Political Hay

The Original Mr. Anti-Establishment: Ronald Reagan

The Establishment's attacks on Sharron Angle have a familiar ring.

By 6.15.10

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They didn't like him.

To be more precise, they thought him an extremist, un-electable, an ultra-right wing nut, dumb, ignorant and, more to the point, not one of their crowd.

One out of six was absolutely correct. 

Ronald Reagan was not one of their crowd. Ever.

The "crowd"" was The Establishment. The Establishment as it appeared in all of its various incarnations during Ronald Reagan's political life. First it was the California Republican Party Establishment. Then the Liberal Establishment. Followed by the national Republican Party Establishment. Next up was The Eastern Establishment. Last but not least was the Washington Establishment.

And in each and every case save one (1976), Reagan -- and more to the point today -- the people who came to be known as "conservatives" or "Reaganites" beat those Establishments like a drum.

In the wake of the Nevada Senate primary victory of Republican Sharron Angle (and the emergence of South Carolina's Nikki Haley and the continuing popularity of Alaska's Sarah Palin -- not to mention other conservatives around the country), yet again The Establishment resurrects exactly the same now very old and tired alarms once raised about Ronald Reagan himself.

Who are these people?

Believe it or not, Webster's Dictionary actually provides a definition for "the Establishment" (although they don't capitalize that initial "T"). Definition: "The people and institutions constituting the existing power structure in society…the dominant or controlling group in a field of endeavor or organization."

It's hard now, impossible even, for many to understand the scorn and derision Reagan first faced when he emerged on the national political scene. Let's go back and take a look at what was once said of the man now revered by the American people as the greatest president in American history, according to a Gallup Poll taken a month after Barack Obama took office.

On January 22, 1965, which is to say two days after Lyndon Johnson was inaugurated and the liberal Great Society was launched in earnest -- three months after LBJ's landslide defeat of Barry Goldwater -- the New York Times was already on Reagan's case.

In just one story alone, in which Reagan was said to be weighing a race for Governor of California the following year, the liberal line that would follow Reagan for the rest of his active political life was already in evidence.

• "Conservatives" the piece said, were looking to Reagan as a way out of the "wreckage" of the 1964 election. Times Translation: Here goes the right wing again. Who created the Republican wreckage in the first place? Conservatives, that's who. Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, that's who. Why in the world would the GOP ever turn to a Goldwater supporter like Reagan for anything?

 "Republican organization leaders in California," said the paper, were skeptical that Reagan, an actor, was "going anywhere." Times Translation: The guy is an actor, has no substance and he's an extremist to boot. Get serious.

• Why was Reagan a joke? First, said the Times, there was that televised Goldwater speech in October, 1964. Times Translation: We have Reagan on film saying wacko things -- on television for God's sake -- that are (in the paper's words) "a brisk denunciation of the welfare state and Communist appeasement." The Times used this quote from his Goldwater speech, in which Reagan urged standing up to Soviet Communists, to illustrate just how nutty an out-of-the-mainstream extremist Reagan was:

"Or should Moses have told the children of Israel to live in slavery under the pharaohs? Should Christ have refused the cross? Should the patriots at Concord Bridge have thrown down their guns and refused to fire the shot heard 'round the world?"

Crazy guy, that Reagan! In fact, the Times and the foreign policy Establishment not only believed private citizen Reagan was crazy to believe things like this in 1965 -- the paper and the Establishment it so portentously symbolized still believed it in 1985, even as President Reagan was busy bringing the Soviet Union crashing to the ground and ending the Cold War. Who looks crazy now?

 Reagan had participated in an unsuccessful "conservative" (the paper's description) anti-Establishment effort to defeat California's Republican liberal U.S. Senator Thomas Kuchel in 1962. Kuchel was an Establishment icon, a RINO (Republican in Name Only) then serving as the Senate Republican Whip. Times Translation: Reagan is so far outside the mainstream of not just the California electorate but of the California Republican Party itself he couldn't possibly be nominated let alone get elected. Hanging out with right-wing extremists who thought they could dump Tom Kuchel shows just how politically stupid Reagan is. Tom Kuchel is One of Us. Reagan, clearly, is not. The guy is an idiot. Case closed.

