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“We Had a Great History, and We Turned Aside”
A long-time Republican-party insider and close student of its past discusses how the party has changed over the years—for better and for worse —and where it may be headed.
October 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 6
We had a great history, and we turned aside. We should have been there with Dr. King on the streets of Atlanta and Montgomery. We should have been there with John Lewis. We should have been there on the freedom marches and bus rides. We should have been there with Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama, in December of 1955.
I don’t know if you’ve read Taylor Branch’s book Parting the Waters , but he makes it very clear that the failure of the 1960 Nixon campaign to express any public or personal sympathy with the plight of Dr. King when he was in prison for demonstrating on behalf of civil rights and Coretta Scott King—who was pregnant at the time, in October of 1960—coupled with John F. Kennedy’s making one phone call for maybe thirty seconds (thanks to Harris Wofford, for whom I have high regard and respect), may have cost us that election.
King’s father was a Republican. He gets up and says he’s gonna take up a suitcaseful of votes to John F. Kennedy, and every black pastor for the next two or three weeks was preaching Democratic party politics and John F. Kennedy. I’d always believed that it was Harris County, Texas, and Cook County, Illinois, that caused Nixon to lose so closely. Wrong, it was the fact that the black vote in America overwhelmingly went for Kennedy.
So I think the whole idea of Kevin Phillips’s Southern majority is a disgrace. You want the South, the North, the East, and the West. You want consensus, not coalitions, in my view. Politics is about consensus. Getting people above those things that divide them to a higher understanding of what would be good for the whole country, bringing the country together, and then finding common goals that people have and helping people achieve their goals. That’s ultimately the very best politics.
That really didn’t happen for us until Reagan in 1980. And it could have happened for George Bush, for whom I have high respect and regard. He started out in 1988 with tremendous goodwill in the black community, but it deteriorated, to a large degree because of the economy and the failure of the Congress to give him any inner-city economic agenda, as well as to help keep the macroeconomy growing and creating jobs.
I’m puzzled by your statement that George Bush had a great reservoir of goodwill in the black community, because the Willie Horton ad played such a conspicuous part in his 1988 campaign.
I think the uproar over the Horton thing was a farce and a product of liberal mythmaking. The press tells us that the only reason George Bush won in ’88 was Horton and this terrible campaign. First of all, it’s important to remember, from a historical perspective, that it was Al Gore in the New York primary who first focused on this issue. Time magazine elevated Horton and published a picture of him, and Gore picked up on it and ran against Dukakis in the New York primary partially on the Horton furlough.
It was subsequently picked up by some Republican conservatives, and it was run more as a soft-money and tangential part of the campaign by independent advertising than it was by George Bush. Bush did not, in my view, play up the Horton thing the way he could have. The issue had no necessary connection to race.
And that isn’t why George Bush won anyway. He won because (a) he was pledged to carry on the Reagan revolution, (b) the economy was doing well in ’88, and (c) he was very experienced. People should remember that in 1988 there were problems in foreign policy, and people wanted continuity. I think that one reason he won the primaries is that he was the most experienced person in the race with regard to the foreign policy issues, and he was trusted on the domestic issues because he was Ronald Reagan’s Vice President. And he pledged no new taxes. It was a good pledge for him to make; it was bad to break it.
You’re also known as the man who sought to implant a conservative economic populism in to the Republican party. Reagan made brilliant use of economic populism, but I believe he acknowledged that it was your great contribution to the Republican successes of the eighties. How did it work?
Well, conservatism had generally been predicated upon a negative idea. I was brought up to believe in Richard Weaver’s axiom that ideas have consequences, and the only way to replace an erroneous idea is with the power and truth of a correct idea. The purpose of politics is not to defeat your opponent as much as it is to provide superior leadership and better ideas than the opposition.
If you look at the Reagan presidential victories in juxtaposition with the 1976 primary campaign, which was very negative, you’ll find the 1980 campaign was very positive. He proposed to cut tax rates 30 percent across the board to get America moving again. He proposed not only to contain communism but to transcend communism, to launch a pro-freedom and prodemocratic foreign policy. He talked about breaking down barriers to trade and about the restoration of the White House as a bully pulpit from which to encourage traditional Judeo-Christian values and ideals. And so he moved the Republican conservative cause from an antithesis to a thesis.