Political Hay

Is Sarah Palin Bachmann’s Goldwater?

The politics of going first -- from Al Smith to Goldwater. (Does the 'S' in MSNBC stand for sexist?)

By 6.21.11

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Is Bachmannia replacing Obamamania?

Has Sarah Palin elected Michele Bachmann?

Have liberals who spent the better part of the last three years scornfully pouring vitriol on Sarah Palin helped Minnesota Congresswoman Bachmann -- like Palin an attractive conservative working mother of five (don't forget the 23 foster kids) from the American working class -- to a place on the GOP ticket instead?

In one of the more delicious ironies in the history of presidential politics?

After all this time of insisting Palin was (pick one) "profoundly stupid" (MSNBC's Chris Matthews), "dumb as a brick" (Young Turk's Cenk Uygur, now with MSNBC), "ridiculous and dangerous" (Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post) or "ignorant" (Slate) -- and this is the printable stuff (the unprintable Bill Maher here) --America is awaking to a vaguely familiar political memory.

He (or she) who goes first -- catches all the arrows.

And the next one, or sometimes the one after that -- that next person from the same religious or ethnic group, the next one in line in the once always ignored gender or political philosophy -- gets the prize.

Here's the list:

Al Smith and John F. Kennedy: The group trying to rise? Catholics, Irish-Catholics specifically. Smith had worked his way to the top of New York politics, from a patronage job in the New York City office of Commissioner of Jurors to the very top -- Governor of New York. He was extremely popular, an urban legend, a "wet" (opposing Prohibition) when the country was starting to buck Prohibition. In a time when radio was just appearing, Smith's gravelly voice and thick Lower East Side accent was being broadcast well beyond New York. (See and hear Al Smith here to get the flavor.) He was extremely popular, an urban legend, a "wet" (opposing Prohibition) when the country was starting to buck Prohibition. In a time when radio was just appearing, Smith's gravelly voice and thick Lower East Side accent was being broadcast well beyond New York. And he was as Irish as (so went the contemptuous saying of the day) "Patty's Pig." But most of all, Al Smith was Catholic -- and no President of the United States had ever been Catholic. Nominated by the Democrats in 1928 to run against the GOP's progressive Republican Herbert Hoover, the brown-derby wearing, cigar smoking Al Smith was the Sarah Palin of his day in terms of the political abuse directed his way. He was said to be a drunk, corrupt, the owner of brothels, the fact that he kept a photo of the Pope in his office (true) a sure sign he would involve America in foreign religious wars. "Bootleggers and harlots would dance on the White House lawn," it was said (although, to his vast credit, not by Hoover). Smith was smeared as a gambler, his accent a sign of ignorance and stupidity if not outright pending evil. And on and on in a fashion Sarah Palin could surely appreciate. On election day Smith was clobbered, carrying a mere 8 states.

In 1956, newly nominated Democrat Adlai Stevenson, a second-time nominee to face Dwight Eisenhower, decided to do the unusual. Instead of picking his running mate, he threw the choice for vice president open to the delegates at the Chicago convention. Chaos erupted -- and into the televised spotlight stepped a new face, Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy, seen here. Young (39), Harvard educated, urbane -- he was also Irish and Catholic. Democratic bosses hesitated -- and then flinched, remembering Al Smith. Kennedy lost to Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver -- who went on a losing ticket with Stevenson. But something had changed, thanks to the television coverage of the convention and the young senator's graceful concession speech. Four years later, JFK turned the tide, winning narrowly but forever dispatching the notion a Catholic could not be nominated or elected president or vice president. Over the years since, JFK's two surviving brothers Bobby and Ted, plus an assortment that includes Eugene McCarthy, Edmund Muskie, Sargent Shriver, Joe Biden, Bob Kerrey and John Kerry have all run for president, with Catholic Geraldine Ferraro serving as the 1984 vice-presidential running mate for Walter Mondale. In none of these races was their Catholicism raised as an issue, with Biden currently Barack Obama's vice president. Interestingly, as time moved on, the "Catholic vote" became more identified with conservatives -- and the Catholic Kerry lost the Catholic vote to Methodist George W. Bush in 2004.

