Friday, August 17, 2012

The Best and the Worst in One Night

Twenty years ago tonight, the Republican Party put on public display both its best side and its worst.

Now, for quite some time, I have observed the evolution of the absorption of an incendiary term like hate in our national political discourse.

In my experience, political campaigns have always been contentious. I grew up in Arkansas, about a mile from a prominent political family. The patriarch was a well–known segregationist who was not above using fiery rhetoric in his speeches, and he sought statewide office a couple of times when I was a child.

But, even in that environment (and, admittedly, I was quite young so there may be things I do not recall), the word hate was seldom, if ever, used. Looking back on those days, I feel it would have been considered bad form to use that word, even if it really did describe how a politician felt about his adversary and vice versa (and, no doubt, it did).

That word is tossed around so casually these days. Both Democrats and Republicans regard people who disagree with them as haters, but I believe both sides make the mistake of confusing dissent with hate.

Just because someone disagrees with you does not mean that person hates you. Look up the words in the dictionary. You'll find that the terms are not interchangeable.

This really seems to be a fairly recent phenomenon — in the context of American history, at least. When I was growing up, I knew Republicans and Democrats disagreed on many things, but only the most extreme members of either party accused the other of hatred. At the end of the day, both sides made an effort to reach a compromise.

In that time, both sides seemed to understand the meaning of the word civility.

But politics has become so polarized in this country that, today, neither seems to know what civility is, even though they give lip service to the word. Neither side is willing to give an inch — and both sides are all too eager to accuse the other of hatred. Civility gets lip service and little else.

When did this transformation happen?

I have been unable to determine the precise moment when it became socially acceptable to accuse those with whom one disagrees of hatred. I can identify points in its evolutionary line when behavior that was once considered extreme became the norm, but I can't say exactly when that transformation began.

Some would say it started with Richard Nixon's "Southern Strategy," designed to exploit racial tensions and help him win the presidency in 1968. Others would point to Ronald Reagan kicking off his 1980 general election campaign with a reference to the racially charged code words states' rights in Mississippi.

And those were certainly covert points in the timeline of the acceptance of hate as a political argument. A more overt brand of political hate emerged in 1988, which is still regarded by some as the most mean–spirited campaign in American history — although, when all is said and done, the 2012 campaign may well exceed it.

It's already getting close to it, and we haven't even reached Labor Day yet.

(In case you don't remember, let me refresh your memory. 1988 was the year backers of George H.W. Bush's campaign unleashed the Willie Horton commercial against Michael Dukakis.)

Those were all significant milestones in the evolution of hate in American politics, and there certainly have been others since, but I always felt that the most blatant appeal to hate occurred 20 years ago tonight — when Pat Buchanan spoke to the Republican National Convention in Houston.

Buchanan, who had challenged Bush in the primaries and caused the president considerable discomfort when he was forced to work for a nomination he expected would be his for the taking, gave what has been dubbed his "culture war" speech, railing against the opposition with such venom that I am hesitant to quote it directly today.

(With Barack Obama's class warfare, I suppose things have now come full circle.)

But I will quote this much: Buchanan ranted, at length, about "abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat" — all things he said a Clinton administration would impose on America.

The speech, delivered early in the evening, probably had its desired effect. It stirred up the conservative base, which was considered shaky for Bush at best in 1992.

Now, I can tell you that Texas is a fine place to whip conservatives into a frenzy, and Buchanan clearly was working on it that night. But it was an appeal to the worst of Republican instincts.

However, the possibility of redemption was at hand. Former President Reagan was about to give his final national address.

At the time, of course, no one knew it would be his final address. He didn't reveal to the public that he was afflicted with Alzheimer's disease until a couple of years later.

After he left the presidency, Reagan made relatively few public appearances before sharing his condition with the public. Each time I saw him speak in those years, there was always the thought that it might be his last one. In fact, I remember having that thought 20 years ago tonight.

But, at the time, I suppose, I believed there would be another. There was always another with Reagan. He was less than four years removed from his presidency, and the memory of his administration still cast a warm glow over the Republican Party. He was its rock star, even at the age of 81. He was its elder statesman, its president emeritus. The night he spoke to the 1992 Republican convention, they passed out placards for the delegates to wave when he came out to speak.

I didn't attend the convention, but I remember seeing the placards — in the flesh, as it were.

I was about to begin my first semester teaching journalism at the University of Oklahoma. Many staffers from the student newspaper had press passes for the convention, and they brought the placards back with them and put some up on the walls and file cabinets in the newsroom.

The placards said something like "Thank the Gipper for all he has done for our country!" — and, occasionally, on this night 20 years ago, the delegates burst into a chant of "Thank You, Ron!" and waved their placards.

Before he told the American public that he had Alzheimer's disease, Reagan was kind of like the Brett Favre of American politics. Most quarterbacks suffer a serious injury of some kind by the time that they're in their 30s, but Favre was different. He never got hurt, and he kept playing into his 40s.

Favre was the exception to the rule in football, and, I must admit, I believed Reagan was the exception to the rule in American politics. After all, three of the four men on Mount Rushmore died before reaching the age at which Reagan was first elected president. I saw no reason to think he would not be around for many more years — and, in fact, when he died, he had lived longer than anyone else who served as president.

As I have mentioned here many times, I did not agree with Reagan on most policy issues.

But it was not necessary to agree with Reagan on anything to understand that he was very effective as a public speaker. It was for that skill more than anything else that he was granted the rarest of tributes a president can receive — a moniker that is positive, not negative.

Even before he left the White House, Reagan was called "the Great Communicator."

That skill that Reagan had was on full display in Houston 20 years ago tonight. It was not what it once was. He was, as I say, in his 80s. But he could still bring the delegates to their feet and, at times, to tears. He spoke with optimism about America's future ("We were meant to be masters of destiny," he said, "not victims of fate"), and he brought the house down with a one–liner about then–Gov. Bill Clinton portraying himself as another Thomas Jefferson ("I knew Thomas Jefferson. He was a friend of mine. And, Governor, you're no Thomas Jefferson").

It was vintage Ronald Reagan, and modern politicians could learn from his example.

Take away the political philosophy, and you could sum up Reagan's approach in a song title — "Accentuate the Positive." That is what politicians of all stripes can learn from Reagan.

I don't know how Reagan felt about that song, but it perfectly describes his sunny disposition. That was what really appealed to people about Ronald Reagan. Even his political opponents had to concede that they liked him.

And, on a night when the worst of the Republican Party was presented to the American people, Reagan provided balance with its best.

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