 By 1965 Reagan has made the same speech he made on television for Goldwater to hundreds of different groups in person. For years. Yet the Times noted but two, both serving as the Establishment boogeyman designed to scare voters. The first was Dr. Fred Schwarz's Christian Anti-Communist Crusade. The second was a campaign appearance for former California Congressman John Rousselot, pointedly identified by the Times as "now a leader in the John Birch Society." Times Translation: Reagan actually speaks to groups that are infamous for far right-wing extremism. Everybody we know realizes these people are dangerous wackos. Reagan says he disagrees with some of their views, but, get this (says the Times): "He does not, however, see anything subversive" about the two groups. Amazing. What an ignorant man. Everybody we know in Our Crowd realizes the Birch Society is plotting to overthrow the government. Boo! Reagan is not just a fool -- he's a scary fool.

 "Republican organization sources" in California say there are too many "obstacles" for Reagan to win a GOP primary, says the Times. What are they? He hasn't been a longtime party activist, has no organized base of support, and, "the Goldwater wing's influence" in the California Republican Party has "greatly diminished." Times Translation: The nuts are still out there and Reagan is one of them. No one of any seriousness in the party Establishment takes him or them seriously.

A week had not gone by since the reporting of this story containing the above nuggets when the Times was breathlessly reporting another: that "the right-wing" in California had chartered a new group devoted to -- can you believe it?!! -- individual liberty and the Constitution!!! It was formed by a group of far-right millionaires and -- gasp! -- Ronald Reagan! The mere presence of the new group, said the Times, was offending GOP moderates and emphasizing again what a loser Reagan was.

One week after that, the Times was back. This time reporting that the "right wing" had frighteningly tightened its grip on California's youth -- which is to say the state's Young Republicans. Many of the delegates to the state YR convention were for Reagan. Particularly galling to the Establishment was a resolution that criticized then-Chief Justice Earl Warren, a liberal icon. Why? Warren had served as Attorney General and Governor of California during World War II and it was he who had enthusiastically supported packing up Japanese-Americans who were California residents and sending them to internment camps.

This resulted in the famously racist Korematsu v. United States decision that was a direct violation of the Fifth Amendment, as many legal scholars have now repeatedly pointed out. Warren had not only never apologized for his actions, as Alfred Regnery reminded in Upstream: The Ascendance of American Conservatism, Warren had blithely "opposed internment for Germans and Italians, because 'they were no different from anybody else.'" The YR's, zeroing in on the liberal racism of the matter, had pounced. Times Translation: The cheeky young conservatives supporting Reagan had the nerve to demand an apology from a liberal idol of the day for abject racism and a violation of the constitutional rights of people who were nothing more or less than American citizens. And Reagan is supported by these people? The nerve.

Now it was becoming a pattern with the Times. Looking back at the succession of Reagan stories in early 1965, the word "obsessive" comes to mind. The Times is writing constantly, after all, about a man who hasn't yet declared himself a candidate for anything and holds no office whatsoever.

Barely another week went by when the news was in that a California poll showed Ronald Reagan was a "poor choice" for Republicans because, unlike the Establishment choice, the Republican ex-Mayor of San Francisco, Reagan would "antagonize" too many voters with his conservative beliefs. A week later, another poll showed the moderate ex-Mayor, George Christopher, could beat the liberal Establishment Governor Edmund "Pat" Brown (father of today's Jerry Brown) while Reagan was a sure loser by almost ten points. Times Translation: If California Republicans are crazy enough to nominate this loon he will lose -- big time.

And so it went. One story followed another. "Reagan Upsets Unity" of California Republicans, headlined another one, citing a lack of "palatability" and Reagan's willingness to address the conservative California Republican Assembly, whose meeting had been opened by a Bircher. This was soon followed by a story reporting that moderate Establishment Republicans were becoming "alarmed" at Reagan's popularity in straw polls. Reagan is identified in this story as a "representative of the ultra-conservative wing" and a "successful money-raiser" for Goldwater. Times Translation: These nuts have money and could actually nominate Reagan. OMG! What if…like…he actually wins???!!!!

