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Mark Shields
Mark Shields
6 Feb 2016
Cracking the Code of Campaign-Speak

"Do you ever get the feeling," asked humorist Robert Orben, "that the only reason we have elections is to … Read More.

30 Jan 2016
Is There Only One True Progressive?

Mark Shields is off this week. The following is a column by Joe Conason. In our polarized politics, the … Read More.

23 Jan 2016
The Man Who Drowned Democracy With 'Sewer Money'

Mark Shields is off this week. The following is a column by Joe Conason. This week marked the anniversary of … Read More.

A Personal Anecdote in Defense of Ronald Reagan


After citing in a recent column the example of then-candidate Ronald Reagan's using a regional term of racial disrespect — referring to "a strapping young buck" who allegedly used food stamps to buy T-bone steaks — at a Florida campaign rally during his 1976 primary challenge to President Gerald Ford, I added this line: "Reagan, who I can attest was free of racial prejudice in his personal life ..."

What followed was a cascade of e-mails and anonymous voice mails nearly all of which found me guilty of being a reality-denier, an apologist for racism, a liar and a fool (and those are just the few that could be printed in a family newspaper). I was informed repeatedly by liberal readers that categorically Mr. Reagan was a confirmed racist.

That was and is untrue. Let me tell you why.

On Feb. 2, 1981, 14 days after he took office, President Ronald Reagan gave me a one-on-one interview in his Oval Office on the subject of sports. It was a good interview, which became the cover story for "Inside Sports" magazine in March and was reprinted in The Washington Post.

In preparing for my interview with Reagan, I had lunch with William Franklin Burghardt, who had been the center when Reagan was the guard on the line of their Eureka College football team. By the time of our meeting, he was Dr. Burghardt and had retired as a college teacher.

"Burgie," as his teammates called him, told of a Eureka team trip in 1931 to play another small Illinois college not far from Reagan's hometown of Dixon, Ill.

When the team tried to check in to the hotel where they had reservations, the coach was told that Eureka's two black players, Burghardt and Jim Rattan, could not stay at this hotel or any hotel in the racially segregated area. The coach, furious, decided that the entire team would sleep on the bus.

Reagan dissented, pointing out privately to the coach that such a move could embarrass his black teammates because they would know that everyone had, because of them, been inconvenienced.

Reagan, as Burghardt would later learn, had his own plan. The coach would tell the team that the hotel did not have enough rooms for everybody. So Reagan, with cash borrowed from the coach for the 15-mile cab ride to Dixon, brought his two teammates to sleep and to eat at the home of his parents, Jack and Nelle Reagan, who, Burghardt would still recall a half-century later, warmly welcomed him.

Let me emphasize this was 80 years ago in an America where, overwhelmingly, blacks and whites did not break bread together or sleep under the same roof. In 1981 — some eight months before his death — Burgie still remembered that Reagan had not hesitated to invite Rattan and him into his family home. Yes,

Ronald Reagan in 1980 would wrongly tell journalist Lawrence Barrett that the landmark civil rights law, the Voting Rights Act, had been "humiliating to the South." His support of federal civil rights legislation was dismal. But, as his teammate and lifelong friend William Franklin Burghardt could and did eloquently testify: The Gipper was free of racial prejudice in his personal life.

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at




9 Comments | Post Comment
I grew up in the Deep South during segregation. And most of the racists I knew--and I did know quite a few--made exceptions for personal friends who were black. It's inconsistent, but it doesn't mean they're "not racist." What it means is that human beings have complicated minds.

You have to decide on the basis of what a person has the power to do. What matters, especially in the case of someone who has more than ordinary political power, is how they use that power. And Reagan didn't use his power to support civil rights.

That being said, I think the people who abused you put themselves in the wrong by doing so.
Comment: #1
Posted by:
Fri Nov 26, 2010 4:18 AM
Keep standing up for the truth, Mark. You are one of the few left who have the spine to do it.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Masako
Fri Nov 26, 2010 11:39 AM
Mark, this is a load of bilge. Reagan was the second coming of Herbert Hoover, who didn't use the power of government to fight the Great Depression because he thought private business and charity should do so. We all know how well that worked.