The group trying to rise? The new American conservative movement. Goldwater, the Senator from Arizona, was the champion -- the Al Smith of conservatives. A Westerner, blunt talking (he joked that the answer to the Cold War was to "lob one into the men's room of the Kremlin") and freely espousing his conservative ideas, he was pilloried. As noted on a previous occasion, the liberal media of the day treated Goldwater scandalously. Time magazine later recounted how Goldwater was described as "psychologically unfit to be president," "emotionally unstable," "immature," "cowardly," "grossly psychotic," "paranoid," a "mass murderer," "amoral and immoral," a "chronic schizophrenic" and "dangerous lunatic." One psychiatrist breezily announced Goldwater had a "strong identification with the authoritarianism of Hitler, if not identification with Hitler himself." The Goldwater slogan -- "In your heart you know he's right" -- was remade by liberals into "in your guts you know he's nuts." Goldwater carried 5 states against liberal champion Lyndon Johnson.

But within the seeds of Goldwater's defeat was this moment -- a decision to pay for television time and allow actor Ronald Reagan 30 minutes to present the conservative case. Reagan quickly became to the conservative movement and Goldwater what JFK had been to Irish Catholics and Al Smith. Two years and a few days after that 1964 speech, Reagan was the governor-elect of California. By 1980 he was president-elect, and the conservative revolution began in earnest. The effort to destroy Reagan by re-playing the slurs against Goldwater failed -- miserably.

Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama: The group in question? African-Americans. In 1984, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, never elected to anything, set out on a seemingly quixotic quest for the Democratic presidential nomination. He was actually the second black to make the race, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm having set out briefly to do the same thing in 1972. Chisholm got nowhere -- but she was there. Jackson, dismissed as having no chance and not helping himself by calling New York City "Hymietown," nonetheless began shocking Democrats as he won five state caucuses or primaries and 21% of the popular vote, finishing a respectable third behind Walter Mondale and Gary Hart. Four years later he was back, this time doing even better. Jackson won eleven races, including the all-important Michigan primary that briefly elevated him to the position of front-runner. Eventually he lost to Michael Dukakis.

Between Jackson's 1988 victories and 2008, the sight of a prominent African-American in national politics became more and more familiar. Al Sharpton would run in the 2004 presidential primary as a Democrat, Colin Powell, already Ronald Reagan's national security advisor as Jackson challenged Dukakis, would go on to be the first black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Gulf War and later Secretary of State for George W. Bush in 2001 -- after passing up a race for president in 1996. A race in which the polls of the day had Powell leading the field. Clarence Thomas had become the second black Supreme Court Justice after Thurgood Marshall, in 1991. In 2005, Powell was succeeded at the State Department by Condoleezza Rice, the first African-American woman to hold the job. By 2008, Barack Obama -- assuming the JFK and Reagan role for blacks as the controversial Jackson had played the Al Smith and Barry Goldwater roles -- became the first black president.

Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann: The group in question? Conservative women. Without doubt, if the category were just "women" the pioneer would be 1984 Democratic vice-presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro. And, in 2008, New York Senator and ex-First Lady Hillary Clinton was the once-presumed front runner to be the first woman president, famously losing the nomination to Obama, whom she serves as Secretary of State.

But as liberals have tried furiously to ignore -- the term "woman" is in fact not synonymous with "liberal." So when Alaska's Governor Palin was the surprise choice for John McCain's running mate in 2008, the liberal media did what was once done to pathfinders Al Smith, Barry Goldwater, and Jesse Jackson. The idea of a conservative woman in the White House was a danger to liberals on multiples of levels -- and the attempt to shred Palin's reputation was on. The heretofore smart Governor of Alaska quickly was portrayed as dumb, stupid, etc. etc. etc.

With Obama elected and Palin Goldwaterized, there was almost an audible sigh of relief from the left-wing commentariat, particularly those at MSNBC.

Then along came Michele Bachmann.

The problem in attacking a newcomer from this or that group so ferociously is, of course, obvious if one is paying attention.

The attacks are the political equivalent of one free pass at political thuggery.

The targets can vary -- yet they are always the same.

Catholics, blacks, liberal women, conservative women --whatever. Opponents can -- and most assuredly will -- say anything to trash the high-flying symbol of the group in question. They said it about Al Smith, they said it about Barry Goldwater, they said it about Jesse Jackson.

The problem?

You can't get away with it twice.