The Establishment narrative about Ronald Reagan -- and the growing conservative movement -- had begun. Actually, it has been laid foundationally with Goldwater, but with Reagan's arrival it was set in concrete. It would follow Reagan for the rest of his life. And conservatives like Sharron Angle until this day. A life for Reagan which included two landslide elections as governor of California (he would beat Jerry Brown's incumbent governor-father Pat by almost a million votes) and two more as president. Beating the Establishment every single time except with his fight against President Gerald Ford for the 1976 GOP nomination -- which he lost by a whisker. Over the years the Establishment was represented by both Democrats and Republicans, a list that included Pat Brown, California Democratic Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh, Ford, George H.W. Bush, Howard Baker, Bob Dole, John Connally, Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale. 

The anti-Reagan Establishment narrative, always illustrated by personal or policy anecdotes that were said to show Reagan and his followers were some combination of dumb, ignorant, stupid, racist, bigoted, anti-woman war mongers, is by now a standard. So too is the use of a boogeyman, a supposedly scary group designed to scare the pants off prospective voters. This tactic is to the Establishment what marching onto the battlefield in formation was to the British when they fought the colonists at Concord and Lexington in 1775. Which is to say: it is a narrative designed as a weapon of psychological intimidation. (Famously, the un-awed colonists had their own tactic. They fought back from behind the trees and rocks of their home turf and sent the dumbfounded British scurrying back to Boston in a humiliating defeat for the ruling Establishment of the day. It would not be the last time, either.)

This scare-tactic of yelling "Right wing! Right wing!" was brandished by one "Establishment' after another as they battled Reagan over the years, the only consistent accuracy in every battle turning out to be that Ronald Reagan was indeed decidedly not a member of whatever Establishment he had taken on. In fact, Reagan was busily building a new "anti-establishment Establishment" that from the earliest days of his nascent campaign for Governor of California to this moment has managed to become a major expanding force inside not just the Republican Party but in the modern anti-Establishment Virtual Newsroom that is talk radio, Fox News and the Internet. The Tea Party is the very epitome of a Reagan anti-establishment movement.

Of all the invective hurled in the direction of the current anti-Establishment by the Establishment candidates and media organs, there is little that wasn't thrown at Reagan during his career.

It is thus no surprise that as conservatives come to prominence they are assailed just as Reagan was, sometimes in eerily almost the same words.

LET'S STICK WITH THE CASE of Nevada's Sharron Angle, who won a fiercely contested three-way fight to face Senate Majority Leader and uber-Establishment leader Harry Reid.

Angle, with the predictability of heat in a Nevada desert, is being assailed by the Establishment as "essentially, crazy" (Huffington Post). Why? She has a "rigid ideology" and supports "phasing out Social Security and dismantling the Education Department." All three accusations were used against Reagan to portray him as a crazed, heartless, well-out-of-the-mainstream ultra-conservative far-right-wing ideologue, who, don't you know, was also a nut. Angle's position on getting rid of the Department of Education was, by the way, part of the 1980 Reagan platform, a vow that failed but did nothing to deter his landslide victory over Carter. The idea has certainly been in the mainstream debate over education for 30 -- say again 30 --years. Yet like clockwork, Reid's Nevada Democratic Party gushed out a press release in the style of Reagan opponents from Pat Brown to Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale calling Angle "wacky."

"Why would you give away the Senate majority leader who has delivered time and time again?" Bill Clinton recently asked Nevadans, defending the Establishment and Harry Reid in the same terms LBJ allies and the liberal media used to defend the California Establishment and Pat Brown in 1966 against Reagan. Where Brown derided Reagan as "the crown prince of the extreme right" and the New York Times called Brown's liberal Establishment record "truly remarkable" Clinton, sounding almost as Pat Brown-esque as Pat Brown himself, defended the Establishment by deriding Angle as too extreme.

