DURING HIS 1980 debate with President Carter, Republican nominee Ronald Reagan uttered one of his more famous lines. Rolling his eyes at a point Carter was attempting to make, a bemused Reagan smiled and said, "There you go again."

You have to wonder what The Gipper, who died in 2004, would think of the latest verbal faux pas made by boxing legend Bernard "The Executioner" Hopkins, whose brilliance inside the ropes sometimes is overshadowed by comments that can stray toward the controversial, the outrageous and the defamatory.

At 46, an age when the focus should squarely be on Hopkins' latest attempt to make ring history, his penchant for stream-of-consciousness chatter again has fans and detractors alike scratching their heads. Is this guy a racist? Does he fully consider what comes out of his mouth, or does some of it emerge as a surprise to himself and those listening, like the secret prize in a box of Cracker Jack?

Until last week, the historic aspects of Saturday night's rematch between Hopkins (51-5-2, 32 KOs) and WBC light-heavyweight champion Jean Pascal (26-1-1, 16 KOs) had been the primary theme. Would B-Hop, who was denied the opportunity to become the oldest fighter to win a widely recognized world championship when he had to settle for a majority draw with Pascal on Dec. 18 - a bout many thought the old master deserved to win - fare better the second time around? And if he did dethrone the much-younger Pascal, could he continue fighting and winning long enough to approach Archie Moore's record of remaining a champion until he was nearly 48?

Hopkins' public-relations consultants had played up the history bit by arranging a teleconference with the North Philadelphia native and George Foreman, who was 45 when he scored a 10th-round knockout of WBA/IBF heavyweight champion Michael Moorer on Nov. 5, 1994. Should Hopkins defeat Pascal, he would be 192 days older than Big George was when he again rose to the title.

All well and good. But then Hopkins, during an open-to-the-media session at the Joe Hand Boxing Gym in Northern Liberties, went off again on a frequent target of his tirades, former Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. He accused McNabb, who was raised in a middle-class, two-parent home, as not being "black enough" and having "a suntan, that's all." He went on further to say current Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, still a pariah to many because of his dogfighting past, of being more representative of the black community.

Just like that, Hopkins transported himself back to the time before his much-anticipated showdown with Joe Calzaghe. On Dec. 7, 2007, Hopkins and Calzaghe, a Welshman, confronted each other in the media room at Las Vegas' MGM Grand, the day before Floyd Mayweather Jr. was to take on another white fighter from the United Kingdom, Ricky Hatton.

"You're not in my league," Hopkins told Calzaghe. "I will never lose to a white boy . . . I couldn't go back to the projects if a white boy beat me."

Whether Calzaghe deserved to get the split-decision victory he was awarded 4 months later, a bout in which Hopkins knocked him down in the first round, is not the issue. The earlier exchange of taunts had painted the fight with ugly racial overtones.

For a lot of people who have never personally interacted with Hopkins, the impression given by such comments is that he is a throwback, all right - to such 1960s black militants as Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown.

But is that a fair and accurate assessment of a complex individual whose words and actions sometimes appear to be in conflict? Just days before his fight with Calzaghe, Hopkins invited a cancer-ravaged white teenager who idolized him, Shaun Negler, and his family to his hotel suite for a meeting that left both boxer and kid emotionally touched. Hopkins has remained close to the Neglers, and he served as a pallbearer at Shaun's funeral after the brave young man passed away on Oct. 23, 2008.

Nor does Hopkins' smack-talk from the 'hood reflect the elderly white woman who greeted him after he and his support crew had breakfast at the Spring Garden Deli & Restaurant a couple of weeks ago.

"You're the best," the woman said, hugging Hopkins, and it was clear her high opinion of him had nothing to do with his boxing acumen.

Hopkins might be an ex-con who spent 56 months behind bars for a strong-arm robbery committed when he was a predatory youth, but a variety of mayors, district attorneys, police commissioners and prison wardens of all races consider him a role model for inner-city kids who are teetering on the fence separating right from wrong. He is a faithful husband to his pregnant wife of 13 years, Jeanette, and a loving father to 11-year-old daughter Latrece (the Hopkinses are expected to greet a second daughter, to be named Senna, in July). He doesn't smoke, drink or do drugs, keeps himself in fantastic physical condition, is frugal with his money and has stayed out of trouble with enforcers of the law since he was paroled in the late 1980s.

Still . . .

B-Hop is a man of strong opinions, and once he is convinced he's in the right, he hangs on to that certainty like a bull terrier, even if someone presents him with evidence to the contrary. His unyielding personality has caused him to get into spats not only with opponents, but with former promoters and members of his inner circle, including Rob Murray Sr., Butch Lewis, Don King, Dan Goossen, Lou DiBella and Bouie Fisher.

I have known Bernard Hopkins for more than 20 years, but I can't say I really know him. He is the quintessential riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, at once a unifier and a divider, tugged in either direction by his mood of the moment.

DiBella, Hopkins' former adviser, came up with perhaps the most telling observation of a man who might lack a great deal of formal education, but whose prison experience and street instincts reflect a knowledge that can't be found in books.

"Bernard is an intelligent guy," DiBella once told me, "but he's not smart enough to know what he doesn't know."

That statement, I think, could apply to just about everyone, depending on the circumstances.

After his Oct. 1, 2001, middleweight unification knockout of Felix Trinidad, I wrote that "the loquacious Hopkins couldn't be quiet if someone sewed his lips shut."

A decade later, he still says what's on his mind, consequences be damned. A lot of people love him or hate him for that, and lose sight of just how special a fighter he has been. *

Send email to fernanb@phillynews.com.