Capitol Alert

Ronald Reagan “was not a racist,” son-in-law insists in letter after release of Nixon tape

President Ronald Reagan, who in a private conversation as California governor with Richard Nixon referred to African people as “monkeys,” had those remarks taken out of historical context, his Sacramento-based son-in-law argues.

Dennis C. Revell, who married Reagan’s oldest daughter, wrote in a four-page letter shared with The Sacramento Bee that a magazine article drawing attention to the remarks was unfair, citing Reagan’s relationships with African political leaders and with his adopted Ugandan granddaughter..

“I’m a firm believer in we shouldn’t judge those who have come before us, whether they be our parents or our Presidents, by today’s standards and values, let alone on on telephone conversation that took place 50 years ago,” Revell wrote.

“Ronald Reagan was not a racist!” he wrote. “There is a distinct difference between ignorance and a lack of understanding ... and ... believing one’s race is inherently superior to all others!”

The Atlantic published the newly released remarks in a July 30 article by NYU professor Tim Naftali titled, “Ronald Reagan’s Long-Hidden Racist Conversation With Richard Nixon.

It stemmed from from a 1971 phone call Nixon recorded in which the two Republicans discussed a number of African delegates at the United Nations siding against the United States on a vote.

“To see those, those monkeys from those African countries — damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!” Reagan told Nixon in the recording.

In his article, Naftali wrote that, “these new tapes are a stark reminder of the racism that often lay behind the public rhetoric of American presidents.”

Revell wrote in a letter to The Atlantic that Reagan’s remarks reflected the attitudes of his era, and that some African nations had only recently gained independence from European countries when Reagan spoke with Nixon.

Revell, who owns a political communication firms, also wrote that the former president “enjoyed a great relationship with his oldest daughter’s adopted little girl from Uganda,” as well as with various African leaders.

“My immediate hope is that you can see your way clear to acknowledge that while by today’s standards and values his comments were inappropriate, they regrettably were a reflection of the times more than of the man,” Revell wrote. “I’m confident if he were alive today, he would not make excuses, but would apologize and ask for forgiveness.”

Not all of Reagan’s family is defending him over the remarks.

In a column for the Washington Post, Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis wrote that “there is no defense, no rationalization, no suitable explanation for what my father said on that taped phone conversation.”

However, Davis, like Revell, wrote that if Reagan, who died in 2004, were alive today, he would seek to atone for his remarks.

“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,” Davis wrote.

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Andrew Sheeler covers California’s unique political climate for the Sacramento Bee. He has covered crime and politics from Interior Alaska to North Dakota’s oil patch to the rugged coast of southern Oregon. He attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks.