Category Archives: Minding the Middle

Remembering Betty Ford

I was sad to hear the news that Betty Ford had died, but happy that she was remembered as a First Lady who had made a difference. It’s hard now to remember how astonishing her  announcements that she had breast cancer, and, later, an addiction to painkillers were at the time.

Elly Peterson was not a longtime close friend of Betty Ford’s, but I know she admired her, and they worked closely together in the mid-seventies, when Peterson worked in Gerald R. Ford’s presidential campaign and served as co-chair of ERAmerica. Betty Ford was not afraid to  speak her mind, and make reasonable pronouncements about the world in which she lived, no matter the political consequences. Her children might be smoking marijuana, her daughter might live with someone before she was married, it was better for women to have abortions in medical facilities than in back alleys. Of course, that was not necessarily good politics as far as her husband was concerned, but so be it. She was certainly a breath of fresh air, no matter your age or political perspective.

Betty Ford’s commitment to the Equal Rights Amendment was important to Peterson, and other moderate women who were working for ratification of the amendment in the mid-1970s. When Peterson served as deputy chairman of the President Ford Committee in 1976, she recognized that Betty Ford was an asset who could help attract moderate women to support the president. Even after her husband was defeated in 1976, the former First Lady played an important role in continuing to support the Equal Rights Amendment. At the National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977, Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter served as honorary co-chairs of a rally in support of ERA that was attended by 4,000 persons. It was a demonstration that at the time, there was strong bipartisan support for the amendment. Ford remained a vocal advocate for the ERA at least through 1980, when the Republican National Convention failed–for the first time in many years–to endorse the ERA in its platform.

As I was wrapping up the research on my book, I interviewed Kathleen Currie, who had served as the PR person for ERAmerica. She commented on Peterson’s political savvy and her lack of ego in pursuing the ERA campaign. She recalled that Peterson’s attitude was “I don’t have to be on the podium for this to work,” and “Why do you need me when we could have Betty Ford?”

Persons younger than me will probably forever associate Betty Ford’s name with celebrity addiction. I don’t think she would mind that, but it would be nice if she were remembered for more than that.

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The “M Word”

The front page of Thursday’s Washington Post posed the question “Can a Republican moderate survive?” (The headline on the online version of the story is slightly different, presumably to prompt more hits from a search engine.)

I smiled when I saw the headline because if one was setting out to write a book today, you would not choose to write about a moderate Republican if you were hoping to tap into established groups to help market it.  The current Republican establishment is not very interested in “moderates,” and Democrats are not very interested in things that are labeled “Republican.” And for someone like Elly Peterson who abandoned the Republican Party and eventually labeled herself an “independent,” ….well, perhaps there’s a support group somewhere on Facebook that fits the bill.

The Post story discusses the presidential prospects of Jon Huntsman Jr., the former governor of Utah who recently stepped down as U.S, ambassador to China to pursue a presidential bid. Huntsman’s aides are apparently already concerned that he might be labled a moderate–the “M-word” one called it–because that is apparently viewed as cause for immediate disqualification among the voters likely to turn out in Republican presidential primaries.

They are probably right.

On the other hand, it is thought that Huntsman might attract the kind of Main Street and Wall Street business types that Mitt Romney is going after. And because he rides a motorcycle and once played in a rock-and-roll band, I, for one, would look  foward to viewing the inevitable bio-documentary that will be shown at the 2012 Republican National Convention, should he succeed.

But I scratch my head a little when I read that the main gripe against Huntsman is that he served as Barack Obama’s ambassador to China. Personally, I like the thought of someone with that kind of experience, not to mention the intellectual chops necessary to be able to speak Chinese, in the White House. Sure prefer it to a candidate who bases her foreign policy expertise on the fact that she can see Russia from her home. And since when did responding to a presidential call to service become disqualifying. In one breath, Republican leaders were calling on Obama to build a diverse, bipartisan Cabinet and then 18 months later seem to be intent on trashing any Republican who answered the call.

In 1971, after she stepped down as assistant chairman of the Republican National Committee, Peterson was very dispirited about the prospects for moderates like herself within the party.  She believed that Richard M. Nixon had not been interested in building and broadening the party the way that she felt George Romney had in Michigan.She went on to express her disappointment that Nixon had failed “to build a strong, vital, exciting party” the way Romney had in Michigan. She wrote in the first draft of a memoir she later self-published:

“This is what I failed to realize, that time is short and men are eager for power, their own power, not that of a party or a nebulous group of leaders—some effective, some ineffective, some with it, some way out of it. The job of President, itself, makes a politician a statesman and the concerns of the party are left to advisors, who, in too many cases are not political.”

