September 4, 2013

One-sided history is suspect. The Sept. 1 Outlook commentary “The real story of Reagan and race,” by Steven F. Hayward, Paul Kengor, Craig Shirley and Kiron K. Skinner, ignored this truth while pretending to uphold it.

The movie “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is not one-sided: It showed President Ronald Reagan granting equal wages to black White House staff and inviting Cecil Gaines, the butler, and his wife to a state dinner. By contrast, the historians’ critique offered a skewed defense of the Reagan era. They quoted as sincere Reagan’s 1980 promise that concern for civil rights would be “interwoven into every phase of the programs I will propose.” This is breathtakingly inconsistent with Reagan’s policies, such as eroding federal civil rights enforcement and refusing to support sanctions against apartheid. Nor do vague assurances excuse the appalling decision to praise “states’ rights” in the same Mississippi county where civil rights workers were murdered in 1964.

Though it took narrative license with history, as do most productions from Hollywood, “The Butler” portrayed more “sides” of the views of black Americans than most films about civil rights. Cecil forms a negative view of Reagan due to his troubling big decisions, despite his generosity in small things.

Dan Kohrman, Washington

“The real story of Reagan and race” missed the point of “The Butler.” This was not a movie about Ronald Reagan, though I know how some people in Washington seem to think Reagan’s name should be attached to pretty much everything.

To me, “The Butler” was a powerful movie that depicted my lifetime through the eyes of a black man. I, a white woman, saw what he saw. I learned what he knew. After watching this movie, I understand the struggle of African Americans in a new way. We are all evolving.  

Martha Stringer, Clarksburg

“The Butler” clearly showed Ronald Reagan’s lack of racial bias by portraying his deeply personal and caring relationship with his butler. Despite this, Reagan utilized Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” to exploit resentments against blacks among northern working-class whites and Southerners. One example of this coded appeal was his attack on racial preferences as quotas, which the authors of the Outlook commentary stunningly portrayed as an example of Reagan’s saving civil rights. Unfortunately, this same Southern strategy 30 years later has created among the GOP base a racially biased emotional monster that is killing off the Republican Party of Lincoln.

Reagan was a complex man who was smart enough not to govern based on the right-wing resentments he so skillfully used to get elected. And given his decency, I could easily believe the scene in the movie where he told the butler that he was afraid he is on the wrong side of the race issue, a scene the Outlook authors surprisingly left out of their Reagan defense. 

Conn Hickey, San Anselmo, Calif.