And on cue, just as it did when Ronald Reagan began to emerge 45 years ago -- say again, 45 years ago! -- the unchanging narrative of the Establishment New York Times is at it still, describing Sharron Angle in a recent story as "firmly to the right of most mainstream Nevada voters."

Reaching back to their original anti-Reagan playbook, just as the Times of 1965 found Establishment Republicans to say Reagan was un-electable because he was too far right, so now they have found a Nevada Establishment Republican to step forward and play the role California Establishment Republicans played in 1965.

"I would say there are a lot of Republicans who will find it difficult to support Sharron Angle," said State Senator William J. Raggio, a Republican who has served in the Legislature since 1972. "Abolishing the Department of Education, phasing out Social Security, those are pretty extreme positions. I think any incumbent is vulnerable, but you have to have somebody that is also acceptable if you're going to win."

If one is part of today's Nevada Republican political Establishment, quite apparently, as Mr. Raggio demonstrates, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Clearly, Raggio was not a fan of Ronald Reagan -- or has absolutely no idea what Reagan said that resonated with so many millions of Americans. And if memory serves, running on a platform in 1980 holding positions on Social Security and the Department of Education almost identical to Sharron Angle -- Ronald Reagan won Nevada with over 62% of the vote.

And just as the John Birch Society was used as an Establishment boogeyman to scare voters about Reagan, so now is Scientology being used to try and scare Nevada voters about Angle. The Establishment loves the boogeyman, and there is always one to be had.

The problem?

The American people, their nation born out of rebellion against The Establishment of the day, has never been fond of those who believe they are born to rule. And they don't get scared of the boogeyman of the moment. Rebelling against the Establishment that was the authority of the Church of England was illegal in 1620. Boo! And so the Pilgrims simply rebelled -- by leaving England altogether and coming to America, the boogeyman be damned. Time after time after time ever since, the American spirit of rebellion against the Establishment of the day has eventually always carried the day. The Pilgrims birthed dissident colonies, and the rebellion against the Establishment that was symbolized by King George III birthed a nation. (If you rebel, we will hang you, threatened the King. Boo!) The rebellion went on, the boogeyman answered with a document called the Declaration of Independence. Within that nation, ever since, rebellion against whatever and whomever became the symbol of the Establishment became in itself a treasured American tradition.

By 1965, the new George Washington was a much-derided actor named Ronald Reagan. He was, sneered the Establishment defenders of the time, a too far-right, out-of-the-mainstream crazy to ever be elected too anything.

It was -- and is still -- the argument of choice made by Establishment defenders today as they attack everyone from the newly emergent Sharron Angle in Nevada to Carly Fiorina in California to Nikki Haley in South Carolina, Rand Paul in Kentucky, Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania and, let it not be forgotten, Scott Brown in Massachusetts. And most ferociously of all in the potential candidate class, let us not forget the anti-Establishment favorite Sarah Palin of Alaska.

Every one of these candidates (or prospective candidate in Palin's case) are the figurative descendants of American anti-establishment figures from William Bradford of the Pilgrims to George Washington and his fellow Founding Fathers, to Andrew Jackson, Lincoln, Reagan and, in the media of today, the upstarts at Fox and, but of course, the stars of talk radio beginning with Founding Father Rush to Hannity and Levin and Beck and moving straight on to the Internet and the redoubtable Drudge and Breitbart. Did we mention the late William F. Buckley, and that scourge of the Establishment The American Spectator's own R. Emmett Tyrrell?

Does anyone honestly look at Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin or Laura Ingraham and think the word "Establishment"? 

Of course not.

Which, of course, is why the reaction of The Establishment to all of these people and institutions is the same as they perceive the rise of new faces in Reagan's anti-establishment Establishment.

They can't stand Sharron Angle just like they couldn't stand Ronald Reagan.

Which is exactly why the Establishment supporting Harry Reid is so afraid of her.

And why the woman who, just like Ronald Reagan, couldn't win -- not only won her primary but is ahead in the latest Rasmussen poll, 50%-39%.

What would Reagan say about Sharron Angle's Establishment critics? You can just see the smile.

"Well, there they go again."

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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.