For years, Reagan detractors have tenaciously clung to a memory that portrays the "Great Communicator" not so subtly appealing to white racists by kicking off his 1980 presidential campaign at the Neshoba County Fair near Philadelphia, Mississippi, the infamous scene of the horrific murders of three civil rights workers in 1964.

Last week in the New York Times, columnist Bob Herbert asserted that Reagan "was elbow deep in the same old race-baiting Southern strategy of Goldwater and Nixon."

Herbert's analysis (in full here):

"Everybody watching the 1980 campaign knew what Reagan was signaling at the fair. Whites and blacks, Democrats and Republicans — they all knew. The news media knew. The race haters and the people appalled by racial hatred knew. And Reagan knew.

"He was tapping out the code. It was understood that when politicians started chirping about 'states’ rights' to white people in places like Neshoba County they were saying that when it comes down to you and the blacks, we’re with you."

In an op-ed piece in the Times today (Sunday), long-time Ronald Reagan chronicler, Lou Cannon, rejects "the notion that...Reagan defeated President Jimmy Carter in 1980 by a coded appeal to white-supremacist voters."

Cannon writes:

"The mythology of Neshoba is wrong in two distinct ways. First, Ronald Reagan was not a racist. Second, his Neshoba speech was not an effective symbolic appeal to white voters. Instead, it was a political misstep that cost him support."

The article (in full here) is worth the read. No one knew the real Ronald Reagan better than Cannon as a reporter and subsequent biographer. In addition to his testimony to Reagan's character, Cannon makes an important point that the appeal to race (such as it was) in Neshoba County played no positive role in the election. He also reminds us that the negative publicity surrounding the incident emanated from the Carter campaign, which quickly seized upon the embarrassing appearance immediately and spun the incident into a long-lasting negative Reagan myth. Cannon also reminds us that Reagan was not born a candidate with perfect political pitch; rather, the "Great Communicator" grew into the job.

An aside: Gordon Wood tells a story about George Washington in which his contemporaries imagined that he was born into this world fully clothed and, upon arrival, quickly executed a flawless gentlemanly bow before his audience. It is sometimes hard to keep in mind the human limitations of our heroes

Having said all that, Cannon does not completely exonerate Reagan in my mind. The question remains: ultimately unsuccessful or not, what message was the candidate attempting to convey with this clumsy stop so near to the tragic events of the summer of 1964?

Important Item: The well-argued defense of Reagan at Neshoba by David Brooks earlier in the month here.