report something damaging to a liberal or the liberal cause but then do little to no serious fact-checking to rush out the flimsiest claims about a conservative or the conservative cause. The common assertion from liberals that news organizations first and foremost care about headlines and selling newspapers is hogwash. It’s not about dollars but the cause. If the story hurts liberalism, they’ll do back flips to not report it, and at least not report the story more than once. (A common tactic I’ve experienced: liberal reporters will claim they don’t need to write a follow-up story because newspaper X already did the story, as if the story is now forever closed. To the contrary, if the story is against a Republican politician, then the opening salvo by newspaper X is a signal to the entirety of the remainder of the liberal media to open the floodgates.)
“This book could easily have been ten times its current length,” writes Levin. That’s no exaggeration. And unfortunately, adequately summarizing the book here could require ten times the length of this review. Chapter three alone is worth the price tag. Titled, “The Modern Democratic-Party Press,” an apt description coined by Levin, the long list of bulleted examples of the media’s trashing of Donald Trump runs seven pages long. Even if you detest Donald Trump, you’ll agree that the vicious hyperbole towards the man laid out here is a remarkable collection. That’s a contemporary example of outrageous media bias. The chapter that follows, titled, “The Real Threat to Press Freedom,” chronicles real abuses of presidential power against the media — not by President Trump but by presidents like Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. These are abuses that make Trump look like a lefty journalism professor by comparison, and they are abuses that progressives through the ages have kept assiduously silent about.
Throughout this book, F.D.R. rears his head. Chapter six, titled, “The New York Times Betrays Millions,” is an indictment of Franklin Roosevelt toward the plight of Jews in the Nazi era as well as the Times for its terrible coverage of the Holocaust. Levin quotes Dr. David S. Wyman: “It seems almost unbelievable that in Roosevelt’s press conferences (normally held once a week) not one word was spoken about the mass killing of European Jews until almost a year later.”
It does indeed, but if you know about F.D.R.’s ugly record toward Jews and Israel, this will not surprise. Levin quotes Emory University professor Deborah Lipstadt on how F.D.R. and his administration (in Levin’s words) “whitewashed or deemphasized the Nazi eradication of Jews,” particularly F.D.R.’s Office of War Information (which was likewise lousy on the Soviet threat). Lipstadt cites the 1943 Moscow declaration by F.D.R., Churchill, and Stalin, which denounced almost every wartime human-rights atrocity except for those against Jews. “Nowhere in the declaration were the Jews even obliquely mentioned,” Lipstadt noted, “a phenomenon the press simply ignored.”
The same press that served as sycophants to F.D.R. Here again, the press had the freedom to cover the story otherwise, but instead it followed the lead of the Democrat president. Yet again, “journalists” marched in lockstep with their party leader.
Dedicated listeners to Mark Levin’s radio show have heard him speak about the New York Times’ tragic failures on the Holocaust. What they likely haven’t heard about is the Times’ likewise awful coverage of Holodomor — Stalin’s forced famine in the Ukraine, where 5-10 million men, women, and children starved to death in the early 1930s.
To that end, Levin spends considerable time on the infamous work of Times’ journalist Walter Duranty, who would (unforgivably) be awarded the Pulitzer Prize, despite his woefully misleading and inaccurate reporting on the Ukraine. Duranty would report, including in articles with titles like, “Russians Hungry, but Not Starving” (March 31, 1933, New York Times), that:
“Here are the facts. . . . There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation, but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition. . . . These conditions are bad, but there is no famine.”
This was not simply erroneous reporting. Levin recounts what scholars of this period and colleagues said of Duranty, namely: he knew otherwise. Duranty told William Strang at the British embassy on September 26, 1933 that as many as 10 million people had already died. He also personally told Eugene Lyons (UPI’s Moscow correspondent, who would become a leading ex-communist, particularly via his memoir The Red Decade) that he estimated the total number of famine victims around seven million. Malcolm Muggeridge (another onetime leftist reporter who would become a leading anti-communist) would later call Duranty “the greatest liar of any journalist I have met in fifty years of journalism.” Even the esteemed man of the left, Joseph Alsop, would denounce Duranty as a “fashionable prostitute” in service of Communists.
