“He is … endowed with a happy nature,” Edmund Morris wrote of Ronald Reagan, “his optimism unquenchable, his smile enchantingly crooked, his laughter impossible to resist. If these attributes, together with [others], do not constitute grace, in the old sense of favors granted by God, then the word has no meaning.”
While a fierce advocate for the causes he believed in, Reagan demonstrated passion without rancor and “aggression without anger,” in Morris’ words. This is particularly impressive given that Reagan was the object of repeated ad hominem attacks. He was derided as a dunce and accused of being a war-monger, a racist, a religious extremist, and indifferent to the suffering of the poor. Yet Reagan possessed a remarkable ability to rise above it, to resist returning insult for insult. Clearly at peace with himself and the world around him, Reagan helped conservatism shed its attitude of distrust and defensiveness.
This approach had enormous political benefits. Reagan understood that tone and bearing are undervalued commodities in American politics. He succeeded in part because he came across as agreeable rather than abrasive, genial rather than bitter, good-natured rather than self-pitying. He was a man blessedly free of resentments.
This is an example from which Sarah Palin can learn.
Governor Palin has undeniable appeal to the GOP base. She can deliver sharp, clever criticisms of President Obama. Her endorsement can catapult relatively unknown candidates to primary victories. And there is no doubt that she’s been on the receiving end of deeply unfair personal attacks. Many pundits and reporters have barely concealed — or completely unconcealed — disdain for her.
Unfortunately, she has allowed herself to be drawn into the mud pit. Earlier this month, for example, responding to a negative story in Politico that relied on unnamed sources Palin said this:
I suppose I could play their immature, unprofessional, waste-of-time game, too, by claiming these reporters and politicos are homophobe, child molesting, tax evading, anti-dentite, puppy-kicking, chain smoking porn producers. … Really, they are. … I’ve seen it myself. … But I’ll only give you the information off-the-record, on deep, deep background; attribute these ‘facts’ to an ‘anonymous source’ and I’ll give you more.
Those of a certain generation will recall that Richard Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, was well known for lashing out at the media (“nattering nabobs of negativism”) as well as anti-war protesters (“choleric young intellectuals and tired, embittered elders”). In 1971, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who served in the Nixon Administration, wrote to Agnew directly: “You cannot win the argument you are now engaged in. Frankly, the longer you pursue it, I expect the more you will lose.”
Moynihan went on to say this:
If you were to ask my advice it would be this. Cease attacking. Begin talking about the complex problems we must now face. … A great deal of charity and forgiveness is going to be required on all of our parts to come through this experience whole. You really can help in this, and I know you would want to do so.
Moynihan’s counsel, which went unheeded by Agnew, should be heeded by Palin. She sounds increasingly more like Agnew than Reagan — and in so doing, her brand of conservatism comes across as bitter rather than self-confident. This is not good for her or her party.
As Republicans look toward 2012, it would be wise to look to public figures who are not only philosophically conservative but who are also serious students of policy and display a measure of grace, equanimity, and good cheer. Right now, Sarah Palin is falling short of these standards. Lashing out at her critics may be understandable. It may even be cathartic. But it is not the Reagan way.