Tags: Reagan | Bush | Leibovich | conservative

How 'Formers' Prosper in This Town

By    |   Monday, 26 August 2013 03:02 PM

The purpose of this article is to expand on a point from New York Times Magazine's Mark Leibovich's instant classic "This Town," then to tie it to the larger issue of what went wrong with the Reagan administration, the "Reagan revolution" and the conservative movement.


The starting point for the discussion is the concept of a "former." As explained by Leibovich, this is a person who builds a successful and prosperous career in Washington based on having formerly occupied an important policy position. For Leibovich, the quintessential example is Kenneth Duberstein, who served briefly as White House Chief of Staff in the last six months of Reagan's first term. Ever since then, he has made lots of money representing multinational corporations and has wined and dined luxuriously around This Town serving as an all-purpose eminence gris for those who think, perhaps mistakenly, that they will pick up some profound insight by listening to this him.

Another way to explain the role of a former is to introduce into the conversation the Hebrew word protexia, which could also be a Russian word and an English word. It means just what it sounds like it means. If you want to do something in business or politics and you've got protexia, you can do it, and no one will mess with you. Otherwise, good luck wit dat. As Yogi would say, "If you don't have it, that's why you need it." One possible solution for those who find that they lack protexia is to rent it from someone who has it; someone like Duberstein.

Leibovich hastens to say that people are entitled to make a living. I would add that conservatives are entitled to heap scorn on people they think are trading falsely on their service in a nominally conservative administration that jumped the tracks and to call a RINO a RINO.

In fairness (and why be fair?; after all, this is Washington), Duberstein did a two-year stint as Deputy Chief of Staff for about two years before being promoted to the big job. By Washington standards, two years is long enough to confer a measure of credibility as far as time in service is concerned.

For example, I found myself waiting in one of the House barber shops while Richard Pratt, then chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board (FHLBB), the failing captured regulator of the failing savings and loan industry, when another customer asked Pratt how long he planned to stay in the job. Pratt chuckled and replied, "Two years. That's the length of a Mormon mission."

The way Duberstein tells it, he and other Republican luminaries such as James Baker and former Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn., were key personnel Reagan brought into the White House to help carry out his policies. That sounds nice, but it comes from a man who, according to Wiki, decided to support Obama in 2008 after he failed to land a key post in the presidential campaign, so to speak, of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Ironically, legend has it that McCain himself would have jumped from the Republican Party on a couple of occasions if his ego had been stroked in the right way at the right time, either to create a Democrat majority in the Senate or to join then-Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., on the ticket for president in 2004.

Alternative View

The following is an admittedly idiosyncratic view of the course of the Republican Party and the conservative movement during the Reagan-Bush years. After President Nixon's abrupt resignation at the culmination of the Watergate scandal, the ascension of Gerald Ford to the presidency, accompanied by Ford's proclamation that, "Our long national nightmare is over," followed by Ford's pardon of Nixon, Ford sought a full term in 1976.

Reagan opposed Ford in the re-enactment of a struggle between the so-called "moderate" wing of the party and the conservative wing. Nixon had presented himself as a unifier of the two wings, but as he proved to represent a moderate, big government philosophy, the conservatives became disenchanted. Reagan was their standard bearer as they mounted a comeback.

Jimmy Carter emerged from a field of 15 Democrats, because he was the only candidate in the primary who raised significant funds, thanks to an imaginative program of bank exploitation orchestrated by the recently deceased banker Bert Lance.

The Republican field consisted of only two candidates, Ford and Reagan. Reagan mounted a remarkably strong challenge under the direction a genius campaign consultant, John Sears, who devised the stratagem of choosing the vice presidential candidate in advance, on the theory that delegates could know in advance what ticket they were voting for. In another stroke of genius, Sears recruited Sen. Richard Schweiker, R-Penn., a moderate Republican who was willing to elevate his game as a campaigner to embrace a somewhat conservative message.

If Sears had thought to file complete slates of delegates in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio, the race may have been even closer, but Ford prevailed. The general election turned out to be closer than expected, as Carter won by 50 percent to 48 percent in the popular vote and 290-245 in the electoral vote. The Ford people blamed Reagan for their defeat, and after Reagan proceeded to beat Carter in 1980, Carter and Ford formed a de facto alliance and pursued a joint public relations campaign against Reagan.

At the 1980 Republican convention, the Ford camp sought to salvage something by floating the idea of a "co-presidency" with Reagan. As the negotiations proceeded, the Ford people became dissatisfied with the way they were going, and as I recall, someone, perhaps Ford himself or one of his seconds, blabbed to Dan Rather of CBC News. At that point, the Reagan camp broke off the talks.

By this time, Sears had long since been fired, and the Reagan people were at loose ends over what to do next. As Richard Allen, a key Reagan campaign adviser, told the story in The New York Times Magazine, Allen informed the group that he had been keeping a line open to the camp of George H.W. Bush. Apparently, the only consideration was whether Bush would accept; there didn't seem to be time to stop and think, is this a good idea, given that it entails a risk that Bush could one day actually become president. Ironically, as Allen tells it, his objective was to keep the Rockefeller faction out of the Reagan administration.

My view is that while Allen's intentions may have been good, he somehow failed to realize that Bush was in fact the full embodiment of the Rockefeller view of government as the avatar of the interests of multinational corporations, especially those representing the "extractive" industries, such as oil and natural gas. As events unfolded, the financial services industry morphed into an extractive industry.

Superficially, the Reagan administration brought America out of the Carter malaise and into the light of "Morning in America." However, it only takes a somewhat deeper look to conclude that what ensued was, in effect, a co-presidency between Reagan and Bush. Over time, Reagan became the junior partner as the Bush people took advantage of the Iran Contra scandal of Reagan's second term to put in place a full complement of the people Duberstein was talking about — people who did not share a conservative view of policy, but instead appropriated the word conservative, later "compassionate conservativism," (sic) to denote their philosophy that government can never do enough for multinational corporations and for the clients of the lobbyists who came to fill the policy vacuum in the Reagan White House.

With the election of George W. Bush to two terms as president as the second coming of LBJ, the transformation was complete, and all that remains of the conservative movement is a remnant commonly referred to as the Tea Party.

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The purpose of this article is to expand on a point from New York Times Magazine's Mark Leibovich's instant classic "This Town," then to tie it to the larger issue of what went wrong with the Reagan administration, the "Reagan revolution" and the conservative movement.
Monday, 26 August 2013 03:02 PM
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