Friday, November 11, 2011

"Welfare Queen": The Cynical Politics of Ronald Reagan and the Ford-Carter Presidential Contest

I am coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled “American Dreams and Reality: A Retelling of the American Story.” Here, I describe the fabricated stories Ronald Reagan used to challenge President Gerald Ford in the 1976 Republican presidential primaries and the political contest between Ford and Jimmy Carter, the unlikely governor of Georgia.

President Gerald Ford in 1976 presided over a divided, deeply troubled government during deeply troubled times. The president had never won an election in an area larger than a Congressional district and the economy and his media image, as a clumsy, dumb jock, seemed to be working against him. The right wing of the Republican Party, which temporarily retreated after the debacle of the Barry Goldwater campaign in 1964, had been slowly and surely taking over the GOP in the Nixon years, and the movement’s leader, former California governor Ronald Reagan, smelled blood. In spite of Ford’s clear record of fiscal conservatism, Reagan objected to the president’s continuation of détente towards the Soviet Union. Following the expiration of his term as California governor in 1975, he confidently launched a full-time rebel campaign against his party’s incumbent president.

Many did not take the former Hollywood actor, who had once co-starred with a chimpanzee in the movie "Bedtime for Bonzo," seriously. The economy began to improve as 1976 approached and Ford sought to improve his prospects with conservatives by getting his liberal vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, to step down as running mate. However, Ford underestimated the ideological commitment of the Republican right.

After losing in early primaries like New Hampshire, Reagan scored an upset in North Carolina and began attacking Ford as part of the liberal establishment, weak on defense, and an appeaser towards the Soviet Union who let the United States slip to a “second-rate power.” Reagan also accused Ford of failing to rein in the excesses of the liberal welfare state and made numerous, repeated false claims on the campaign. A favorite, racially-charged tall tale of his concerned a “welfare queen” who supposedly used 80 false identities, had a dozen Social Security cards and allegedly cashed in on veteran’s benefits from four husbands.

When pressed for details such as the name of this welfare cheat, Reagan and his campaign couldn’t produce any supporting evidence. Such stories were fictions. The tale was aimed straight at angry Southern white men who believed that black malcontents in the 1960s had manipulated liberal guilt to gain undeserved benefits. The stories got Reagan’s audience riled, so he kept telling them regardless of their authenticity.

Reagan went off to win primaries in Texas, Alabama, Georgia and Indiana before Ford regained his stride. Ford did not seal his win until the Republican National Convention in Kansas City, and he eked by 1,187 delegates to 1,070. Reagan supporters almost knocked Ford’s acceptance speech out of prime time with a noisy demonstration that kept the president from addressing the nation until 10:40 p.m. Eastern. The primary campaign had been brutal and expensive, and the president started deep in the hole.


“Washington” was a dirty word by the time the 1976 presidential election and the Democratic nominee, James Earl Carter, started a tradition whereby White House hopefuls ran not on their diplomatic or executive experience but on their status as “outsiders” and their zeal to clean out the corruption and dysfunctions of the capital city.

Born in rural Plains, Ga., a small community of only 500 people, on October 1, 1924, Carter was the son of a successful businessman who operated a peanut warehouse and owned considerable real estate. Carter entered the United States Naval Academy where he excelled, finishing 16th out of a class of 822 Midshipmen. He graduated in 1951 and spent seven years in the Navy, serving on the Seawolf, the prototype of the Navy’s nuclear-powered submarine. He left the Navy as his father began to suffer ill health. After his father’s death, Carter spent years rebuilding the family’s peanut business, which suffered during a prolonged drought in the early 1950s.

Carter proved to be a good businessman and the peanut warehouse flourished, but politics fascinated him. He served two terms in the Georgia state senate from 1963-1966 and established a reputation as a moderate who emphasized the need to help the poor. He attacked the corrupt relationship between the state’s politicians and special interests. When he lost in the 1966 Georgia Democratic gubernatorial race, the intensely driven farmer suffered a bout of depression. Always a religious man, the Southern Baptist re-committed his life to Christianity. As biographer Burton I. Kaufman notes, he was deeply influenced by the theologian Reinhold Neibuhr, who once declared that, “ the sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world.”

Jimmy Carter became famous for his toothy smile and for his commitment to human rights, but when competing he occasionally could be hardnosed. He again ran for governor in 1970 and, as Kaufman notes, he appealed directly to segregationists, attacking mandatory school busing to achieve racial balance, making a campaign stop at an all-white private academy. He attacked liberals like Hubert Humphrey and told reporters, “I am and always have been conservative . . . I’m basically a redneck.” Carter won and served as Georgia governor from 1971-1975.

In spite of his toying with racists, Carter behaved differently as governor. Carter famously ordered a portrait of the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., to be displayed in the Georgia statehouse and said that segregation had no future in Georgia politics. During his one term as governor, the number of African Americans holding state jobs grew from 4,850 to 6,684. In addition, he modernized Georgia’s services for the mentally ill and passed some of the state’s most progressive laws on the environment. He remained fiscally conservative. By 1972, he was already thinking of running for president.

