Wallace, Nixon and The Education of a Progressive Republican


I was born a Son of the South. There has always been personal pride in that. That informed me. It guided me. It gave me a sense of right and wrong.

Of course, I was also born a Democrat. Back in 1956 Virginians had to chose to become Republicans, but they were almost always literally born as Democrats. The very term ‘Republican’ was so strange, so foreign … perhaps even a little repulsive.

My family moved to Florida when I started the 2nd Grade. Florida was uber-Democratic. The first Republican was not elected to state office until 1978. You could be liberal or conservative, or just about anything just so long as you were a Democrat.

Like many children of the 1960s I was politically active at an early age: 12. My first presidential campaign was George Wallace’s 1968 bid for the White House. We took #10 coffee cans and covered them in Wallace stickers and went house-to-house handing out literature and asking for donations — I was especially good at getting donations — and later marketing: in 4th Grade, I once sold all of a friend’s alloted Girl Scout cookies (she was sick) … and I’m a boy, or was … now I’m a cuddly 53 year old if the truth be told.

Then in 1972 I again went to work for the Wallace presidential campaign at the age of 16. Florida, my Florida, was so conservative that Wallace won every county in the state. And there was such pride that he kicked butt in places like Massachusetts and Wisconsin and Michigan. Then he was shot down in Laurel, Maryland.

The shooting of Wallace signaled the end of the Democratic party for many years to come. Wallace made Nixon and Reagan possible. We conservatives had no place to go. The Democratic party left us.

In both 1968 and 1972, Nixon offered ‘law and order’ at a time when American cities seemed under siege. Nixon offered a way out of Vietnam when the evening news contained images of hundreds of Americans  dying in  combat. Nixon offered pragmatism when the economy buckled in the early 1970s and the marketplace failed to deliver solutions.

But I was born a Democrat! After Wallace’s shooting, I joined ‘Democrats for Nixon’ and that is how I proudly campaigned as a good Southerner. I was not about to taint myself with mingling with actual Republicans. And I don’t think that they wanted much to do with us either.

Nixon the Great and Fallen

Nixon did what no other Republican could: he opened the door to eventual acceptance of the Republican Party as a viable option with his Southern Strategy — and the South was absolutely sold on Republicans when Ronald Reagan talked about a bright and shining city on a hill, destiny, and traditional moral values.

Nixon delivered on the great historical achievements of war and economics and so many other things, but his moral character failed us. The end does not justify the means. Not then. Not now.

A somewhat new Nixon emerged this week with recently released materials from the Nixon Library: a Nixon that thought abortion possibly justified for interracial children, Jews having a “death wish” and causing a good deal of the anti-Semitism against them, and pressure on the South Vietnamese to sign an unenforceable peace treaty.  It is a kindness to say that Nixon was product of his time, at least in hindsight. In truth, Nixon is Nixon — ever so focused on the strategic objective that his assessment of the lives of ordinary people seems harsh and uninvolved. Nixon was Realpolitik; collateral damage happens.

My life as a Democrat came to an end on November 16th, 1979 when Ronald Reagan announced his run for the presidency. Here was someone worth following: I knew him as child from the movies, and his ‘Death Valley Days’ wisdom of what we learned from that night’s story always seemed so … well, wise. He may not have spoken with depth but he spoke with great eloquence as an American who loved his country and its people. Reagan was involved. The lives of ordinary people mattered. And he didn’t care what party you belonged to (… except maybe the Communists).

The Moral of the Story

Political success may take generations to achieve, and just moments to lose.

Loss of trust cannot be overcome by a six month retooling of party banners and a few new slogans.

Just as I have evolved (progressive and conservative but not right wing, proudly Southern but not racist, strongly principled but not dogmatic) the Republican party has evolved, although in an opposite direction.

In some ways it is 1974 all over again — maybe worse: many Republicans now seem more focused on returning to power than earning the right to govern. Our moral compasses are certainly in disarray and discredited when a Republican governor (Sanford, R-SC) and senator (Ensign, R-NV) both admit to extramarital affairs — all the more damaging since they were rising stars and possible 2012 candidates, and another Nevadan, Governor Jim Gibbons (R-NV) is being divorced by his wife for allegedly having a double affair. Evolution like this we don’t need.

But what bothers me most is that not a single idea worth remembering has emerged from national Republican leadership since our defeat at the hands of a group that would have trouble organizing a birthday party.

As a business leader and as someone involved in my community, what we need most are a new generation of Republican leaders that truly do put America first. We need to walk the talk.

We need to show that family values and traditional Republican principles have meaning.

I look forward to supporting the next generation of progressives where and when family, community and country are what comes first in our leader’s decisions.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Wallace, Nixon and The Education of a Progressive Republican

  1. I certainly don’t have the depth of political experience revealed in your writing, but I recall growing up a staunch Republican, primarily because of my father. During 7 years active duty, though, I shifted much closer to center, something my dad disdains to this day. 😀 But, I’m firmly entrenched in the belief that it’s more important to peek on both sides of the fence and ask a helluva lot of questions than it is to be blindly obedient to a party.

    Given the recent Powell vs. Limbaugh rhetoric, it seems like the elephants want their constituents blind. And that’s just crazy.

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