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How newly discovered audio is reviving debate over Reagan’s legacy on race

Newly unearthed audio from a 1971 phone call between Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon is raising new questions about Reagan's views on race. What additional context does the new audio offer to historians, as they continue to assess Reagan's record and legacy? Lisa Desjardins reports.

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  • 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:

    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.

  • Richard Nixon:

    Hello?

  • Ronald Reagan:

    Mr. President? Hope I didn't get you out of bed.

  • Richard Nixon:

    No, I'm —

  • 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.

    H.W. Brands is a Reagan biographer, and professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Reagan's 1971 words to Nixon surprised him.

  • H.W. Brands:

    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 about equality.

  • 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.

  • H.W. 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:

    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 America. 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 the ground.

  • 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 with segregationists.

  • 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 minorities. 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.

  • H.W. 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, and better.

  • 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.

  • H.W. 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 things. 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.

  • Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.:

    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 States.

  • 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.

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