Mark Shields: Stop invoking legacy of Reagan; start heeding him

Mark Shields

Mark Shields

It was not a pretty sight. Republican officeholders in Indiana and Arkansas, having been charged by not just their political opponents but also their strongest corporate allies [think Wal-Mart and NASCAR] with damaging the states’ images and the business climate by passing legislation to effectively give legal sanction to discrimination against citizens who are gay, publicly panicked. They ducked. They bobbed, and they weaved, backtracking all the while, assuring us that some of their better friends are, yes, gay or lesbian.

The result — along with the end, before it began, of the presidential campaign of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence — was much egg on many Republican faces.

This soap opera has taught us that Republican candidates, whether for the local library board or for the White House, are forever invoking the name and the inspiring legacy of President Ronald Reagan. What has become obvious — especially among the GOP’s 2016 presidential hopefuls, most of whom enthusiastically embraced the Indiana law and Arkansas bill before beating a hasty retreat in the face of the political backlash — is that they are totally ignorant of the Gipper’s exceptional leadership on gay rights.

The year was 1978. Having previously run, briefly, for the 1968 nomination against Richard Nixon and having unsuccessfully challenged President Gerald Ford in the 1976 primaries all the way to the Kansas City convention, Reagan, who would be 69 before the 1980 election, was preparing to make his third and final White House run.

The national political mood in 1978 was openly hostile to gay rights. Actress-singer Anita Bryant, through her Save Our Children organization, had led a successful effort to overturn an ordinance in Dade County, Florida, that was anti-discrimination against gays. Similar repeals of ordinances protecting gay rights had been passed by voters in St. Paul, Minnesota; Wichita, Kansas; and Eugene, Oregon.

In California, where Reagan had twice been elected governor, Republican state Sen. John Briggs, an ardent conservative, was pushing a statewide ballot initiative that would ban any gay or lesbian teachers from the classrooms of the state’s public schools. Polls showed voters backing the Briggs Initiative by a 2-1 margin.

Political self-interest told Reagan, whose base of support nationally was among Republican conservatives, to stay out of the Briggs debate, in which California liberals and Democrats were leading the opposition. But Reagan loudly and clearly assaulted the campaign to ban gay teachers by rebutting the argument that gay teachers could somehow “convert” impressionable youngsters: “Whatever else it is, homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles. Prevailing scientific opinion is that in individuals, sexuality is determined at a very early age.” He warned against the initiative’s provision for public hearings by school boards: “What if an overwrought youngster, disappointed by bad grades, imagined it was the teacher’s fault and struck out by accusing the teacher of advocating homosexuality? Innocent lives could be ruined.” This, let us remind ourselves, was 1978.

When respected California political journalist Bill Boyarsky, author of “Ronald Reagan: His Life and Rise to the Presidency,” asked the Los Angeles Times’ polling director, I.A. Lewis, what had turned California voters from supporting the Briggs Initiative to rejecting it on Election Day by a decisive 58-42 percent margin, Lewis answered, “I could see no other reason for it going that way except for Reagan.”

Maybe now Republican candidates will do more than reverently chant the man’s name and take the time to read and to heed how Ronald Reagan, 37 years ago, bravely dared to break ranks to lead on gay rights.


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