Everybody agreed that Jimmy Carter went too far. He was severely chastised in October, 1980, for saying that Ronald Reagan would divide the country--black from white, North from South, Christian from Jew.
Jimmy Carter's "mean streak" became a political issue.
Ronald Reagan replied with stately hurt: "I can't be angry. I'm saddened that anyone . . . could intimate such a thing."
Now, 17 months later, people are taking a second look. If Reagan is such a nice guy, they are asking, why does he make choices so wounding to so many of his countrymen? Jimmy Carter as president is not yet subject to revisionism, but as prophet he is looking better. Reagan may not be the demonic, deliberate divider cited in Carter's grating rhetoric, but he is a divider all the same.
Most conspicuous is the case of the rollback on civil rights, in the form of tax exemptions for segregated schools. Nobody, except a few members of the far right, was agitating for breaks for Bob Jones University and Goldsboro Christian Schools Inc. Most people agreed with the late federal judge Harold Leventhal, who declared forthrightly that the matter had long since been settled.
Reagan was said to be "hurt" at the inevitable charges of racism that followed. The reversal of a policy that even Richard Nixon had accepted was explained as a staff error, but it turned out that Reagan had been well briefed.
An explanation that Reagan hates loose ends--an aversion not noticeable in other public statements--was angrily rejected. An attempt to deposit the wet baby in the lap of Congress was abandoned. The legislative pettifogger in the White House took the matter to the Supreme Court. And, in the end, his administration will not argue against the segregationist.
If he really did not want to reopen an old sore, the president could have said simply, "Oops, sorry." But he didn't.
Similarly, if he had wished to leave the impression that he wants to preserve the hard-earned, bloodstained civil rights gains of the last two decades, he could have supported renewal of the Voting Rights Act that overwhelmingly passed the House. But he isn't.
Nomination of B. Sam Hart Jr., a clownish black preacher, to the Civil Rights Commission may not have been intended as an egregious insult to minorities. But Hart, until he withdrew, was, to adapt a Carter appointment formulation, a three-fer. He was against the Equal Rights Amendment, busing for school integration and civil rights for homosexuals.
When Reagan, for reasons never made clear, insisted on selling AWACs radar planes to Saudi Arabia, he did not intend to set Christians against Jews, but the debate took an ugly "Reagan vs. Begin" turn that resulted in the curious claim that a vote for the sale was a vote against anti-Semitism. According to the latest Louis Harris poll, 70 per cent of Jewish voters have turned against Reagan.
On economic questions, Reagan may not have set out to divide the rich from the poor, but he might just as well have. Cutting off snacks for poor schoolchildren, while offering tax breaks to purchasers of racehorses, gives the impression of a strong preference for one class over another. So does cutting food stamps for elderly poor who receive fuel assistance, while allowing corporations, for tax purposes, to buy the debts of other companies.
Dividing North and South? Slashing funds for cities of the North, while awarding defense contracts to the South, creates certain regional hostilities, even if that is not what the president had in mind.
Reagan is dividing his own party. He has even divided his own staff, some members of which whisper to the press that he will compromise on defense and taxes. He declares that he will not budge. He attacks his critics, who include such senior Republicans as Finance Committee Chairman Robert J. Dole (Kan.) and Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (N.M.), as "born-again budget balancers" and "muggers" and later says he did not mean them.
Bob Packwood (Ore.), chairman of the GOP Senate Campaign Committee, gave an interview, the burden of which was that Reagan was systematically stripping the party of support by blacks, women, Hispanics and other minorities. Reagan's rejoinder was to have the chairman of the Republican National Committee call for Packwood's resignation from the campaign post.
The president has even subdivided Republicans of the West. The mountain states are still with him; the coast has dropped off.
This is the Great Communicator?
In foreign policy, particularly on the matter of El Salvador, it is the president against the planet. The country is unanimous in opposition. Britain is the only ally even pretending to approve. Reagan has managed to divide the Organization of American States over his Carribbean basin plan. Mexico says his premises are wrong.
Jimmy Carter may have been wrong to say what he said. But Americans, from Wall Street to Main Street, are beginning to think he may have had a point. Right now, Ronald Reagan gives the impression that it's him and the right wing against the rest of us.