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The Election and the Future: A Symposium

Referendum on Reagan

C. Vann Woodward

It was President Reagan himself who suggested that the recent presidential election might be regarded as a referendum on his own presidency. There is much to support his view. “I feel a little like I’m on the ballot myself,” he said, and he campaigned that way. The Vice-President, as nominal head of the ticket, deferred to him with the same dog-like loyalty he had habitually shown. Reagan’s support was clearly George Bush’s most precious asset, and his only hint of a program for the new administration was a virtual continuation of Reagan’s policies. Michael Dukakis tacitly acknowledged the threat of the referendum concept and the President’s popularity by the cautious way he criticized Reagan.

Considered as a referendum, the election can be regarded as a personal triumph for the President. His “approval poll” grew with the campaign and by election time was several percentage points ahead of Bush’s percentage of the popular vote cast. It was both a personal vindication and incomparable theater. The ex-president will be “riding off into the sunset,” as he liked to put it, wrapped in more glory than any Hollywood sunset can provide, but though he may not realize it, he has also done something no comparable regime in American history has been able to bring off.

The classic instances of presidential and administrative malfeasance provided by Presidents Grant, Harding, and Nixon offer no precedent for Reagan’s vindication. Grant tried and failed miserably, Harding died in office before the worst was revealed, and Nixon resigned rather than have to face impeachment and trial. Moreover, the misconduct in none of their administrations—whether reckoned by the number investigated, the number indicted, or the number convicted, the sums of money involved, or the rank of the culprits—can compare with the malfeasance in Reagan’s administration. Nor were Nixon’s offenses any more impeachable than Reagan’s.*

Furthermore, none of Reagan’s thirty-nine predecessors in the office, nor all of them taken together, left the country such staggering burdens of national debt, interest payments, budget deficits, and trade imbalances, or left American industry, its banking system, and education in such a crippled and uncompetitive plight. And it is very doubtful that any of Reagan’s predecessors bequeathed with his blessing and ardent support such a shallow-minded and unprincipled successor as George Bush—and such a vice-president as the latter deliberately chose.

Debate over how and why this happened will likely continue a long time. Putting aside illusory prosperity and temporary peace as explanations, and sticking to the presidential election, I turn to four other popular theories:

1) Dukakis and his shortcomings. While he clearly had shortcomings and might have done better, he actually did much better in popular and electoral votes than any of the three defeated Democratic presidential candidates who preceded him.

2) The “media.” They were manipulated much like the public and their faults have been exaggerated. Their main offense was their conception of nonpartisanship—dividing blame equally between culprit and victim (the candidates, the commercials, the campaigns—all plural).

3) The “mainstream.” Actually both candidates swam in it, the difference being the advantage Bush and handlers derived from attaching themselves to the flotsam that always floats on the surface of the mainstream—chauvinism, nativism, racism, and assorted phobias.

4) Gullibility of the electorate. History does not provide evidence that the present American electorate is any more (or less) gullible than previous electorates, or for that matter electorates of other Western countries.

Back of all that and more fundamental are the skill and expertise, the cynicism and unscrupulous methods, by which the electorate was successfully gulled and deceived. All the tested methods of McCarthyite character assassination and phobia spreading were employed, but the main reliance was upon race. Not only familiar code words—crime, rape, public housing, urban conditions—but blatantly outright racism such as the use made of Willie Horton. The people who did all this were not rednecks or Western toughs from the boondocks. George Herbert Walker Bush, Yale 1948, and James Addison Baker III, Princeton 1952, come from a higher level of social, economic, and educational elite than any other frontrunning leaders since Franklin Roosevelt. They knew exactly what they were doing.

There is no reason to believe that the new president will be a different man from the candidate—a man who has proved he will stop at nothing to advance his political career. He has appointed James Baker, architect of his strategy, to head his cabinet and serve, according to insiders, as a “deputy president” with unprecedented roles and powers. In the wings, as far out of sight as possible, sits in readiness a vice-president with the bloom of his John Birch Society upbringing still upon him. Government must go on, of course, and the new president must gain sufficient support to govern. It remains to be seen whether he has left in the hearts of intelligent people a sufficient modicum of respect and enough compassion to overcome the distrust, resentment, and contempt he has so abundantly earned. They can derive such assurance as they may from his statement that “the presidency provides an incomparable opportunity for moral leadership.”

A Spooky President

Garry Wills

Bush is recommended to us as lightweight but teachable. If not imposing himself, he will bring qualified people into office with him—Jim Baker, Nick Brady, Dick Thornburgh. But he has proved, in the past, as much bullyable as teachable. Richard Nixon, who had him report on the loyalty (to Nixon) of the UN staff, told Haldeman, “he’d do anything for the cause.” In China, he was humiliated by Henry Kissinger. When Bush wanted to keep running against Ronald Reagan, in the 1980 Republican primaries, Jim Baker removed him from the contest without consulting him. Bush went along. There was a symbolic moment in this year’s primaries when Bush’s media consultant, Roger Ailes, hovering around Bush before he went on camera for an interview, swooped over and plucked a stray hair from his client’s eyebrow. “That hurt,” Bush said with satisfaction.

