Decoding David Brooks

Psst! His latest column is an attack on Times colleague Paul Krugman.

There is an unwritten rule at the New York Times that forbids its op-ed columnists to attack one another in print. It’s a holdover from a much stuffier era in the paper’s history, and one can appreciate the sentiment behind it. An op-ed page whose columnists routinely denounced one another would create the impression of a newspaper more interested in arguing with itself than in engaging the world outside its walls. The example most frequently cited is the Village Voice of the 1960s and 1970s. A more contemporary example would be the blogosphere.

The trouble with the Times prohibition is that every now and then one op-ed contributor takes a whack at another op-ed contributor without actually spelling things out. I plead guilty, when I was an assistant editor on the page a quarter-century ago, to publishing an unacknowledged but quite deliberate parody of James Reston, then still a Times columnist and long past his prime, by the writer Alex Heard. We headlined the piece, “The Time Is Today,” and Alex filled it with hilarious banalities and important-sounding assertions that had no meaning at all. Alex’s only precaution was to omit from the piece, at my instruction, any overt references to Reston. Mine was to keep mum within the Times building about what made the piece funny.

The problem, as you can well imagine, was that we couldn’t let readers in on the joke. If they got it at all, it was as a generic parody of op-ed pomposity. As a consequence, the fine craftsmanship of Alex’s comic achievement went unheralded.

I remembered that hard lesson while reading David Brooks’ column, “History and Calumny,” in the Nov. 9 New York Times. “Today I’m going to write about a slur,” Brooks begins. Although this “distortion” has been around for many years, it has “spread like a weed over the past few months.” It is “spread by people who, before making one of the most heinous charges imaginable, couldn’t even take 10 minutes to look at the evidence.”

People? Who are these people? Brooks doesn’t say. He scrupulously cites three written sources—a 1980 Washington Post story by Lou Cannon; a June 2004 post by Kevin Drum on the Washington Monthly’s Web site; and an Oct. 2007 post by Bruce Bartlett on the Talking Points Memo Web site—but these are all accounts refuting the dastardly smear. These are the good guys. Who are the bad guys? Calumny doesn’t spread itself. What wascally wabbit is wesponsible? Brooks won’t say.

It’s Paul Krugman.

The hideous libel Brooks refers to is an anecdote about the 1980 presidential election. Ronald Reagan, the eventual victor, kicked off his campaign as the Republican presidential nominee in Philadelphia, Miss., where 16 years earlier civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman were murdered. In the speech, candidate Reagan said, “I believe in states’ rights,” the legal principle on which white segregationists had based their resistance to federal laws and court decisions upholding the civil rights of African Americans.

Brooks says the anecdote is a slur because the decision for Reagan to speak in Philadelphia, Miss., immediately after the convention was made on the fly, and not part of a deliberate plan, and because Reagan mentioned states’ rights only fleetingly in a speech that was “mostly about inflation and the economy.” (To listen to it, click here.) Brooks further argues that the campaign was faced with a decision to send Reagan to Philadelphia either before or after sending him to speak to the Urban League, and that it figured sending him after would make it seem as though Reagan were telling white segregationists that no matter what he was compelled to tell a black audience, he was on their side. This last argument strikes me as more an argument for Krugman’s position rather than against it, since it demonstrates that the Reagan campaign was fully aware of the ghastly symbolism inherent in the Philadelphia appearance. Indeed, by the time Brooks is done conceding that it was “callous” for Reagan to mention states’ rights in that locale, and that Reagan “could have done something wonderful if he’d mentioned civil rights” in the speech, and that “it’s obviously true that race played a role in the GOP’s ascent,” Brooks’ “slur” seems no more than extremely mild exaggeration.

Reagan’s Philadelphia speech is often cited as evidence that Reagan’s electoral success in 1980 was based partly on appeals to Southern white racism. But you’d be hard-pressed to find any prominent national commentator who cites this example as often as Krugman. In his new book, The Conscience of a Liberal, Krugman tells the story on Page 12, retells it on Page 65, tells it a third time on Page 178, refersback to it on Page 183, and alludes more vaguely to it at least a couple of times more. In his column, Krugman has related the incident at least four times, including once this past Aug. 24 (“Seeking Willie Horton“) and once this past Sept. 24 (“Politics in Black and White“). “This is a guy,” Krugman was quoted telling the Portland Oregonian on Oct. 28, “who launched a presidential campaign from Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil-rights workers were killed.”

The Reagan story forms the centerpiece of Krugman’s argument in The Conscience of a Liberal that race, far more than economics or foreign policy or “values,” is what gave Republicans an electoral majority for most of the past 40 years. At the end of his calumny column, when Brooks elaborates on the “slur,” it sounds an awful lot as though he’s really talking about Krugman’s book: “It posits that there was a master conspiracy to play on the alleged Klan-like prejudices of American voters, when there is no evidence of that conspiracy.”

I asked Brooks: Have you read The Conscience of a Liberal? “I can’t confirm or deny it,” he answered.

Possibly Brooks had payback in mind. In a July 20 column (“All the President’s Enablers“), Krugman referred to a “coordinated public relations offensive” in which the White House was using “reliably friendly pundits—amazingly, they still exist—to put out the word that President Bush is as upbeat and confident as ever.” Three days earlier, in a column titled “Heroes and History,” Brooks had written of Bush, “Far from being worn down by the past few years, Bush seems empowered. His self-confidence is the most remarkable feature of his presidency.”

