An article by Richard Rodda in December 1965 illustrated an effort to derail Ronald Reagan’s gubernatorial campaign before it even began. Former U.S. attorney for the southern district of California, Laughlin E. Waters labelled the Gipper “a darling of the ultra conservative John Birch Society.” This was despite the fact that Reagan had earlier issued a statement distancing himself from the controversial group. In Waters’ eyes, this former statement was not emphatic enough; And he accused Reagan of engaging in “a semantic pirouette.”
Waters seemed to perform a pirouette of his own, however, with a thinly veiled accusation of racism against the Reagan campaign, “Mr. Reagan stated 90 percent of the Negro vote goes to the Democrats. Therefore, he has written off the Negro…I am writing off no ethnic groups.”
This was an example of the shameful practice of quoting a candidate’s statement (in this case, an entirely factual observation), insinuating evil intent or motive behind that statement, and then damning one’s opponent for the un-American position they have “clearly” taken. Though frequently couched in terms of feigned moral outrage, this tactic almost always indicates a position of weakness and fear on the part of its leveller.
In another classic example of political weakness, Waters attempted to blame his poor polling upon others.
Waters issued a formal statement charging men behind the scenes are trying to throttle political discussion in their zeal for party unity…He was asked whether he was referring to Dr. Gaylord Parkinson, GOP state chairman, who recently issued what he termed the 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of other Republicans.” [Waters] said he had Parkinson in mind partially—that if the so-called commandment is designed to restrict open debate he is opposed to it.
This ostensible offense at “discussion throttling” and the restriction of open debate rang exceedingly hollow, however, when considered alongside Waters’ third charge against Reagan: that the former actor lacked sufficient qualification to speak on international questions (primarily a reference to Reagan’s criticism of the Johnson handling of Vietnam).
However, even if Waters’ dualing critiques had not been so hypocritical, the latter would still be a rather strange argument to make in a country built upon the notion of participatory democracy. If citizens have “no right” to comment upon international affairs, then who does? Who was “worthy” to critique the government? For whom was the First Amendment written?
This notion that only an enlightened few (“the little intellectual elite” as Reagan called them) were fit to have a say in the ordering of American government and public policy was a theme Reagan rebelled against from the very beginning, sounding the warning bell against such oligarchic tendencies in his 1964 speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater, as well as in his own announcement for candidacy of CA governor.
Some of the increasingly vitriolic charges being exchanged in the 2012 GOP presidential sweepstakes serve as a unfortunate reminders that we’ve not necessarily learned much since 1966. It seems that our party still has too many “waters” that are all too tragically shallow.