By Angering Liberals, Reagan Helped Restore Their Fire

Posted June 7, 2004 at 3:38pm

This past weekend I had the honor of attending the Book Expo in Chicago, and was privileged to sit on a panel with the likes of Ron Suskind, P.J. O’Rourke, Linda Chavez and Maureen Dowd. For more than two hours we discussed issues ranging from religion and politics to the war in Iraq. Yet, as if he had a particular premonition, C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb asked each of us about former President Ronald Reagan and what we would remember about him. [IMGCAP(1)]

When I heard the question, I wanted to disappear from the stage. One of the things my parents drilled into me as a child was to “respect my elders” and to avoid saying anything negative about a person when they are at death’s door. So when Brian called on me to respond, I could not help but talk out of both sides of my mouth. I am sure that I am not the only liberal or progressive Democrat trying to find ways to show deference and respect while still speaking the truth about the weight of Reagan’s legacy on poor and working-class Americans.

Prior to the luncheon, I spent some time in the green room with Linda Chavez, a Reagan appointee, discussing the only fond memories that I had of Ronald Reagan. The first was in November 1983 when he signed a bill to designate the third Monday in January as a national holiday in commemoration of the great civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. I’ll never forget that moment because he was dressed to the nines, with brown shoes and a brown suit that matched his hair. Reagan was all smiles as King’s widow, Coretta, stood next to him.

For a president who many believed turned the clock back on civil rights by appointing extreme right-wing judges with contempt for voting rights in this country, watching him joyfully signing the legislation was a study in contrasts. On one hand, Reagan would appear hostile to the interests of minorities and yet show warmth and humor when the time was ripe for change.

President Reagan presided over our country during a period of transition. While he was successful in wooing moderates and blue-collar workers, in the eyes of many Democrats the Reagan years produced an unmitigated assault on poor and working class people. Who could ever forget his comments regarding treating ketchup as a vegetable? How can anyone forget the massive tax cuts for the wealthy at the expense of the poor?

There is no question, as Linda Chavez pointed out, that Reagan was an effective communicator and a nice person who insisted on stopping to say hello to ordinary people. He had a way of doing things that left many of us baffled as we went about trying to “define” Reagan as detached and someone who only cared for the rich. Despite all of our efforts, we were never able to succeed. Reagan had a certain magical bond with the American people. The more we criticized him as insensitive and out of touch, the more ordinary citizens rallied around his presidency.

In the end, Reagan’s policies served as a catalyst to revive the progressive movements. The civil rights movement fought harder for legislation to protect voting rights and to resist the appointment of right-wing judges. In fact, the leaders were so emboldened by the mean spiritedness of the times that we fought to free South Africa and launched a major national boycott against corporations supporting apartheid. Reagan, ironically, helped progressives find their moral voice and motivated them to become activists again.

The Reagan years also brought about a new coalition of conscience. Led and often funded by organized labor, progressives sponsored and held massive demonstrations to protest Reagan’s assaults on the right to organize and collective bargaining. As feminists and abortion rights supporters, we marched, lobbied and began to organize at the grassroots levels to protect Roe v. Wade. Last, but not least, the nuclear freeze movement and environmental leaders found common ground with the poor and helped establish the connection between the massive military buildup and cuts to social programs aimed at forgotten Americans.

During this period of national mourning, progressives can find some comfort in offering their condolences to the Reagan family. President Reagan was no saint. Although he was firm and resolute in making America stronger, in doing so he also left behind many Americans who needed someone to lift them up. On one of the last occasions at which I saw the president, I was summoned by his late daughter, Maureen Reagan, to bring some homeless children to the White House for Hands Across America. Although the White House had earlier declined to participate, Maureen personally appealed to her father and he agreed.

On that cloudy day, Mr. and Mrs. Reagan opened the White House gates to hundreds of poor children from across the region. I’ll never forget that image of a tall man holding the hands of little homeless children, welcoming them to the White House. The children, dressed in their Sunday best, were delighted to be standing beside the president of the United States. As I stood there watching, I couldn’t help but see the irony in the moment. Reagan had no problem standing beside the poor for a photograph. I only wish he could have used his power and the presidency to stand up for them as well.

Our prayers are with Mrs. Reagan and the entire Reagan family at this time of mourning

Donna L. Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grassroots political consulting firm.