December 11, 2008
The trashing of Sarah Palin continues. Some of the shots have been downright ugly, such as the “Retarded Republican Babies for Sarah Palin” t-shirts. Equally notable, however, is the odd one-two punch of liberal journalists and moderate Republican leakers pounding Palin as a right-wing extremist and dummy. This tandem is responsible for some of the phony smears, including ridiculous claims that Palin doesn’t know Africa is a continent, or that she refused to appear with “pro-choicers” like Senator John Sununu (Sununu is pro-life).
These smears place Sarah Palin in good company. My mind races back to what Ronald Reagan endured: the same kind of leaks, by the same kind of moderate Republicans, to the same kind of liberal journalists, and with the same kind of allegations. Reagan, too, was portrayed as a Midwest dolt, a conservative zealot, a rube from a backwoods college in “fly-over” country.
After recently reading a remarkably unfair Newsweek hit on Sarah Palin, I thought of a piece in Time magazine in December 1986, titled “How Reagan Stays Out of Touch,” by reporter Richard Stengel—a product of a leak by one of the “pragmatists” in the Reagan White House. Stengel wrote this on the dawdling old fool in the Oval Office:
"[Reagan’s] briefing with his senior staff, which mainly concerns his daily schedule, lasts only about 30 minutes, and Reagan usually remains quiet, except for his trademark bantering. It is followed by a briefing from his National Security Council staff that is usually even shorter. When National Security Council staffers prepare Reagan for a full-fledged meeting of the NSC, the president typically does not ask any questions about the topic at hand; instead he inquires, 'What do I have to say?'…
"Reagan’s reading is not heavy…. Old friends and cronies have access to a special private White House post office box number and they can send him clippings that they think might strike his fancy. That box number is the source of many of Reagan’s familiar 'factoids,' snippets clipped from obscure publications.
"Reagan is not notably curious. His aides say he rarely calls them with a question and that he knows in only a vague way what they actually do. He does not sit down with his advisers to hammer out policy decisions. He is happiest when his aides form a consensus, something they try awfully hard to do….
"[Reagan] can work only if he is supported by a competent and active staff. During his first term, Chief of Staff James Baker protected Reagan from his woollier notions and helped put many of his ideals into practice. "
The article added that when a suffering, heroic James Baker tried to save the Reagan administration by reshuffling the Cabinet, the “typically detached Reagan look[ed] on like a bemused bystander.” The president was confused.
This story was a leak by a moderate Republican, a Reagan aide, trying to impress liberal journalists by embarrassing his president.
Conservatives nostalgic for Reagan have forgotten the problem their favorite president faced with leaks. Judge Bill Clark was brought into the White House in January 1982 in part to try to stem what Reagan called “a virtual hemorrhage of leaks,” which had become “a problem of major proportions,” particularly in foreign and defense policy.
It got so bad that Clark today confirms that he and Reagan actually considered employing a polygraph for White House staff. In response, the leakers were furious, and began leaking stories about the nefarious effort by Reagan and Clark to halt the leaks. The Washington Post and New York Times ran almost comical stories on the alleged fascistic attempts to halt the leaking, stories which themselves were the products of the very same leakers. It was nuts!
Not surprisingly, the leakers also sought to take out Clark, to which they devoted unrelenting attention until Clark resigned in late 1983. Like Sarah Palin, and like Reagan, Bill Clark was a committed across-the-board conservative, socially, economically, religiously—a pariah to the moderates.
Once the Reagan presidency finished in 1989, these Republican leakers followed George H. W. Bush into his administration, where they extended the same treatment to Vice President Dan Quayle, another principled conservative, who they disliked from the outset of the presidential campaign.
Worse, once these moderates failed to reelect Bush, they blamed Quayle for dragging down the ticket. This was a harbinger of the John McCain defeat, where the moderates tried to pin the loss of the moderate McCain on the conservative Palin.
There’s a lesson here for Sarah Palin going forward. The collaborators who ridiculed Dan Quayle, who undermined Bill Clark, failed in one crucial respect: they didn’t ruin Ronald Reagan.
Sarah Palin cites Reagan as her political “inspiration.” She said on the campaign trail that she thinks of Reagan “every day.” Well, Reagan was a model in handling this kind of criticism. (See, “Hating Palin: Words of Wisdom from Reagan.”)
Other than the leaks that jeopardized national security, which rightly upset him, Reagan took the insults in stride. When he read anecdotes about how he snoozed through NSC meetings and spent afternoons watching reruns of “Bedtime for Bonzo”—and was generally incapable of functioning without his “brilliant” moderate Republican handlers—he laughed.
Ronald Reagan was secure and at peace, accepting the world, and human nature, for what it is. For Sarah Palin to survive, she needs to do the same.
Paul Kengor is author of The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (HarperPerennial, 2007) and professor of political science at Grove City College. His latest book is The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007).