As Levin shows, the Kremlin wined and dined Duranty, who licked it all up. Not only did the Soviets lavish him with food and booze (as Ukrainians tried to eat grass), but with a chauffeured car, assistants, and a handy cook-secretary-turned-mistress named Katya, who put her full self at the disposal of the Times’ feted “Man in Moscow.” She bore Duranty a son in the process. Eugene Lyons suspected that Duranty was flatly on the Kremlin’s payroll; at the least, he was a recipient of the Bolsheviks’ generous subsidies.
For Walter Duranty, apparently the perks were too good to give up for inconvenient facts on trifling things like the mass starvation of millions at the hands of the dictator that F.D.R. lovingly dubbed “Uncle Joe.”
Speaking of which, F.D.R. tapped Duranty for advice on whether or not the Democrat president should do what every previous president from Woodrow Wilson to Herbert Hoover had refused: extend diplomatic recognition to Stalin’s totalitarian slave state. F.D.R. did just that. When recognition was granted, Duranty traveled with his pal, Stalin henchman and foreign minister, Maxim Litvinov, to F.D.R.’s jubilant signing ceremony. As Levin notes (citing Douglas McCollam), at a banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York to celebrate the event, Duranty was introduced as “one of the great foreign correspondents of modern times,” as 1,500 dignitaries leapt to their feet in a standing ovation.
Not only had Duranty not paid a price for his shameful misreporting and disinformation, but he was a journalistic celebrity, loved by the likes of stalwart pro-Soviet dupes such as George Bernard Shaw and Sinclair Lewis.
Levin covers this excellently and concisely. All of his chapters follow that pattern, whether dealing with liberal-press vagaries of years gone by or newer instances of shameless media shenanigans to this day. Again, this review cannot due them all justice.
Mark Levin concludes his study of the media with some sober, measured advice. He pleads with reporters to try to muster some integrity in performing their duties, to not deceive the audience, to be transparent, to exercise humility, to not be partisan hacks. The problem, however, as Levin notes, is that “most partisans” — that’s indeed what many journalists are, with partisanship their driving impetus for entering the field of journalism — “are unable or unwilling to put aside their personal ideological and political perspectives or, even worse, they consider them essential to moving and improving society through activism.”
Precisely. They are activists first and foremost — for the political left and for the Democratic Party.
Does that leave us with much hope? Well, not really. But Levin’s candid diagnosis at least helps us understand what we’re dealing with. By knowing what the press is like, we can have a better sense how to respond. That includes creating alternative forms of media to communicate the truth, to circumvent the likes of the New York Times and the prevailing partisan press. It also includes publishing and reading crucial books like Unfreedom of the Press.
Offending Christians: The Bladensburg Cross Case
Editor Note: In June the Supreme Court held that the Bladensburg Cross in Bladensburg, Maryland, did not violate the First Amendment’s “no establishment” clause, reversing a lower court’s ruling.
One of the major Supreme Court decisions we’ll soon hear about is the Bladensburg cross case. This is the case in which secularists are demanding the removal of a large cross that memorializes veterans in the town of Bladensburg, Maryland, because the cross resides on public property.
It’s crucial to realize that the cross wasn’t erected yesterday. The “Peace Cross” was constructed in 1925 in honor of 49 fallen veterans of World War I. It was designed by the Gold Star mothers and erected by the local post of the American Legion.
The case is known as The American Legion v. The American Humanist Association. The “humanists” argue that the memorial is unconstitutional because it’s fashioned in the shape of a cross on government property, and thus stands in violation of “separation of church and state” — a phrase, of course, not found anywhere in the U.S. Constitution. That language was expressed by Thomas Jefferson in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, and has been badly abused and misinterpreted ever since.
The fact that the cross is a cross is what makes it unacceptable. (Replace it with a statue of Barney the purple dinosaur and the humanists would withdraw their objections.) Secularists appeal to the First Amendment of the Constitution, which says, in part, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Obviously, allowing the old cross to continue to stand would not create a congressional “establishment of religion.” Anyone who thinks allowing this cross to remain means that the feds are conspiring to implement a national theocracy needs to have his head examined. As they invoke a select handful of words from the First Amendment, the secularists misleadingly do what they always do, namely — avoid the remainder of what the First Amendment says about freedom of religion: the government “shall not prohibit the free exercise thereof.” The American Legion and Gold Star mothers of Bladensburg exercised their freedom of religion in 1925 to honor their fallen brothers and sons. They naturally commemorated them with the cross that represents their faith.