Carter campaigned for the 1976 nomination promising to bring “a government as good as its people.” New Democratic Party rules required that delegates at the national convention accurately reflect the share of black, brown and women voters in the party. Reflecting this post-McGovern effort to make the Democratic Party more democratic, a record number of states, 30, decided to hold presidential primaries in 1976. (Only 21 states held primaries in 1972.)

While his opponents still thought they could rely on party professionals to win the nomination, Carter campaigned hard to appeal to women and African American voters, and conducted a door-to-door campaign in early caucus and primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire. As a Washington outsider in an anti-Washington year, Carter was able to paint his chief opponents like Sen. Henry Jackson of Washington state and Morris Udall of Arizona as part of the establishment.

The Georgia politician also got his biggest break when the most formidable of his rivals, Sen. Edward Kennedy, decided not to enter the presidential contest. Kennedy concluded that it was too soon after the 1969 Chappaquiddick incident. Seven years earlier, Kennedy left a party honoring those who had served on his late brother Robert’s presidential campaign and drove off a Massachusetts bridge near the Chappaquiddick ferry, killing his passenger, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne. Kennedy had been drinking at the party and left the scene before police arrived. For many voters inside and outside the Democratic Party, Chappaquiddick forever disqualified the youngest of the Kennedy brothers from ever serving as president. The African American vote was key for Carter. He won 90 percent of the African American vote in North Carolina. Black voters would be a significant part of Carter’s coalition in November.


By August, Carter enjoyed a 15-point advantage over Ford in opinion polls. The Republican incumbent hit Carter hard on the vagueness of his campaign promises. Carter also worried some Jewish and Catholic voters because of his campaign references to being a “born-again” Christian. Some were concerned Carter’s personal faith would play too big a role in his policy decisions. Carter also gave a controversial interview to Playboy magazine, a publication opposed by many of the governor’s evangelical Christian voters, in which he used vulgar terms like “screw” to refer to sex and confessed that he had “committed adultery in [his] heart many times.”

During the Republican National Convention, Ford dramatically challenged Carter to a series of debates. None had been held since the famous Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960. Carter agreed, and the two nominees debated three times, with a fourth debate held by Carter’s running mate, Sen. Walter Mondale of Minnesota, and Ford’s vice presidential nominee Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas. As the debates approached, Ford had pulled even or passed Carter in some public opinion polls.

In the second debate, Ford made a mistake that may have cost him the election. The Ford administration had recently signed the Helsinki Accords, a 1975 agreement in which the United States, Canada, the Soviet Union and 32 other nations committed to recognize European boundaries established just after World War II, to cooperate in scientific research and economic development and to respect human rights such as free speech and freedom of religion. Not a formal treaty, the agreement was nonbinding on the signatory nations, but many conservatives in the United States saw this accord as surrendering Eastern Europe to permanent Soviet occupation.

During the second debate, on October 6, 1976 , a reporter asked Ford what the United States had gained in return for “an agreement that the Russians have dominance in Eastern Europe?” Ford said, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration . . . I don’t believe that the Yugoslavians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don’t believe the Romanians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don’t believe the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union.”

Ford had recently visited Eastern Europe and had been impressed by what he saw as the determination of Poles, Czechs and others living under military domination by the Soviet Union to achieve political independence. It was the will of the people there to not live under Russian control that Ford referred to, not the present-day control the Soviets exercised in the region. Nevertheless, the remarks reinforced the perception that Ford was not very smart or competent. Ford’s remarks also angered American voters of eastern European descent who longed for their homelands to overthrow Soviet occupation. Ford made the mistake worse when he failed to clearly explain what he meant.

Ford’s performance in the debates stalled the major comeback the Republican ticket had made. In spite of their mistakes, however, Ford almost pulled off an upset. Carter won only 50.1 percent of the popular votes to Ford’s 48 percent and the Electoral College was also close, with Carter carrying 297 votes to Ford’s 240. Carter owed his victory to African Americans (he carried 5/6ths of the black vote). Blue Collar voters had turned on McGovern, but Carter carried 60 percent of this important Democratic constituency. Carter also won 54 percent of the white Southern vote, the highest percentage for a Democrat since 1948. (McGovern had won just 27 percent of white Southerners.)

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This was the first election I ever voted in, thanks for the excellent treatment. I'll definitely be looking for your next book.

I'm curious about why you ignore/discount the "Ford to New York City-Drop Dead" element? There was a distinct sentiment in the Northeast that this cost Ford the race and that Gerald Ford hadn't gotten a fair shake from the press when it happened. The latter more among Republicans naturally.

Funny how we think of these as more genteel times but Reagan was already working the Big Lie as well as Heinrich Himmler ever did. He POUNDED on keeping the Panama Canal to anyone who would listen. And Ford's eastern bloc "gaffe" turned out to be quite prescient.