Romney, she concluded “was an ‘accident of fate.’” Moderates, she added, “fail in this regard to build strong parties with their philosophy for they are based too often on men of power, interested largely in themselves while conservatives are based on an idea, a philosophy. They therefore are ready to accept a new leader if he offers them what they want in the way of ideas—to heck with his personality or appearance.”

“This then is the bitter pill I learned to swallow—that the ideas I have dreamed and thought of for so many years, yes, and worked for, simply will not come to pass.”

Huntsman’s fate over the next 12 months will be instructive.

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The New Moderates

The Pew Research Center has just released a new study that concludes that a growing number of Americans are choosing not to identify with either political party but consider themselves to be “independent.” However, it says that “rather than being moderate, many of these independents hold extremely strong ideological positions on issues such as the role of government, immigration, the environment and social issues. But they combine these views in ways that defy liberal or conservative orthodoxy.”

The challenge for political leaders, it concludes, is to hold together the disparate groups within their natural constituencies, many of whom may have sharp disagreements with core principles that have defined each party.

There was a time in her life when I believe Elly Peterson would have described herself as a “Main Street Republican,” a phrase Pew now uses to describe about 11 percent of the population. However, while this group is predominately Republican (76 percent), predominately  non-Hispanic white (88 percent) and concentrated in the South and Midwest, there the similarities with Peterson’s worldview of 40 to 50 years ago seem to stop. Among other things, the group is  “highly critical of government” and opposed to abortion. Twenty-four percent of  group members follow NASCAR racing.  Continue reading

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William Rusher

 William A. Rusher, former publisher of the National Review and a leading strategist among American conservatives in the late 20th century, died earlier this week at the age of 87. The Washington Post’s obituary noted that “by the mid-1970s, Mr. Rusher was so distressed by moderates’ influence over the GOP that he proposed creating a third national political party composed of what he regarded as hard-line conservatives.”

I have no notes on Elly Peterson’s views, if any, on Rusher and his particular influence. But she was very much a part of the battle for the soul of the Republican Party that took place between 1964, when Barry Goldwater won the party’s presidential nomination but lost his race in a landslide, and 1980, when Ronald Reagan finally succeeded in capturing the White House. She was very concerned about the growing impact of conservatives on her party, and how they were changing it.

From Peterson’s perspective, party moderates “reached their apex” in 1968, the year in which Richard M. Nixon won the presidency after candidates such as Michigan Gov. George Romney and New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller had sought it.  Pointing to that year, she wrote in her self-published memoir that Republican moderates “had so many outstanding governors, senators, congressmen, but after losing, this group seemed almost blurred in the party structure and many dropped out of sight.” Peterson herself stepped down as assistant chairman of the Republican National Committe after the mid-term elections of 1970.

Peterson also remained frustrated that moderates seemed to lack the kind of “fire in the belly” that conservatives had. “Moderates,” she wrote a few years later, “just don’t care enough to fight constantly to win. They will pour out their life’s blood for a month, or even three months, but when the battle is over, they want to go on to other things. It doesn’t seem to matter that much to them. Life goes on.

 “Not so the right wing. . . . They have tasted victory and they have tasted power . . . and they like it. They will make NO concessions to moderates, or liberals, but they expect to have concessions made to them.”

“The conservative movement,” Rusher told the National Review in 2009,  “is far too big, now, to be put out of business.”

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Venting

When Elly Peterson retired as assistant chairman of the Republican National Committee (then the highest post a woman could hold in the party) in 1970, she became involved with Common Cause, the bipartisan, “good government” organization that was just getting started. She also poured out some of her frustrations in the first draft of the memoir she would later self-publish for her family and friends.

When I retired from my 9-5 job about six years ago, I, too, looked around for something constructive to do, and became involved in a project of the League of Women Voters of Virginia, related to promoting reform of the redistricting process.

Virginia must complete its redistricting plans earlier than most states because our legislative elections will be held this coming fall. Sadly, despite several promising initiatives to promote alternative redistricting plans, the General Assembly did its deal, and adopted the Republican plan for the Republican-dominated House of Delegates and the Democratic plan for the Democratic-dominated Senate.

Like Elly did, I decided to “vent” at a keyboard. I was pleased that The Washington Post decided to run my “vent” on today’s Editorial page.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-redistricting-deal-that-cuts-out-va-voters/2011/04/08/AFxnGAHD_story.html

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