Our Conservative, Criminal Politicians

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Richard Kalvar/Magnum Photos
Nancy and Ronald Reagan at the Republican National Convention, Kansas City, Missouri, 1976

1.

“We are living under the reign of government gone amuck,” the keynote speaker proclaimed:

At every station in this society…government is feared and distrusted…. It is the Democrat Party…which has built the federal bureaucracy ever larger and larger and directed the agents of that bureaucracy to penetrate ever deeper and deeper into the conduct of all of this nation’s private affairs and personal lives. Yes it is the Democrat Party…which has unleashed upon the American people the curse and abomination of government which today careens about, so clearly out of effective control.

From a recent Tea Party convention, you might think; but you would be wrong by nearly four decades. This was the keynote address at the Republican National Convention in Kansas City in August 1976, a fascinating moment in modern American history. The keynote speaker was John Connally of Texas, a prominent Democrat himself for forty years before converting, three years earlier, to the Grand Old Party. He was a man of boundless ambition and limited scruple who had sensed that the political winds within the Republican Party were blowing rightward.

Five years earlier, as Richard Nixon’s treasury secretary, Connally orchestrated a presidential decree freezing wages and prices throughout the American economy—an intervention by government that didn’t involve a single Democrat except Connally. His speech, about the “curse and abomination” of government, was preposterous; but it reflected the conventional Republican wisdom that summer: the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan, the former Democrat and insurgent candidate for their 1976 presidential nomination, was more closely attuned to rank-and-file Republican sentiment than the uncertain bromides of the accidental president of the day, Gerald Ford.

Reagan nearly beat Ford for the nomination that year. If fifty-nine of the 2,257 convention delegates had switched from Ford to Reagan, Jimmy Carter would have faced the Hollywood actor four years sooner than he did. A Ford defeat would have been an unprecedented humiliation for an incumbent president, albeit one who came to the job by the strangest path ever followed to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Reagan had sensed what activist Republicans most wanted to hear, and he appealed to their antipathy to government.

Today we have dreadful politics that feature unrestrained partisan warfare, a gridlocked government, and unprecedented public cynicism about politics and politicians. One of our two parties is dominated by a faction eager to undermine the functioning of the government. This grim situation may seem to have arisen since Barack Obama became president in 2009, but it has much deeper roots in the events of the 1960s and 1970s. John Connally’s 1976 keynote address is a powerful clue to this history.

2.

The books by John Dean and Rick Perlstein, different in approach and style, help explain the origins of today’s mess. Read together, they…



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