Previous Republican Presidents Kept Their Racism in the Closet

Tim Naftali, who was previously in charge of the Nixon Presidential Library, has written about a tape that was just released two weeks ago involving a telephone conversation between Nixon and Reagan in 1971 in which the two men discussed a vote at the UN to seat a delegation from Beijing instead of from Taiwan. Reagan called Nixon to express his anger at the people he blamed: representatives from African nations.

The day after the United Nations voted to recognize the People’s Republic of China, then–California Governor Ronald Reagan phoned President Richard Nixon at the White House and vented his frustration at the delegates who had sided against the United States. “Last night, I tell you, to watch that thing on television as I did,” Reagan said. “Yeah,” Nixon interjected. Reagan forged ahead with his complaint: “To see those, those monkeys from those African countries—damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!” Nixon gave a huge laugh.

Nixon then got on the phone with Secretary of State William Rogers to pass the racism along.

“As you can imagine,” Nixon confided in Rogers, “there’s strong feeling that we just shouldn’t, as [Reagan] said, he saw these, as he said, he saw these—” Nixon stammered, choosing his words carefully—“these, uh, these cannibals on television last night, and he says, ‘Christ, they weren’t even wearing shoes, and here the United States is going to submit its fate to that,’ and so forth and so on.”

The president wanted his patrician secretary of state to understand that Reagan spoke for racist Americans, and they needed to be listened to. “You know, but that’s typical of a reaction, which is probably”—“That’s right,” Rogers interjected—“quite strong.”

Although there are plenty of examples of racist and anti-Semitic statements from Nixon on his tapes, Naftali points out that this is the only recording of Reagan expressing similar sentiments. But perhaps this exchange explains his unwillingness to confront the apartheid regime in South Africa during his own presidency.

By the time the public grappled with Nixon’s racism, he had already resigned from office in disgrace for other crimes. But Republicans have always defended Reagan—which meant dismissing things like the dog whistle of launching his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi while those who murdered Cheney, Goodman, and Scherner were still on the loose. But now we can connect the dots to the man who did that after referring to Africans as monkeys who are still uncomfortable wearing shoes.

As Naftali wrote, “the most novel aspect of President Donald Trump’s racist gibes isn’t that he said them, but that he said them in public.” Nixon and Reagan kept their racism in the closet, even as it infected their presidencies.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.