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Mark Shields: Personal Anecdote in Defense of Ronald Reagan

The former president's campaign faux pas of racial disrespect was an anomaly

After citing in a recent column the example of then-candidate Ronald Reagan 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 ...”

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

What followed was a cascade of e-mails and anonymous voicemails, 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 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 Reagan gave me a one-on-one interview in his Oval Office on the subject of sports. It was a good interview that 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 didn’t 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 that 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, 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 Burghardt could and did eloquently testify: The Gipper was free of racial prejudice in his personal life.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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