Rich James: Tea partiers wrong to embrace Reagan as their guy
September 22, 2011 5:36PM
Updated: January 23, 2012 3:52AM
When I heard that the Lake County Republican Party was planning its 5th annual Reagan Breakfast, it got me thinking again about the party’s fascination with the late president.
I met Ronald Reagan in 1980 in the press trailer after he gave a campaign speech at Saint Mary’s College in South Bend.
He was a friendly guy, although much shorter than I had anticipated.
He had a sandwich and a soft drink and chatted about some of his movies before moving on.
In the eyes of some Republicans — make that many Republicans — he is considered deity today.
Perhaps that’s because over the last 50 years, Republicans haven’t had much to cheer about when it came to presidents.
Richard Nixon did one thing right — getting us out of Vietnam. But then he disgraced the office as a result of Watergate.
Gerald Ford wasn’t president long enough to distinguish himself but was a heck of a nice man.
George H.W. Bush, too, was a fine fellow, but I think he got blinded by those thousand points of light he kept talking about.
George W. Bush may have been the most deceitful in the history of the presidency.
That brings us back to Reagan, who was known as the Great Communicator, which might have been his biggest asset. He made Americans feel good about themselves. And that’s a good thing.
Shortly after becoming president in 1981, the nation went into a deep recession. Reagan raised taxes several times after cutting them too much immediately after taking office.
During his first year in office, a United Methodist Church bishop criticized Reagan “for an alarming turn toward violence, confirmed by a soaring arms race, by the belligerent rhetoric of a revived cold war, a turning away from human rights in the name of national expediency and support for a variety of military governments abroad while neglecting the poor and wretched at home.”
He also fired the nation’s air traffic controllers, saying they made unreasonable demands as they tried to tell the nation that air travel wasn’t safe.
But it made Reagan look strong as the controllers strike was illegal.
But what really endeared Reagan to Republicans was his directive in June 1987 when he said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Of course, he was talking about the Berlin Wall and the communist occupation of Eastern Europe.
It was a heckuva statement, and remains so today.
But Reagan didn’t play much of a role when that wall came down more than two years later — long after Reagan was out of office.
It was financial problems in the Soviet Union and an erosion of political power in Poland and Hungary that led to the collapse of the Iron Curtain.
Yet, I’d bet that nine of 10 Republicans would tell you today that Reagan single-handedly brought down that wall.
Reagan named a liberal attorney in Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court and at the same time opposed the Equal Rights Amendment. Regardless, Republicans, especially presidential candidates, continue to fawn over the actor-turned-president.
At every turn, a candidate will invoke Reagan’s name hoping to convince the party faithful he is more Reagan than the next guy.
This all brings me back to the 5th annual Reagan Breakfast slated for Oct. 1. The first breakfast was started by then-Chairman John Curley, who appreciated what Reagan meant to the party. But Curley passed away and Kim Krull is now the titular head of the party.
But it would be difficult to call Krull a Reagan person because she is an opportunist and got on the tea party bandwagon early on.
And given Reagan’s background, you can’t be a Reagan person and a tea partier at the same time.
One of Reagan’s attributes as president was his art of compromise. He knew that made good government. Compromise is a four-letter word to the tea party.
One of the most famous Reagan stories is that he always kept Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s favorite cigars in the oval office. The two got things done. Imagine that.
Because of Reagan’s appreciation of world affairs and his fight against communism, he had a deep appreciation for Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, the premiere foreign policy expert in Congress.
I hope those who attend the breakfast think about that.
And I hope they think about the fact their county chairwoman is backing a tea party candidate, State Treasurer Richard Mourdock against Lugar. I suspect Reagan, whose name is on the invitation, would be abhorred.
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