- Selling the Right: Republican Rhetoric and the Shaping of Party and Nation
During the 1952 election, to defend his personal and political reputation, Richard Nixon took to the nation’s airwaves and gave his famous “Checkers” speech. Referring to his wife’s “respectable Republican coat,” Nixon countered charges of improper use of campaign gifts and funds by asserting his family’s modest means and history of hard work and public service. His one caveat: he would keep “Checkers,” the black-and-white pup gifted to the family, because his children adored their new pet. The speech, given in the midst of the first televised presidential campaign, marked a turning point in presidential politics and media relations. Presidential rhetoric moved from out of the shadows of radio and into full view; image and appearance rose in importance alongside policy and presidential actions. As president, Ronald Reagan—, the former actor [End Page 103] turned “Great Communicator”—mastered this new style of politics. The “party of Reagan” is as much a reflection of modern American political culture as it is the New Right grassroots movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Reagan’s ability to fuse disparate factions of conservatives—social and religious conservatives, neoconservatives, Wall Street business interests, and white southerners—into a political juggernaut owed as much to his rhetoric as to his policies. Nixon’s foray into televised politics presaged Reagan’s command of the medium but could only begin to approach the former General Electric Theater star’s finesse. Much had changed in political culture since Woodrow Wilson held the first press conference in 1913, let alone the age of whistle-stop tours.
Nixon in 1952 and Reagan in 1980 not only occupied different political cultures, but also very different Republican parties. The distance between the political culture of the 1950s and that of the 1980s has received intense scholarly focus for nearly three decades. The rise of the organizational and grassroots conservative movement, the changing role of media and technology, and the demands of liberal internationalism shaped a new GOP by the time of the 1980 “Reagan Revolution.” Civil rights, the culture wars, stagflation, tax revolt, and Vietnam reshaped American politics, and during the 1960s Republicans at last broke one-party rule in Dixie. A region once lost to the party of Lincoln became crucial to Reagan’s success, with Nixon having made inroads in 1968 and 1972. Eisenhower and Hoover managed to swing the outer South, but generally speaking, before the 1970s the Deep South remained out of reach of Republican candidates.
Together, Edward Frantz and Toby Bates blur the distinction between the Republican Party of post-Reconstruction and post-Reagan Revolution as well as the political culture of pre- and post-television ages. Region, the input of advisers and planners, the crafters of message, remain factors in the eras of both trains and television. Together, the books reveal that presidents’ words, their meaning, and legacy bridge technological gaps, and suggest that the political culture of the late twentieth, and perhaps twenty-first, century United States is not that far removed from post-Reconstruction style politics after all. Their two books demonstrate that presidential rhetoric has been and remains a significant factor in political culture and collective memory.
The Door of Hope demonstrates the GOP’s focus on the South and the transformation in its regional approach during the post-Reconstruction era. His thesis is ambitious: through the Republican presidential tours of southern states from Hayes to Hoover, “we see how the party of Lincoln became the party of Reagan” (3). Frantz advances the idea that the GOP became the “vehicle of white resentment,” invoking Reagan’s Neshoba speech in 1980, but he looks to the post-Reconstruction years to understand how southern presidential tours shaped the Republican Party strategy towards the region. Deemphasizing Nixon as the southern strategy’s master, Frantz shows that the GOP experienced myriad internal divisions and “centrifugal forces” (2) between 1877...