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Columnists War Continues at 'NYT' -- as Brooks, Krugman, Herbert Do Battle

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Columnists War Continues at 'NYT' -- as Brooks, Krugman, Herbert Do Battle

Article excerpt

The New York Times Op-Ed page hasn't been this hot in a long time. Now we are experiencing Columnist Wars, with Bob Herbert this week joining in a rapidly escalating battle between Paul Krugman and David Brooks -- largely over an incident involving Ronald Reagan at a local fair over 27 years ago.

None has mentioned a colleague by name, while tossing around charges such as "woefully wrongheaded" and "agitprop." Outside commentators have now weighed in, but the ball at the Times now rests on Brooks' side of the court.

Krugman kicked it off with a Sept. 27 column on the Republicans' continuing problems in attracting minority voters. "Republican politicians ... understand quite well that the G.O.P.'s national success since the 1970s owes everything to the partisan switch of Southern whites," he declared. "Since the days of Gerald Ford, just about every Republican presidential campaign has included some symbolic gesture of approval for good old-fashioned racism."

Then came this kicker, as Krugman charged that GOP godfather, Ronald Reagan, who "began his political career by campaigning against California's Fair Housing Act, started his 1980 campaign with a speech supporting states' rights delivered just outside Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers were murdered."

Brooks took awhile, but fired back on Nov. 9, opening his column: "Today, I'm going to write about a slur. It's a distortion that's been around for a while, but has spread like a weed over the past few months. It was concocted for partisan reasons: to flatter the prejudices of one side, to demonize the other and to simplify a complicated reality into a political nursery tale.

"The distortion concerns a speech Ronald Reagan gave during the 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., which is where three civil rights workers had been murdered 16 years earlier. An increasing number of left-wing commentators assert that Reagan kicked off his 1980 presidential campaign with a states' rights speech in Philadelphia to send a signal to white racists that he was on their side. The speech is taken as proof that the Republican majority was built on racism.

"The truth," Brook explained, "is more complicated." He claimed that Reagan had actually attempted to court black votes right after the 1980 convention. Brooks then offered as an excuse for the Mississippi trip: the Reagan campaign "was famously disorganized," and he was forced to go when locals promised he would be there. When he got there he gave a "short and cheerful" speech: "The use of the phrase 'states' rights' didn't spark any reaction in the crowd, but it led the coverage in The Times and The Post the next day."

Brooks concluded: "You can look back on this history in many ways. It's callous, at least, to use the phrase 'states' rights' in any context in Philadelphia. Reagan could have done something wonderful if he'd mentioned civil rights at the fair. He didn't. ...

"Still, the agitprop version of this week -- that Reagan opened his campaign with an appeal to racism -- is a distortion." Then he smashed Krugman: "But still the slur spreads. It's spread by people who, before making one of the most heinous charges imaginable, couldn't even take 10 minutes to look at the evidence. 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. …

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