Paging Clark Hoyt. Is the New York Times public editor paying attention to the brawl that's broken out on the page next to his? For the last few weeks we've semi-enjoyed the spectacle of liberals Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert battling with conservative David Brooks and Ronald Reagan biographer Lou Cannon over the meaning of Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign stop in Philadelphia, Miss. The home of the Neshoba County Fair is infamous as the site where three young civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, were murdered in 1964.
Now with Krugman coming out swinging for another round, it's time to say: Enough! Why doesn't the Times assign a reporter to check out competing claims about the meaning of Reagan's visit? I have a strong hunch Krugman and Herbert's side would win, but either way, the latest column by Krugman virtually guarantees a Brooks rejoinder, and life is too short to have to parse this controversy indefinitely. That's what reporters get paid for.
I side with Krugman and Herbert on this one, because Brooks and Cannon don't deny Reagan's visit was intended to reach out to white conservatives. They acknowledge that Reagan announced his defense of "states' rights" in the speech. Specifically, what Reagan said was: "Programs like education and others should be turned back to the states and local communities with the tax sources to fund them. I believe in states' rights." Linking local control of education and states' rights, given the long history of white racist opposition to desegregation, is part of why the speech became infamous.
The essence of Brooks' and Cannon's defense of Reagan comes down to two claims: a) Reagan wasn't personally racist; b) there was internal campaign dissent over the decision to speak in Philadelphia. To me, the fact that some campaign aides thought the trip was a bad idea serves to bolster Krugman and Herbert's argument about its racial meaning, not to dispel it. And frankly, I'm sick of claims that Republican leaders aren't personally (fill in the blank): racist, homophobic, anti-immigrant, even as they inveigh against minority, gay or immigrant rights. Assuming that's true about Reagan, that makes his use of the so-called Southern strategy even worse than when it was used by stone-cold Southern racists. The cosmopolitan Reagan knew better, but chose to exploit stereotypes about "welfare queens," "young bucks" using food stamps and "states' rights" to get elected nonetheless, just the way George W. Bush visited Bob Jones University in 2000 (which still banned interracial dating) and looked away while his brother purged black voters in Florida.
But rather than make the Times Op-Ed page a throwback to the old Village Voice, where a reader looking for a smart take on politics and culture would too often get trapped in masturbatory writers' feuds, maybe the paper can call a truce and assign a reporter to get to the bottom of the issue. Isn't that what big news organizations offer readers, while maligning the blogosphere as the all-spin zone?
Oh, and Mr. Hoyt, as long as you're listening, can you also ask editors why Marc Santora was allowed to give John McCain a big wet kiss today for promising to run against Hillary Clinton "with civility," without mentioning that just last week McCain called a supporter's query about how to beat "the bitch" (Clinton) an "excellent question" -- and then had the nerve to raise money around the controversy? Very, very, very lame.