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Tuesday afternoon, before the first round of the Democratic debate in Detroit, a friend sent me a link to an article in the Atlantic: The headline is “Ronald Reagan’s Long-Hidden Racist Conversation With Richard Nixon.” As I clicked on the link, my mind was already heading in the direction of: Something was taken out of context. Or: His words were careless, not harmful. I was preparing my defense ahead, composing a reasonable explanation for whatever I was about to encounter.
But I wasn’t prepared for the tape of my father using the word “monkeys” to describe black African delegates to the United Nations who had voted in a way that angered him. Nor could I wrap my head around his comment about them not being comfortable wearing shoes. I don’t know if it was masochism or shock, but I listened to the tape twice before allowing myself to cry. I wanted the story to go away, to get buried in the news of the debate. I wanted to immediately go back in time to before I heard my father’s voice saying those words.
There is no defense, no rationalization, no suitable explanation for what my father said on that taped phone conversation.
If I had read his words as a quotation, and not heard them, I’d have said they were fabricated. That he would never say such things. Because I never heard anything like that from him. In fact, when I was growing up, bigotry and racism were addressed in my family by making it clear that these were toxic and sinister beliefs that should always be called out and shunned. I can’t tell you about the man who was on the phone with Richard Nixon that day in 1971. He’s not a man I knew.
All I can do is tell you about my father. That man held a small girl in his lap and answered her question about why people come in different colors. “God made all his creations in different colors,” he said. “It would be pretty boring if we all looked the same.” I can tell you about my father’s father, who wouldn’t let his two sons see “The Birth of a Nation” because it glorified the Ku Klux Klan, and how both Jack and Nelle Reagan drilled into their sons that racism in any form would not be tolerated. I can tell you about a night when my father was in college, on the football team, and the team came to his hometown for a game. They arrived at the local hotel and were told that the black players couldn’t stay there. My father said, “Then I’m not staying here,” and he took them to his parents’ house. When he was governor of California, he was given a membership to a ritzy country club in Los Angeles. He turned it down because the club didn’t allow Jews or African Americans.
I can tell you all these things, and more, but it doesn’t remove the knife cut of the words I heard him say on that tape. That wound will stay with me forever. But I believe, if my father had, years after the fact, heard that tape, he would have asked for forgiveness. He would have said, “I deeply regret what I said — that’s not who I am.” He would have sought to make amends for the pain his words caused.
My father has been accused of racism before, in policy decisions and chosen phrases such as “states’ rights.” Each of those can be analyzed in different ways. I grew up listening to him talk about how the federal government should back off and let states decide how to govern themselves. He meant the phrase literally; he was not without his blind spots when it came to other meanings attached to the phrase, and so he stubbornly clung to it. But the words he used in his conversation with Nixon cannot be interpreted as anything but ugliness. That’s what makes this so painful. Legacies are complicated, though, and for people to be judged fairly, the landscape of a lifetime has to be looked at.
The best I can do — the only thing I can do — is find forgiveness in my heart for a conversation that stands in stark contrast to how he lived and how he taught his children to live. Forgiveness is always hard — it’s a wrestling match deep in the soul. And it’s even harder when the world is watching and judging. In reaching for forgiveness in myself, my hope is that others will forgive my father for words that should never have been uttered in any conversation. Words that, for those of us who knew Ronald Reagan, will always be an aberration.