Nancy Reagan asked the Webb campaign to remove all reference to her husband from the new Webb for Senate television ad that’s scheduled to begin running on Monday. On Friday a letter was faxed to campaign headquarters from the Reagan Library at Mrs. Reagan’s request. As this article in the Washington Post points out, Mrs. Reagan has made similar requests in the past to the conservative Club for Growth; to President Bush, who during his 2004 presidential race claimed to be heir to the Reagan legacy; and to other Republicans who sought to use the Reagan imprimatur for their campaigns.
Nobody can doubt Mrs. Reagan’s sincere attempts to protect her husband’s memory and legacy. Indeed, while he was alive, nobody was more fiercely protective of President Reagan – both his reputation and his actual well being – than Nancy Reagan. Her boundless love and respect for her husband can’t be doubted ever. In his life and death, she remains devoted to the protection of her beloved Ronnie.
As a wife, myself, I understand and admire her dedication to her husband’s memory. But I also think Jim Webb has every right to use the footage of President Reagan praising him during a 1985 speech at the U.S. Naval Academy.
The ad shows Reagan saying, “James’ gallantry as a Marine officer in Vietnam won him the Navy Cross and other decorations.” According to the Washington Post, an announcer’s voice continues and the image morphs into a picture of a young Jim Webb in uniform.
I disagree with the Reagan Library’s contention that this could be misconstrued as a Reagan endorsement of Webb’s run for the Senate. With all due respect to both Mrs. Reagan and the Reagan Library, at the president’s death, there were very public and well attended events to mark that passing. His body was brought from California to the nation’s capitol where he lay in state. His funeral was televised. There can be no doubt that it would be impossible for him to endorse a current political candidate so nobody can fairly claim that the ad is an attempt to mislead the public.
All Jim Webb is doing in his commercial is pointing out his service as a much decorated Marine as well as a cabinet official appointed by Ronald Reagan. He is also well within his rights to show Ronald Reagan’s words of praise for him since they were uttered publicly by a public figure. At no time during his life did Ronald Reagan ever retract them.
And at no time has Webb ever repudiated Reagan. Just the opposite. He still proudly considers himself a Reagan Democrat.
It’s the current administration Webb disagrees with. He is opposed to their mishandling of the war in Iraq and the economy, whose recovery has aided the wealthy and not benefited the middle class or even reduced poverty. He has never criticized the Reagan Administration. In fact, he is justifiably proud of his service to it.
However even more important, every candidate has a right to show pictures of himself with a respected leader and to quote praise from that leader. That’s why I don’t think George Allen should remove from his website the picture of himself shaking hands with Ronald Reagan either.
Nobody running for office should mislead the public by implying support that truly isn’t there or by doctoring images to suggest more than really took place.
But every candidate – including both Webb and Allen – has a right to run on his real record of accomplishment and on his real history. And the simple fact is Jim Webb really was Reagan’s appointee and really was praised at a public event by the late president.
That’s James Webb’s history. It belongs to him.
UPDATE: Although I stick by everything I've written above and I still think he has every right to use that footage of Reagan praising him, after spending the better part of the day reading other blogs - both the pros and cons - I believe that it might be to Jim's advantage to honor the wishes of a grieving widowed first lady.
First let me say that I believe Jim Webb will do what he believes is the honorable thing. If he sincerely believes that he is right to show that footage and Nancy Reagan is wrong, or just partisan, in asking him to take it down, he will stick to his guns. But if he comes to see it as an act of gentlemanly graciousness to remove it, no campaign operative in the world will stop him.
The one thing I know about Annapolis grads is that they take the honor code very seriously. For Webb, it will come down to integrity. He'll behave as an officer and a gentleman, whichever way he decides.
However, I am a more cynical, more crass political person than he is. I've done the mental algebra. For me, the equation comes down to this. The damage to Allen has already been done. Everybody understands that Webb was the Vietnam hero who worked in the Reagan Administration and served his country honorably. He didn't spend the war at a dude ranch. Webb's the real deal.
On the other hand, Webb doesn't have much money for ads. People with computers have already seen this one. And the media and bloggers have covered it. The public gets it that Webb's a Reagan Democrat and former secretary of the Navy. If he withdraws the ad out of respect for Nancy Reagan's wishes (no matter how unreasonable those wishes may appear to us), he gets even more favorable publicity. And people still discuss the ad more.
And he has that much more money to move on to still another ad. It's not such a bad idea to honor Mrs. Reagan's wish.
As I said I'm sometimes cynical in my calculations. But the truth is, I really do believe that doing the right thing is sometimes its own reward too.