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Experts Mull Historical Context of GOP’s Convention Postponement

September 1, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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The Republican Committee decided to delay convention events on Monday due to Hurricane Gustav -- a first in party convention history. Historians discuss the decision and its political significance in the context of past conventions.

RAY SUAREZ: Thanks, Gwen.

With me for that are our presidential historians, Richard Norton Smith, scholar in residence at George Mason University, and Peniel Joseph, professor history and African-American studies at Brandeis University.

And, Richard, we have a quieting down, an emptying out convention floor, instead of one filling up in anticipation of seeing the president. Has anything like this ever happened before?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: In a word, no.

I thought someone this week would be brief, you know. No, this is unprecedented.

But, you know, Andy had a point when he was talking earlier. There are going to be some people who won’t say it in front of a camera, but who privately see this as not entirely a cause for despondency, because the fewer people out there who see the president and the vice president this evening, the better it may be for the people in here.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, one thing the 2008 GOP has with parties past on both sides over the long history of conventions is deciding what to do with past leaders or incumbent leaders as the party leans forward to the next election at a convention.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, you know, first of all, to be fair, there’s a poll today that says 71 percent of these delegates approve of President Bush’s performance. That’s just that they’re not necessarily representative of the electorate at large.

I’ll give an example. You can’t get much more radioactive than Richard Nixon following his resignation from office in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Two years later, he continued to cast a long shadow over the Ford White House and the Ford campaign against Jimmy Carter.

There was a press conference in October of ’76. A reporter stood up and said, “Mr. President,” to Gerald Ford, “twice in this press conference you’ve referred to ‘your predecessor.’ Once you’ve referred to ‘Lyndon Johnson’s successor.’ Are you deliberately trying to avoid saying Richard Nixon’s name?” Ford said, “Yes.”

That said it all. Richard Nixon never did, in fact, appear at another Republican convention. And it made news four years ago when his name was actually uttered from the podium by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Ex-presidents' shadows

Richard Norton Smith
George Mason University
It's easier to imagine a post-Bush Republican Party than it is a post-Reagan Republican Party.

RAY SUAREZ: Peniel Joseph, we're not only talking about unpopular leaders that parties have wrestled with what to do with in the past.

PENIEL JOSEPH, Brandeis University: Absolutely. In August of 2000, President Bill Clinton proved to be an albatross on the candidate Vice President Al Gore. Clinton had record approval ratings and was really one of only two men in the postwar era to be elected to and serve two terms as president, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan.

But the Lewinsky scandal made Clinton personally toxic. He appeared once at the convention August 14th. And Al Gore only mentioned him one time in his speech.

So for the rest of the campaign, what Al Gore attempted to do was actually embrace Clinton's legacy, while really distancing himself from the president as a personal figure. And it proved to be a really tough act to follow, and eventually it proved to be his undoing.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Richard, it's been 20 years since Ronald Reagan's appearance at the Louisiana Superdome, as it happens, to speak to the 1988 Republican convention at the conclusion of his term. For a long time, the GOP lived in the shadow of Ronald Reagan. Does it still?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, I think it warms its fire -- its hands by the fire ignited by Ronald Reagan. I mean, this is still very much Ronald Reagan's party.

It's easier to imagine a post-Bush Republican Party than it is a post-Reagan Republican Party. And yet, if you look at the Tories in England, for example, granted, Mrs. Thatcher left office under different circumstances, but it took a long time for that party to find a new identity, clinging, presumably, to the values of Thatcherism, whatever that means, but adapting them to a different political and cultural climate.

And that is one of the real challenges. And it's interesting, because part of the Reagan coalition, the kind of populist, particularly the religious right, the right-to-life movement, they are ecstatic with the choice of Sarah Palin, because they see her as an unconventional conservative, a populist, anti-establishment conservative, very much, perhaps, the next generation of Reaganism.

Wrestling with the Reagan legacy

Peniel Joseph
Brandeis University
When we look at this convention, really postponing or at least truncating its schedule this past Monday, it goes a long way towards combating that perception that the Republican Party doesn't care about racial minorities.

RAY SUAREZ: Peniel Joseph, is the party still wrestling with just what to do or has it been in the past years wrestling with what to do with parts of the Reagan legacy, what to keep, what to discard?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Absolutely. If the post-Lyndon Johnson Democratic Party has been wrestling with the perception that it's a party of special interests, the post-Reagan Republican Party wrestles with the perception that it's really the party of business or corporate interest.

And what's very interesting about that is that, over the last quarter of a century, what the Republican Party has attempted to do is really think of itself as a party of compassion, a party of an ownership society, and really a party of racial inclusiveness, to the extent that the perception of the party is that it's a party that doesn't really care about poor people, it's not a party that cares about minorities, and, in fact, is a party that's hostile to minorities.

Ronald Reagan himself had a little something to do with that, when we think about public policy, and the perceptions of his reputation of affirmative action and also his initial resistance to sign the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday into law.

By 1988, when his vice president, George Bush, is running, we've got the infamous Willie Horton ad, which really solidified for many a perception, at least, that the Republican Party really had a long way to go towards racial inclusiveness.

By 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit, that perception almost became political reality and a huge albatross. So when we look at this convention, really postponing or at least truncating its schedule this past Monday, it goes a long way towards combating that perception that the Republican Party doesn't care about racial minorities.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Peniel Joseph, Richard Norton Smith, thank you both, gentlemen.