Quarrels make everybody look fallible, and newspaper columnists try to avoid them. There’s not a columnist alive who isn’t a sitting duck from time to time, but a mutual nonaggression pact among columnists protects the general illusion of omniscience. It’s good for the ego and good for business. So the rare moments when columnists have at it bear examining.

“Today, I’m going to write about a slur,” began conservative pundit David Brooks on November 9, throwing down the gauntlet in the New York Times. “It’s a distortion that’s been around for a while, but has spread like a weed over the past few months. It was concocted for partisan reasons: to flatter the prejudices of one side, to demonize the other...

The slur? An “increasing number of left-wing commentators” have been recalling that [Ronald] Reagan kicked off his 1980 presidential campaign by sending “a signal to white racists that he was on their side.”

The only evidence Brooks offered that this ancient piece of liberal scripture is on the gallop was the fact that a couple of “honest investigators” (author Bruce Bartlett, the Washington Monthly‘s Kevin Drum) had recently come to the very conclusion he was now agreeing with. But who was spreading the calumny in the first place? Brooks didn’t name anybody, but Slate‘s Timothy Noah argues persuasively that Brooks was reacting to a reference in The Conscience of a Liberal, a new book by Times colleague Paul Krugman.

The week after he was nominated for president at the Republican convention, Ronald Reagan spoke at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi. “Programs like education and others should be turned back to the states and local communities with the tax sources to fund them,” Reagan told the crowd. “I believe in states’ rights. I believe in people doing as much as they can at the community level and the private level.”

Philadelphia, Mississippi, is where, in 1964, three civil rights workers had been murdered.

Brooks allowed that making a reference to states’ rights there of all places was “callous,” but he insisted it wasn’t calculated. The Reagan campaign started out “famously disorganized,” Brooks wrote. He said somebody made a commitment to the Neshoba County Republicans, and Reagan decided he should honor it even though his own pollster was urging him not to. Brooks attributed this narrative to Lou Cannon, who’s written five books on Reagan.

In fact, said Brooks, Republican strategists believed a southern strategy would cost Reagan more votes in the north than it would gain him in the south. But Reagan was expected in Neshoba, and the candidate felt it would be wrong to back out. His next speech would be to the Urban League.

A column belaboring a 27-year-old event that was more curious than important when it happened is a fine example of the sort of dubious exercise columnists forgive one another for. But whether or not Brooks was expecting a reaction, he got one. Four days later liberal columnist Bob Herbert proclaimed, “Let’s set the record straight,” and flashed back to June 1964, when the three civil rights workers disappeared. “The murders were among the most notorious in American history,” Herbert wrote. In 1980, when Reagan called on Neshoba County, “some of the conspirators were still being protected by the local community. And white supremacy was still the order of the day.”

The candidate “knew exactly what he was doing,” Herbert insisted, and although “commentators have been trying of late to put this appearance by Reagan into a racially benign context,” he “was elbow deep in the same old race-baiting Southern strategy of Goldwater and Nixon.”

On civil rights, Reagan “was wrong, insensitive and mean-spirited,” Herbert declared. “He was opposed to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.... As president, he actually tried to weaken the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He opposed a national holiday for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.... There is no way for the scribes of today to clean up that dismal record.”

Four days passed, and then guest columnist Lou Cannon, Brooks’s source, stepped up to contradict Herbert. True enough, Reagan consistently opposed federal civil rights legislation, Cannon conceded, but he “was not a bigot.” Cannon recalled Reagan befriending a black football teammate in college who would remain close to him through life, quitting a country club that barred Jews, and opposing a ballot initiative in California that would have kept gays from teaching in public schools.

The next day it was Krugman’s turn. “Reagan’s defenders protest furiously that he wasn’t personally bigoted,” Krugman wrote. “So what? We’re talking about his political strategy. His personal beliefs are irrelevant.” The racial backlash in America was real, conservatives helped make it happen, and now that it’s subsiding, “we should be able to discuss the role of race in American politics honestly. We shouldn’t avert our gaze because we’re unwilling to tarnish Ronald Reagan’s image.”

There are a couple reasons columnists like to write about the past. For one, it’s safer: you know tomorrow’s headlines won’t contradict you. But the other is that in a way it’s more important. The past as we choose to remember it is the source of the present as we choose to understand it. An argument today about the Iraq surge is made using incomplete and shifting facts. An argument about the surge in 30 years will be over the ultimate conduct and meaning of the war.

The argument in the Times was barely civil. Brooks slammed slurrers, distorters, and demonizers; Herbert race-baiters; Cannon mythologizers; Krugman liars and deniers. Aside from Brooks, who cited Cannon as a source, nobody mentioned anybody else by name—pundits are a haughty bunch. But it was clear who was trying to bloody whose nose.

Timothy Noah observed that the Times writers broke an unwritten but useful rule, the reason for which is that “an op-ed page whose columnists routinely denounced one another would create the impression of a newspaper more interested in arguing with itself than in engaging the world outside its walls.”

True enough, but this rule was overdue for an exception. The secret to becoming a successful writer, it’s been said, is to learn how to gracefully avoid trying to write whatever it is you can’t write well. (If you can’t write a line of dialogue to save your life, retail yourself as a cutting-edge modernist whose characters do nothing but think.) Columnists have a similar secret. The best way to conjure up an aura of infallibility is to avoid making any case that you can’t make unassailably.

That’s much easier to do than you might think. Truth with a capital T is in short supply, but facts, statistics, and even small-t truths are as common as rocks. There are plenty for everybody—for the progressives and the conservatives and the neoconservatives and the libertarians. There’s even a bunch for the wingnuts. Fill your pockets with the ones that suit you and make a column.

The Times op-ed page was back to normal when Brooks and Krugman appeared across from each other November 23. Brooks had decided to write about the “real” Rudy Giuliani, and the rock he pocketed was a tolerant speech on immigration that Giuliani had made in 1996. Brooks concluded that one day Giuliani “will look back on this moment and wonder why he didn’t run as himself.” Like many things Brooks writes, it was sort of kind, sort of critical, sort of wise, and sort of irrelevant, and it was very likely to be the uncontested last word on Giuliani’s 1996 speech.

As for Krugman, he was laying blame for the “subprime fiasco” on the “greed” of “Wall Street titans” deposed after losing “staggering sums” for their companies in speculations that would nonetheless make them personal fortunes. It was a typical display of the forensic skills that have persuaded thousands of Times readers that Krugman’s the only one in America who gets what’s going on and other thousands that he’s a nincompoop. The point is, he’s relentless; there’s nothing to gain by taking him on. v

For more, see Michael Miner’s blog, News Bites, at chicagoreader.com.