Being bullied is part of his heritage. He lists as his favorite Andover teacher Arthur “Doc” Darling, described in the Andover history as “the despair of slow students, who never understood what he was talking about a good part of the time.” Bush was one of these slow students, who lived in fear of flunking out of Andover by failing Darling’s class. Darling boasted that twenty-three of seventy boys were dismissed from the school in one year because they could not meet his standards. He ridiculed the slow-witted, naming one bunch of them the Nine Old Men after the despised Supreme Court of the time. One student claimed that Darling most prepared him for life since “he had run into many unreasonable things in life, but none that could touch Darling.”

Coincidentally, Ronald Reagan had another such teacher—a large frog in a small pond, who also insisted on begin called “Doc” in a faculty where few had Ph.D.s. By the time Reagan went to Eureka College, Dean Samuel Harrod wanted to be President Harrod, and manipulated the students into a “strike” to make him win that office. Reagan is said to have learned to take direction as a movie actor, but he was docile to Harrod’s instruction even in college.

So can we expect another White House run by the staff, with a figurehead president disengaged from all but a few points he feels deeply about? Perhaps not. Bush’s choice of Quayle shows the bullied person’s attempt to have someone he can bully. It goes with a preference for shady company. Dwight Chapin, the convicted Watergate criminal, was brought into the Bush campaign, and news reports claim that Bush wants Fred Malek (Nixon’s famed purger of Jews from the Bureau of Labor Statistics) welcomed back to his administration. Bush invited Oliver North to his Christmas party after the Iran scandal broke. (Rob Owen, North’s confederate and laureate in the contra resupply effort, worked for Senator Quayle’s office in 1982–1983.) Strange customers like Felix Rodriguez were in and out of Bush’s office. He was not only a spook himself. He actually likes his fellow spooks.

Bush is the first CIA director to become president, a more dangerous precedent than having a military general in that post. We were understandably concerned when Yuri Andropov, of the KGB, became general secretary of the USSR. But the odd dynamics of a totalitarian regime made Andropov’s short reign lead to Gorbachev’s. The KGB’s mandate is to spy on its own citizenry (something the CIA does only by breaking its own charter), and Andropov knew more about his own country’s weaknesses, especially the economic ones, than most Soviets were allowed to. No such benign training seems to have come Bush’s way, who reacted to the Vincennes disaster by saying, “I will never apologize for the United States of America. I don’t care what the facts are.” It is a disconcerting statement from a man whose job, as CIA director, was precisely to learn what the facts are.

How long he can maintain a willed ignorance on the state of the economy (which he called flourishing during the campaign) is the great domestic question. Congress is one teacher he is likely to resist. Baker and Brady will presumably humor him and form their own program, as David Stockman did with Reagan, but the new team must try to reverse Stockman’s dismaying success in imposing Reaganomics on the national economy.

The one bright prospect is that the arms control process, which Reagan blundered into by a combination of his advisers’ chicanery and his own naiveté, will be continued as the one discernible foreign policy triumph of the Reagan years. Republicans have more room than Democrats to maneuver on matters like détente, disarmament, and good relations with China. Bush will presumably have to satisfy his right wing on Supreme Court appointments—though it is unlikely that any Supreme Court he appoints will actually send the question of abortion back to the states, whose Republican legislators dread having to vote against the majority that favors leaving choice to the woman. But “tough” court appointments may leave Bush free to act reasonably abroad, if he can overcome his predilection for shady characters—and if those characters have no leverage on him from actions committed while he was the director.

The Inept Campaign

Kevin Phillips

The recent election suggests four conclusions: First, Michael Dukakis threw away what could have been a Democratic victory on the presidential level as well as at the grass roots. Second, populist cultural conservatism—“furloughs and flags”—still packs a big wallop. Third, Democratic presidential prospects for 1992 are better than party leaders think they are. Fourth, by that time the Republicans may be wishing that Michael Dukakis had inherited the domestic and international legacy of Reaganomics.

To begin with, Dukakis probably should have won. The Democrats’ virtually unprecedented gains in the US Senate, US House, governorships, and state legislatures confirm that 1988 was a year in which a slight Democratic tide was running. The GOP presidential coalition was soft and vulnerable; the June and July polls that showed Dukakis ahead of George Bush by 17 to 18 points were not flukes. They confirmed the general success of the Democrats between January and July in hounding the Reagan administration in general, and Bush in particular, with everything from Iran-contra and support of Noriega to Michael Deaver, astrology, and the Pentagon scandals.

  1. *

    C. Vann Woodward, ed., Responses of the Presidents to Charges of Misconduct (Delacorte Press, 1974). Prepared for the House Committee on the Judiciary during its deliberations on the impeachment of Richard Nixon and written at the request of Special Counsel John Doar, this study did not include misconduct in the presidency then under investigation.

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