In fact, it becomes politically impossible to play the same card twice -- without revealing the critics buying the mud by the barrel to be a bigot. An anti-Catholic bigot, an anti-black bigot, an anti-conservative woman bigot -- or sexist, as the case may be.

Having, as it were, shot their bolt on Smith, Goldwater, and Jackson -- by the time JFK, Reagan, and Obama came along the old arguments were greeted with a roll of the eyes. They could say JFK was going to dig a transatlantic tunnel to the Vatican -- but the overwhelmingly Protestant electorate didn't buy it. The man who dueled Richard Nixon in those famous and first televised debates was anything but threatening. Voters actually liked him -- and enough (with an assist from Chicago's Mayor Daley and some deceased voters, perhaps?) to make him president.

Having dumped all over Goldwater -- listening to the same old, same old arguments (he's an extremist, a nut, dumb as a post, dangerous etc.) as applied to Ronald Reagan by liberals simply didn't impress Californians in 1966, who two years earlier had voted overwhelmingly for the liberal LBJ. Now they gave Reagan almost a million-vote margin as governor. By 1980, Americans simply laughed at the Goldwater-like slurs from the Jimmy Carter White House by awarding Reagan 44 states and the White House.

In 2008, absolutely no one seriously compared Barack Obama to Jesse Jackson -- except Bill Clinton, who laughingly tried to insinuate a Jackson-Obama comparison during the Obama-Hillary Clinton showdown in South Carolina, as seen here. On the other hand, Jackson himself was infuriated that voters were not considering Obama as another Jackson (as seen here when an open microphone on live television caught him whispering that he wanted to cut off then-Senator Obama's… ahhhh…. "nuts").

Interestingly, Jackson's icy reception to the man who would succeed where he had so visibly failed was not unusual.

It should be said that Goldwater occasionally displayed signs of irritation with Reagan -- endorsing Gerald Ford over Reagan in the 1976 primaries. Not to mention that holding on to his Arizona Senate seat in the 1980 Reagan landslide with an all-night cliffhanger did nothing to lighten the mood. Al Smith, of course, had long since passed away by the time 1960 rolled around, so we'll never know exactly what Smith would think of Kennedy's success -- a success that indisputably came about because of Smith's first taking all the arrows intended for an Irish Catholic presidential nominee.

IS GOVERNOR PALIN going to run for president in 2012 -- or at all? By all indications, she hasn't decided.

But her friend Michele Bachmann has -- and at this moment is out there doing what a prospective nominee has to do to win. Which is to say -- impress the voters with ability, skill, knowledge of the issues etc., etc. And as she displayed in that New Hampshire CNN debate the other evening, Bachmann is gaining fans.

On Sean Hannity's Fox show, a Frank Luntz focus group loved her. CNN itself took notice. USA Today was smitten. The always astute Michael Barone spotted the rising Bachmann star as well.

Now the word -- you have to love it -- "Bachmannia" is being tweeted into the political vocabulary.

And so -- like clockwork -- just as their predecessors tried to re-make JFK into Al Smith, Reagan into Goldwater, Obama into Jackson, the usual suspects, doubtless startled as the political ground shifts, are suddenly trying to make Michele Bachmann into the caricature they created of, yes, Sarah Palin.

Suddenly Bachmann is a "balloon head" and a "zombie" (Chris Matthews here and here). MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell reached into his Palin barrel and accused Bachmann of "breathtaking… ignorance." Not content to stop there, O'Donnell called the voters in Bachmann's Minnesota district "shockingly ignorant." And Cenk Uygur, ensconced at MSNBC for a while, is out there criticizing Bachmann's looks, perhaps the all-time dumbest piece of political commentary since anti-Catholics in 1960 insisted there would be a tunnel from the White House to the Vatican. Then again, at least Uygur isn't Bill Maher on Palin.

Will it work? Is the one-trick pony capable of that second trick?

Will liberals try to Palinize Michele Bachmann? As they tried to Goldwaterize Reagan?

Answer?

But of course.

Will it work? Does the trick work twice?

President Reagan would surely laugh at the thought.

And Michele Bachmann? Who scored so impressively in that New Hampshire debate? She is doubtless realizing that MSNBC is the gift that keeps on giving.

Why?

With every passing day it is becoming clear what the "S" in "MSNBC" stands for:

Sexist.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.