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Historian Discusses Recording Of Reagan's Racist Comments Made To Nixon


The presidency of Donald Trump has put race front and center in the national conversation. Trump's comments on race - whether they're about a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville or the city of Baltimore - has sparked intense discussions about race in America.

Historian Tim Naftali, who, at one time, was director of the Nixon Library, has unearthed a discussion between two other presidents - Richard Nixon and then-California Governor Ronald Reagan.

He joins me now to talk about what he found.

TIM NAFTALI: Thank you, Audie - good to be here.

CORNISH: Thank you. I want to start with the tape. It was October 1971. You had these two men talking about a recent U.N. vote about recognizing the People's Republic of China, and Reagan was frustrated by the countries that didn't vote with the U.S. I'm going to let you pick it up from here, and then we'll listen to the exchange.

NAFTALI: The United States lost a surprise vote at the U.N. And the consequence of that loss was that Taiwan was expelled, and the People's Republic of China became China's representative at the United Nations. Ronald Reagan called Richard Nixon the night of the vote to express his displeasure and to suggest that the United States withdraw from full participation at the United Nations. But he doesn't reach Nixon. Nixon's asleep. The next morning, Ronald Reagan and Nixon connect.

Ronald Reagan also wants to talk about a television spot or a television report on the U.N. vote that included images of members of African delegations very jubilantly celebrating the fact that the People's Republic would be replacing Taiwan.

CORNISH: Let's jump in here. Here's what Reagan had to say. He's the first voice.


RONALD REAGAN: Last night, I tell you, to watch that thing on television as I did...


REAGAN: ...To see those monkeys from those African countries. Damn them. They're still uncomfortable wearing shoes.

NIXON: (Laughter) Well, and then they - the tail wags the dog there, doesn't it?


NIXON: The tail wags the dog.

CORNISH: So we have these two political leaders calling these African leaders monkeys. What was your takeaway from that exchange?

NAFTALI: Well, it was dismaying to hear the overt racism from Reagan. There's no question that students of the Reagan presidency, and those who lived through the period, could point to the fact that his candidacy - he announced his candidacy in Philadelphia. Mississippi is the place where three civil rights workers are martyred in 1964. His constant refrain about welfare queens - these suggested bigotry.

But it's one thing for actions to suggest bigotry. It's another to actually listen to overt racism. And that's what made this call between Reagan and Nixon so chilling.

CORNISH: Given what you know about Nixon - we said that you, obviously, were director of the library - why does this come as a surprise to you?

NAFTALI: Nixon's comments don't come as a surprise to me. Reagan's comment did. Nixon's comments are worth learning about today as a reminder that when people with power express bigoted ideas, not only are those words bad, but they have a meaning and a significance that is much bigger than one would assume.

Richard Nixon made clear to Daniel Patrick Moynihan that his sense that African Americans and Africans were inferior would shape his welfare policies. And Richard Nixon makes clear on the tapes that his dislike of African leaders will shape the way in which he interacts with them in terms of foreign policy. So that means that bigotry shaped Nixon's domestic and foreign policy.

In this era, when we have a head of state who uses racially charged - and I would say, most recently, racist terms and tweets - we have to keep in mind that this is not just a matter of one man's flaws. This may be injecting poison into the decisions that this administration is making on foreign and domestic issues. That's why revisiting the Nixon tapes and learning what is new on them is of real importance today.

CORNISH: Tim Naftali is an associate professor of history at New York University. He was the director of the Nixon Library from 2007 to 2011. He writes about all this in The Atlantic.

Thanks so much, Tim.

NAFTALI: Happy to do it - thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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