Ronald Reagan: the Right’s Martin Luther King

A couple of weeks ago I was watching Hardball on MSNBC, and Chris Matthews — you know, the guy who feels a thrill running up his leg when he hears Barack Obama speak — was waxing nostalgic about the warm, fuzzy friendship his boss, the late House Speaker Tip O’Neill had with Ronald Reagan. I almost swallowed my Glide. (I should explain: the only reason I was watching Hardball was to have something to keep my eyes and ears occupied while I was flossing my teeth.)

Matthews, to put it charitably, has a very selective memory. Here is what Tip O’Neill said publicly about Ronald Reagan on one occasion:

The evil is in the White House at the present time. And that evil is a man who has no care and no concern for the working class of America and the future generations of America, and who likes to ride a horse. He’s cold. He’s mean. He’s got ice water for blood.

And that’s just one of the milder things that was said about Reagan. Before and during his Presidency, and even after he left office, Reagan was regularly and savagely attacked by liberals and the news media. To hear them talk back in the day, Reagan was not only evil, he was stupid too. Even some Republicans, such as Henry Kissinger and Kevin Phillips, often spoke of him with barely concealed contempt.

In fact, the Left, the news media, and — before he won the Republican Presidential nomination — the GOP establishment too, treated Reagan pretty much the same way they treat Sarah Palin today. Reagan’s spoiled-brat youngest son, Ron, who has been going around promoting a book about his father, sees nothing in common between Palin and the 40th President. But then, how would he know? By his own choice, little Ronnie was estranged from his father during the latter’s White House years — he didn’t even invite his parents to his wedding.

Now little Ronnie and the mainstream media have joined forces to give the old man a makeover. Reagan, says his “official” biographer Lou Cannon (a former MSM’er himself) “was no tea partier”. No, he was “civil”, and was “willing to compromise”, and was — yes, some are actually claiming this — a crypto-liberal who “saved” Social Security and Medicare, the centerpieces of the New Deal and the Great Society. They have even described Obama’s recent State of the Union address as “Reaganesque” — and meant it as praise for Obama!

As Steven F. Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute has observed, “the liberal revision of Reagan has been unfolding for a while now, and at the center of it is the effort to separate him from his conservative beliefs.” In other words, Reagan, far from being the conservative hero the Tea Party claims as its own, was actually one of us! (Anyone who really believes this should read Ed Lasky’s essay, “The Media, Reagan, and Obama” in American Thinker.)

All this shows that the Left has finally wised up about Reagan. After years of vilifying him as evil and stupid they have at last realized there are too many Americans around who remember the things he actually did — things like ending the arms race and the Cold War. The Gipper has become an icon, and the only thing you can do with an icon is try to appropriate him for your own purposes. That Reagan is no longer around to object to this has made their job all that much easier.

If something seems familiar about all this, it should. Conservatives have done the same thing with another icon — Martin Luther King Jr. King, we are now told by numerous folks on the Right, was actually a conservative! When people claim this, they usually mean social conservative, but even libertarians sometimes feel the need to wrap themselves in King’s mantle: Ron Paul said King was “one of my heroes because he believed in nonviolence and that’s a libertarian principle”. Some have even gone so far as to claim that King was a Republican!

Disputing the claim that King was “really” a conservative is not as easy as debunking the myth of Reagan’s “liberalism” because, back when King was alive, the issues dividing Left and Right were not the same ones that divide us today. For example, Roe v. Wade was still five years in the future when King was assassinated, and as far as is known, he never directly expressed an opinion on abortion. Likewise, “gay” rights. Since King was a minister in the black church which, then as now, was socially conservative, it might seem reasonable to assume he was opposed to abortion and, say, gay marriage. But social liberals can make an equally valid claim to King’s legacy, pointing to his receipt of Planned Parenthood’s first Margaret Sanger Award and to his close association with the openly gay civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. But abortion and “gay” rights weren’t issues when King was alive — even Planned Parenthood didn’t do abortions back then — so we really can’t be sure.

As for King being a Republican, perhaps they are confusing him with his father, Martin Luther King Sr., who really was a Republican, or maybe some people think he was a Republican because he cribbed the climax of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech from Archibald Carey’s speech at the 1952 GOP national convention. The claim that King was a Republican apparently comes from his niece Alveda King. I am sure Ms. King is sincere in her belief in her uncle’s Republicanism, but the fact remains that he never endorsed any candidate for office. We don’t even know if he was registered to vote.

While we have no way of knowing where King would stand on today’s issues, we do know where conservatives of that era stood on King: they didn’t like him (although they didn’t hate him with the fervor with which liberals hated Reagan). Conservatives today would like to deny it, but with very few exceptions — such as the conservative Republican Senate Leader Everett Dirksen leading the fight for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — they were at best indifferent to the civil rights movement and, at worst, openly hostile to it. William Buckley’s National Review, then considered the Bible of the conservative movement, carried James J. Kilpatrick on its masthead as a contributing editor and heavily promoted his book defending school segregation. (Kilpatrick later repudiated his racist views and, to his credit — and unlike many other like-minded conservatives — openly acknowledged that he had once held such views.)

Even modern-day conservatives who would wholeheartedly endorse what King did in the early days of the civil rights movement — such as his leading the Montgomery bus boycott, which was, after all, aimed at removing a particular type of government interference in the marketplace — would have balked at endorsing the post-1965 King. After passage of the Voting Rights Act, King turned his attention to other left-wing causes. He denounced the U. S. presence in Vietnam, and argued for reparations for slavery and a guaranteed annual wage. When he went to Memphis, where he was assassinated, it was not to lead a civil rights march, but to lend his support to a strike by a public employees’ union.

It is reasonable to argue that, had King not been assassinated, he never would have attained his iconic status. It doesn’t matter. He is an icon, and since he’s not around to object, he can be appropriated for whatever purpose.

Just like Ronald Reagan.