You had to live through it to recognize the metamorphosis. During those early days of June 2004, as the nation mourned the passing of Ronald Reagan, you would have never known he had been ridiculed and treated with disdain for most of his political career—not only by Democrats but by establishment Republicans. Frankly, I was stunned by the display of love and gratitude in 2004.
As the Reagan motorcade drove toward the Reagan Library for the final tribute, ordinary citizens along the route were paying their final tributes as well. It was an amazing moment.
But it was not always so.
When Reagan first ran for California governor in 1966, a lot of people, both Democrat and Republican, treated his candidacy as a joke. First, he had to get the nomination. Establishment Republican George Christopher, a former mayor of San Francisco, painted Reagan as a right-wing extremist and racial bigot. Having overcome that hurdle, he had to face governor Edmund “Pat” Brown, who was running for reelection and expected an easy triumph over the “B” actor.
One of Brown’s ploys was an infamous commercial he ran during the campaign in which he told a group of small children, “I’m running against an actor, and you know who killed Abe Lincoln, don’t you?” It didn’t work.
After two terms as California governor, Reagan took on Gerald Ford for the presidency in 1976. The entire Republican establishment opposed him. Ford was the sitting president, having achieved that position only by Senate appointment as vice president after Spiro Agnew resigned and then after Nixon was forced out of office by Watergate. He was not exactly the people’s choice. Again, the big guns came out to declare the challenger an extremist. It was an uphill battle, one that Reagan lost that year, only to claim the nomination four years later, this time defeating the establishment candidate George Bush.
Democrats in the 1980 campaign depicted Reagan as an idiot, a grade “B” movie actor who had starred with a chimpanzee, of all things.
Bedtime for Bonzo, a 1951 film, was supposed to signify that Reagan was a lightweight who had no business in an office reserved for “real” public servants like Jimmy Carter. Well, it’s easy to make fun of someone who acted alongside a chimp, I guess, but in 1952, there was another movie called Monkey Business, in which three actors undertook chimp-companion roles:
Two of those actors, pictured here, were not exactly “B” status: Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers. The third one, not pictured, was Marilyn Monroe. Grant and Rogers even had to pretend to revert to childhood in this film and act rather foolish. Can you imagine what the Democratic campaign people in 1980 could have done with Reagan if he had acted like a child in a movie? With a chimpanzee?
They also used the extremist label on him, predicting he would lead America into World War III. Instead, his policies led the world out of the Cold War.
The identical tactics used against Reagan are now being used against Sarah Palin. Even though she was McCain’s vice-presidential pick, and you could say that makes her “establishment” in one sense, she never was at home in that role. Neither did Republican insiders consider her to be one of them. The political professionals in the McCain campaign had little more than disdain for her; that became publicly obvious after the election.
In Alaska, she truly had been a disturber of the status quo within the Republican Party. She was guided more by principle than party loyalty. Even today, as her Facebook numbers rise and her influence is felt via endorsements for candidates running for both state offices and Congress, she is shunned by the establishment. The same type of people who considered Reagan a simpleton and a neanderthal have dubbed her “Caribou Barbie.”
Her faults? Well, she didn’t graduate from one of the approved universities. How can you be president if you didn’t graduate from either Harvard or Yale?
Her speech is too common and ordinary. She makes up words like “refudiate.” At least she knows how to pronounce “corps.”
She gives her children weird names. She actually decided to give a Down Syndrome child the opportunity to live rather than take the sophisticated and more seemly route of abortion. She’s adamantly pro-life, which immediately brands her as one of those extremists.
Personally, I don’t know for sure that Palin is the best choice for president on the Republican ticket in 2012. Yet I respect her for standing firm on her principles and for allowing her Christian faith to be seen in practice.
What I do know for sure is that she is undergoing the same ridicule and disdain that Ronald Reagan once endured. If she handles it with as much grace and good humor as Reagan did, there may be no limit to what she can accomplish. I wish her well.