The secularists, however, refuse to view it that way. And that’s quite unfortunate. They would never view themselves and their actions as hostile, but, in reality, that’s what they are. This is hostility toward religion. They likewise would never view themselves and their actions as intolerant, but, in reality, that’s likewise what they are. This is yet another remarkable example of their intolerance. How can people who preach diversity be so blatantly intolerant of the beliefs of others?
For a sense of the lack of respect, consider one of the worst affronts in the case:
A federal appeals court in October 2017 had ruled the cross unconstitutional, asserting that it “excessively entangles” the government with religion. This verdict was rendered in a 2-1 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Virginia, which argued that the Peace Cross “aggrandizes the Latin cross” and thereby constitutes a U.S. government endorsement of Christianity. So said a 33-page opinion written by Judge Stephanie Thacker, and joined by Judge James A. Wynn Jr.
Thacker’s overall opinion demonstrated a troubling lack of historical-theological awareness. Worst of all was the insensitivity displayed during oral arguments. Thacker, an Obama appointee approved by the U.S. Senate in 2012 by a vote of 91-3, offered a truly novel solution. During oral arguments, Thacker asked the attorney defending the memorial: “What about . . . my suggestion of chopping the arms off?”
Yes, the judge offered a compromise: slice off the horizontal arms. You heard that right: slice off the arms from the cross of Christ.
Can you imagine? Can you picture it? Grab a photo of the memorial and do your own airbrush. How does it look?
For the record, the Peace Cross, mercifully, does not have a corpus. Thus, the demolition crew wouldn’t be sawing off the arms of Jesus. Nonetheless, imagine the precedent proposed. Presumably, using the Thacker Solution, similar large memorial crosses on government property could all be targeted for arm-removal.
In fact, that prompts this thought: in the interest of fairness and equality, why stop with crosses? Shouldn’t we thus also target the horizontal parts of the Star of David — another religious symbol — if we find them as similarly large memorials on government property? Should they be hunted down? Should they be permitted to remain only if we sawed off the horizontal parts? Of course, the star would no longer be a star, but apparently dismembering it would be a triumph in this greater good of not “entangling” government with religion.
Do we go down this road?
I pose a serious question to Judge Thacker and the secularists: Do you not see how your objections to the cross of Christ might be offensive? In the name of not offending, you’re offending. In the name of inclusion, you’re excluding. In the name of tolerance, you’re engaging in intolerance.
It isn’t like this cross was planted yesterday or is being scheduled for construction in 2020. It has been there for nearly a hundred years. It’s as much historical as spiritual. Can’t you leave it alone at least for that reason? This isn’t a bronzed statue of a Confederate general who whipped slaves on a plantation. This is a testimony to the faith of the men who died for their country in World War I — for peace. Do you not see the aggression in your actions? Why go on the offensive with bulldozers? Leave it alone.
If this was a giant Star of David on public land, I’d be the first to stand with a group of rabbis demanding that secularists back off and respect a century-old memorial. I will fight for the rights of every Christian and Jew, and cross and Star of David. The same isn’t true for secular liberals. They pick and choose. They’re the first to harass, fine, sue, shut down, and toss in jail the Christian baker, florist, or marriage clerk. I will defend the liberty of a Muslim baker in Dearborn, as well as a Christian baker in Colorado. I will defend the right of an Orthodox Jewish caterer to decline a wedding on the Sabbath just as I’ll defend the right of a Christian florist in Washington state to decline a same-sex wedding ceremony that violates the teachings of her faith and her freedom of conscience.
Far too many secular liberals, however, will not. To this day, Jack Phillips, the Christian baker in Colorado, is hounded with new legal challenges. Militant secularists will not back off from badgering him.
And yet, a colleague of mine who’s an attorney on religious-liberty cases tells me he’s unaware of a single case in which a same-sex couple has sued a Muslim baker for declining a same-sex wedding ceremony. Progressives will not pursue Muslims, even as Muslim bakers likewise openly refuse homosexual couples. They leave them alone. It’s a double standard they impose against Christians.
If they insist there’s no double standard, then let’s see it. Prove otherwise by having the decency to leave the Bladensburg memorial cross alone. *