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Politics then and now

Jack Lessenberry

Thirty-two years ago, I watched President Ronald Reagan give a speech in Michigan in which he attacked Democratic nominee and former Vice-President Walter Mondale.

“If his administration had been a book,” Reagan said of the man running against him, “you would have had to read it from back to front to get a happy ending.”

That drew roars of laughter from the crowd, in part because it was pretty much true; Jimmy Carter’s presidency had not ended well.

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If his administration were a movie, it would be called Promises, Promises," he continued. Scathing, eh? Well, not by modern standards.

For their part, Democrats that year incessantly attacked President Reagan and the Republicans for callousness towards the poor. In what was then seen as a slashing attack, Mario Cuomo, the governor of New York ,suggested in his keynote speech at that year’s convention that Reagan should go talk to “a woman who had been denied the help she needed to feed her children because you said you needed the money for a tax break for a millionaire.”

That was how campaigns were waged in the old days. That particular election was never really in doubt, but even in the closest and tensest ones, the candidates themselves would never had dreamt of personally attacking the nominees of the other party.

Contrast that to what we have today. The other day, Donald Trump, who seems to be on every network all the time, actually said on CNN that he didn’t like negative campaigning. “But we’re going after Crooked Hillary,” he said, as his interviewer spluttered.

“She’s a crook and a liar,” the Republican nominee for president added. In fact, he nearly always refers to the former Secretary of State as “Crooked Hillary,” despite the fact that countless investigations have never found that she had committed a crime.

Television cameras like this sort of thing, for the same reason they like demolition derbies. But all this has the same corrosive effect on our nation that Flint River water had on those old lead pipes: Sooner rather than later, a whole lot of us get poisoned.

After the last election, I read an interview with a couple nearly-hysterical young women. They had been told over and over that President Obama was a Muslim, a terrorist, a Marxist born in another nation and that he hated America. How could God have allowed him to be re-elected?

I did have a moment of pleasant nostalgia watching the Republican convention last night. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan gave a solid political speech, laying out his party’s principles and ideals and attacking the Democrats as “the distributor of gifts and privilege.”

I didn’t agree with a lot of what he said, but I admired the way he said it. That, however, was followed by the clownish Chris Christie, who announced that the convention was a jury of Hillary Clinton’s peers and invited them to find her guilty of all sorts of crimes, one somehow involving Nigeria. The convention chanted, “Lock her up.”

Once, a long time ago, a party elder reproved a young firebrand for referring to his opponent as the enemy. “They are not the enemy, son. They’re the opposition,” he said.

I wish someone knew how to get that mentality back.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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