Berke: ‘Evil Empire’ a Poor Choice of Words for GOP Fundraising

Posted March 23, 2010 at 10:55am

Count me among the growing chorus of Republicans taking recent offense at our own party committee. The late William F. Buckley (if so inclined) could probably have found a more artful word to describe the Republican National Committee’s now notorious “evil empire” fundraising presentation, but there is sometimes beauty in simplicity: It was, in a word, thoughtless. It was also an insult to history.

[IMGCAP(1)]Last month, the Republican National Committee gave the PowerPoint presentation to donors with a slide titled “Evil Empire,” depicting President Barack Obama as the Joker and including cartoons of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Others have decried it as a profound lapse in judgment. I agree (and Chairman Michael Steele has admitted as much). But while we all react with incredulity as if the presentation was the first time a political party has used inappropriate language and caricature for political purposes, it needs to be denounced for an additional reason — it shows a lack of appreciation and understanding for the phrase used by President Ronald Reagan to define moral clarity during the Cold War.

Reagan’s courageous use of that phrase, at that time, was one of the seminal moments of clarity in the West’s fight to win the Cold War. And those words and the moral courage behind them served as an inspiration to me and many in my generation. It shaped us the way John F. Kennedy’s Berlin speech did for that generation.

Twenty-seven years ago this month in Orlando, Reagan uttered the words that marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War, the nuclear arms race and Soviet totalitarianism:

“I urge you to beware the temptation of pride, the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil,” he said.

As Reagan spoke, Natan Sharansky, a Jewish refusenik, was a prisoner of that “evil empire.” Yet word reached him and other prisoners that a world leader had the courage to challenge the intrinsic immorality of the Soviet regime. Sharansky later described that “great brilliant moment when we learned that Ronald Reagan had proclaimed the Soviet Union as an evil empire before the entire world. … It was the brightest, most glorious day … the beginning of a new revolution, a freedom revolution — Reagan’s revolution.”

The phrase “evil empire” may be used facetiously by others (notably in sports by rivals of the New York Yankees), but it has profound implications when used by the very party committee of the president who first used it. The RNC presentation is thus an insult to what galvanized many of us to go into politics. It lifts the phrase away from its moment in time, its rooting in the Cold War struggle between freedom and totalitarianism, and debases it to mere partisan sniping.

The RNC is of course within its rights to criticize the Obama administration and the Democratic leadership. Heck, that’s part of its job. We as Republicans can disagree with our friends across the aisle on important issues. The political stakes today are indeed high. But word choice matters. Context matters. Misusing a historically significant phrase such as “evil empire” is an insult to them and to us. It degrades the importance and meaning of Reagan’s seminal speech. It degrades the perspective we should hold that moment in. But most importantly, it degrades history and trivializes the human rights abuses suffered by millions during the Cold War.

Elliot S. Berke is establishing the Evil Empire Speech Memorial Foundation to properly memorialize President Ronald Reagan’s speech in Orlando, Fla. A Washington, D.C., attorney focusing on political law, he can be reached at esberke@berkelawdc.com.