How Ronald Reagan Triumphed - The New York Times

How Ronald Reagan Triumphed – The New York Times

How Ronald Reagan Triumphed – The New York Times

How Ronald Reagan Triumphed – The New York Times

In fact, Perlstein points out, the “party of Lincoln” knew exactly what it was doing: marching into the once-Democratic Solid South to convert angry white voters into Republicans. In 1968 and 1972, Richard Nixon had made a start with his Southern Strategy, using code words like “states’ rights” to appeal to racists, but by 1980, the Republican Party seemed to dispense with subtlety. Ronald Reagan’s first major appearance of the 1980 general election campaign was at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi. This was Klan country. In 1964, the bodies of three Northern civil rights activists had been found buried in an earthen dam a few miles away. Families came to the Neshoba County Fair every year to enjoy the mule races and beauty and pie-eating contests. “White families, that is,” Perlstein archly notes. “Blacks only participated as employees.”

In the hot sun, before an adoring audience, on a stage crowded with Confederate flags, Reagan began with a football story and some corny jokes, and then plunged into the red meat of his speech, about the wickedness of federal interference in the lives of ordinary Americans. But then, Perlstein notes, a strange thing happened. Reagan, one of the most sure-footed stump speakers ever, began to get “wobbly.” Instead of pausing for his punch lines, he rushed ahead. He seemed to want to get the speech over with.

The enthusiasm drained from the crowd. The speech was a bust. Reagan actually dropped in the polls in Mississippi. He recovered later, taking every Southern state but Jimmy Carter’s Georgia. Still, the plain fact was that Reagan was not comfortable playing the race card, and he couldn’t hide it.

It’s a small, redeeming moment in Perlstein’s overspilling narrative, but the glimpse into Reagan’s conscience is characteristic of Perlstein’s storytelling. Reagan is hardly a hero to Perlstein, whose own politics are to the left. But in this description, the former movie actor turned politician is intensely human, and capable of empathy, or at least shame.

Reagan is also sly, especially at outfoxing condescending liberals. In 1980, Jimmy Carter’s campaign advisers, along with most of the press corps, underestimated him. “They presumed the public would see what they saw. Which was that Carter was smart and that Reagan was stupid. And that therefore Reagan would lose any debate,” Perlstein writes. “Which overlooked the fact that Reagan had won practically every debate he had participated in — going back at least to 1967, when he appeared on the same TV hookup with Robert F. Kennedy to discuss the Vietnam War, and twisted his opponent into such knots that Kennedy subsequently yelled, ‘Who … got me into this?’ and ordered staffers never to pair him with ‘that son-of-a-bitch’ ever again.”


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