Ex-Education Chief Tells of Slurs, Racial Jokes : Bell ‘Shocked’ by White House Staff Bias
President Reagan’s first secretary of education says mid-level Reagan Administration officials made racist jokes and other scurrilous remarks during civil rights discussions at the White House.
Terrel H. Bell, in a memoir of President Reagan’s first term, said the slurs included references to the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as “Martin Lucifer Coon” and calling Title IX, a federal law guaranteeing women equal educational opportunity, “the lesbian’s bill of rights.”
Bell’s memoir is titled “The Thirteenth Man: A Reagan Cabinet Memoir.” In it, he says that “since I had heard Ronald Reagan speak out convincingly against all forms of discrimination, I felt that my own dedication to enforcement of the civil rights laws as they applied to education would have the full support of the President.”
‘Shocked’ at Sick Humor
Instead, he said, he was confronted with “evidence of apparent bias among mid-level right-wing staffers at the White House and at OMB (Office of Management and Budget). I was shocked to hear their sick humor and racist cliches.”
In his book, he says the jokes about King were made as Reagan was deciding whether to sign or veto a bill establishing King’s birthday as a national holiday. He eventually signed it.
Blacks were not the only targets, Bell writes.
“They delighted in making other slurs. Arabs were called ‘sand niggers’ ” in discussions about State Department issues in the Middle East, Bell said,
He added, “I do not mean to imply that these scurrilous remarks were common utterances . . . but I heard them when issues related to civil rights enforcement weighed heavily on my mind.”
Bell writes, “It seemed obvious they were said for my benefit, since they often accompanied sardonic references to ‘Comrade Bell.’ ”
Elsewhere in his book, he depicts Edwin Meese III, the former White House counselor and now attorney general, as “a man who literally detested the federal government.” He calls Meese “the champion of the far right in the White House.”
Bell, now a professor at the University of Utah, said Meese led a group of “movement conservatives” who operated “almost like a secret society” and fought to abolish the Department of Education and steer Administration policies to the right.
Bell, Bush, Baker Despised
They despised Bell and other “pragmatists,” including Vice President George Bush and then-White House chief of staff and now Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III, according to Bell.
Bell quit Reagan’s Cabinet at the end of 1984 after four years of battles within the Administration over budget, appointments and policies.
He also commissioned an advisory report, “A Nation At Risk,” that sparked moves in most states to raise school standards and improve the teaching profession. The April, 1983, report also convinced Reagan to begin visiting schools and championing education reforms.
Reagan eventually backed off efforts to slash education spending, and abandoned a campaign promise to abolish the Education Department, which Meese once called “a ridiculous, bureaucratic joke.”