Reagan wouldn't use the power of government to enforce civil rights laws because like Rand Paul today, the phrase "inalienable rights" was as foreign to Reagan as Sanskrit. Reagan's wealthy patrons had turned him into a wind-up doll mindlessly repeating, "Government is not the solution to the problem, government IS the problem." He believed that blacks should patiently endure their second-class status until whites changed their attitudes instead of their laws. And how long would that have taken? Without the efforts of Martin Luther King and other civil-rights martyrs, minorities in this country would still be second-class citizens. One can be a racist without ever burning a cross or saying the N-word, and Reagan was.
Comment: #3
Posted by: Kimiko
Fri Nov 26, 2010 7:24 PM
Mark I never thought the day would come when you and I would part company but alas it has - where was the same moral courage that many attributed to the Gipper when he said "Mr Gorbachev tare down this wall" I know something about the 30s and 40s in American - as a teenager when the Texas town where I was born and raised was torn by a KKK inspired race riot - the Black Man who planted our kitchen garden on shares every year was working at our house when the riot broke out - I could of just shouted at hem to run for home when I heard the news on the radio - but instead I mounted my bike and rode slowly along side of him armed with a big wooden club - along the way a car load of white teenagers made a run at us forcing me into the ditch and Antoine behind a tree - we continued on until we got near his house and among his neighbors - I returned home and the incident was never mentioned by my parents - this is not a moral judgment on anyone - but my recollection of the Gipper and the beginnings of the hardcore conservative Christian right leaves me with a different impression.
Comment: #4
Posted by: Hugh L Nini, sr
Sat Nov 27, 2010 7:58 AM
So he wasn't personally racist...just willing to stoke the fires of racism for his own benefit. Always remember he went to Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of the brutal murder of three young civil rights workers by the local sheriff and the Klan, a town he had no other connection to, to announce his run in 1980.

I don't really think that says something good about the man.
Comment: #5
Posted by: mmc
Sat Nov 27, 2010 4:34 PM
President Reagan set back civil rights in many ways but also bent to the political strength of a bi-partisan coalition on extending the Voting Rights Act of 1982. Strong supporters included Congressman Henry Hyde (R-Illl) and Senator Robert Dole (R-Ks). Hyde and Dole, though conservative, never shied away from supporting civil rights. They were the right messengers to get the Reagan surrender on that issue. Reagan signed the 1982 Voting Rights legislation.

Reagan's hostility to main stream civil rights policy in no way makes him a personal racist. Mark Shields amply documented that in his column.

Attacking Shields personally, and to the accompaniement of anonymous telehone calls, degrades political discourse.

It shows that the extremes are not on a continuum but meet each other around the circle. The racist bigots and those who are quick to draw their six shooters to attack judgments based on facts. As the late Senator Moynihan said, you're entitled to your opinion but not to your facts.

Mark, keep calling them as you them.

David Cohen
Washington, DC
Comment: #6
Posted by: David Cohen
Sat Nov 27, 2010 5:57 PM
I am a racist because my parents gave me racist attitudes and beliefs. But, because of a "tour" at UC-Berkeley, I learned to control my racism and treat people according to the "content of their character" rather than the color of their skin. I have voted against every candidate who espoused racist viewpoints, including Reagan three times (once against his Governor's race and twice for President). The fact that his parents apparently gave him anti-racist beliefs and attitudes only makes his racism all the more contemptable.
Comment: #7
Posted by: Mike Ohr
Sun Nov 28, 2010 8:45 AM
Mark, aren't you forgetting Reagan's attitude toward South Africa? When the rest of the world was imposing sanctions on the apartheid regime, Reagan supported "constructive engagement," which was a euphemism for doing business as usual with the South African government while making a few token statements about why apartheid was wrong. As it happened, talking did not end apartheid; only sanctions did.

As I said earlier, Reagan believed that racism should be ended one person at a time, by changing attitudes instead of changing laws. This is a simplistic approach which ignores the fact that our rights are not bestowed on us as a favor, they're guaranteed in the Constitution. If changing one mind at a time takes too long, the government has not only the right but the duty to come to the aid of those whose rights are being denied.
Comment: #8
Posted by: Kimiko
Mon Nov 29, 2010 9:29 AM
Re: Hugh L Nini, sr, you did not invite Antoine into your home as Reagan did -- you subjected him to the taunting of the mob. Could it be that your parents were not as enlightened as you? In Reagan's case, both he and his parents were on the same wavelength, so to speak. 'nuf said.
Comment: #9
Posted by: unclesmrgol
Sat Jan 22, 2011 6:43 PM
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