Incidentally, my quick Nexis search turned up one other prominent columnist who writes frequently about Reagan’s 1980 speech in Philadelphia, Miss.: Bob Herbert, yet another colleague of Brooks’ on the Times op-ed page. (See here, here, and here.) But I think Brooks mainly had Krugman on the brain.

Update, Nov. 11: Krugman hits back  at Brooks in his New York Times blog, “The Conscience of a Liberal”:

So there’s a campaign on to exonerate Ronald Reagan from the charge that he deliberately made use of Nixon’s Southern strategy. When he went to Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1980, the town where the civil rights workers had been murdered, and declared that “I believe in states’ rights,” he didn’t mean to signal support for white racists. It was all just an innocent mistake.

Krugman goes on to cite other, similar “mistakes”: Reagan’s use of the term “young buck”  in 1976 to describe a young male African American on food stamps; Reagan’s declaration in 1980 that the Voting Rights Act had been “humiliating to the south” (his Justice Department would later figure out that it was, more urgently, an electoral boon for congressional Republicans); Reagan’s insane (and ultimately unsuccessful) attempt in 1982 to preserve the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University, which banned interracial dating; Reagan’s firing of three members of the Civil Rights Commission in 1983; and Reagan’s opposition to making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday.

I would add to this litany the country-club-Republican moment when Nancy Reagan, during a 1980 speech in Chicago, expressed pleasure at “looking out over all these beautiful white faces.” Oops!

Krugman doesn’t name Brooks, of course, as the perpetrator of this “campaign to exonerate Ronald Reagan.” But I’m pretty sure he isn’t talking about L. Brent Bozell III, whose fulimination over the alleged injustice to the Gipper went ignored at the time of Reagan’s death.

Update, Nov. 13: Today Bob Herbert entered the fray  on Krugman’s side. He began by writing, “Let’s set the record straight on Ronald Reagan’s kickoff in 1980.” Like Brooks, Herbert didn’t say who created this faulty record, but of course he meant Brooks:

Reagan apologists have every right to be ashamed of that appearance by their hero, but they have no right to change the meaning of it, which was unmistakable. Commentators have been trying of late to put this appearance by Reagan into a racially benign context.That won’t wash.

Brooks is in desperate need of reinforcements, but he won’t have much luck recruiting Gail Collins, Nicholas Kristof, Tom Friedman, Frank Rich, Maureen Dowd, or Roger Cohen. Maybe William Safire can be lured back from retirement? Though, even Safire might consider Brooks’ case too weak to defend. Just as Kaiser Wilhelm II at the start of the Great War abruptly shifted the field of battle from Serbia to Belgium, Gen. Brooks might find it necessary to invade the Weekly Standard, which under ordinary circumstances probably would prefer to remain neutral. War is hell!

Update, Nov. 19: The skirmishing continues. On Nov. 18 Lou Cannon, who covered Reagan for the Washington Post and subsequently authored multiple Reagan biographies, weighs in  on Brooks’ side. Cannon writes that it’s a “myth” that Reagan “defeated President Jimmy Carter in 1980 by a coded appeal to white-supremacist voters.” The “core of this myth” is that Reagan pandered to white racists in his Philadelphia, Miss., speech. True, he used the expression “states’ rights,” but Reagan “had been talking this way for two decades as part of his pitch that the federal government had become too powerful.”

Well, yes and no.

It’s true that Reagan had long advocated devolving responsibilities of the federal government to the state and local level. But Joseph Crespino, in his book,  In Search of Another Country:Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution, writes that the speech Reagan gave that day was not his standard stump speech, and that “reporters following Reagan could not remember him using the term [“state’s rights”] before….” (Crespino, an assistant professor of history at Emory University, offers his own two cents on the Brooks-Krugman smackdown here.)

Cannon writes that Reagan was no racist, which, as Krugman points out in his Nov. 19 column, is neither here nor there. (You don’t have to be a racist to pander to racist voters.) Cannon also argues that the Philadelphia speech hurt Reagan more than it helped him because it cost him votes from moderates in Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania “without bolstering his standing among conservative Southern whites.” If true, that merely demonstrates that Reagan’s pander to white racists backfired, not that Reagan never pandered in the first place.

In his Nov. 19 column, Krugman recycles some of the points he made about Reagan and race last week on his blog. He also restates one of the more provocative points in his book, The Conscience of A Liberal: The defection of white males from the Democratic party in recent decades was not a national phenomenon, but rather a southern one. Krugman cites a study by Larry Bartels, a political scientist at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, showing that in 1952 and 2004, the proportion of non-southern white men lacking college degrees who voted Democratic was virtually unchanged (40 percent and 39 percent, respectively). To be fully persuaded on this point, I’d need to see how non-southern white men voted during the years in between.

Unrelated-but-interesting point: Bartels’ study would seem to refute Thomas Frank’s thesis in What’s The Matter With Kansas that the white working class is economically populist but conservative on “values” issues. In fact, writes Bartels, the opposite is true: It is more tolerant on issues like abortion and gay marriage than the Republicans are, but less tolerant on issues like raising taxes on the rich than Democrats are. That might explain why the economic populism favored by Democratic political consultant Bob Shrum failed in the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004.]