The Reagan advertisement: Respect, Hypocrisy, and the Best Choice

You might have noticed the latest Virginia political brouhaha. The campaign of Democratic Senate candidate James Webb announced they would be dropping a new television advertisement on 9/11/2006 that would include footage of the late US president Ronald Reagan lauding Webb’s service record.

Nancy Reagan, the late President’s wife, asked the Webb campaign not to use the footage, saying it was not approved by the family (or the Reagan foundation, etc). To date the Webb campaign has not responded, firing up an internet debate over what he should do. GOP partisans say he should do the honorable thing and pull the ad. Democratic partisans reply this is pure politics, and the ads are legal , and they should be run.

There are some basic issues to be dealt with first:

This is no question about legality: There is no real question about legality. The Webb campaign certainly had the ad vetted internally and counsel signed off on the legal issues surrounding the footage.

The request isn’t about politics: Nancy Reagan and/or the Reagan Foundation has consistently asked GOP candidates and groups not to use Reagan’s image for partisan purposes, and they have readily complied.

It is a matter of respect, hypocrisy, and making the best choice.

Respect: The wife of a former president has asked candidates over the years from both parties to refrain from using his image…and to date no one has refused. Why should Webb sully his image by being seen as boorish? Besides, at a time when politicians of all stripes are treating 9/11/2006, the fifth anniversary of the attacks, as a non-partisan moment, why would one choose to run ads that day and be potentially seen as disrespectful?

Hypocrisy: Webb has been less than complimentary in his comments about serving under Reagan, and his campaign managers, Steve Jarding and Dave “Mudcat” Saunders wrote that Reagan was “a pompous, ignorant fool” and that “the vast bulk of Reagan’s Administration was a sell-out and a sham.”

Yet they want to use his image as endorsement? This conduct asks whether the candidate is really the thoughtful, brave warrior his campaign makes him out to be. It may also add to the questions of why is Webb not saying if he agrees with his campaign staffers who are beating the drum calling his opponent George Allen a “racist” in the wake of Allen’s “Macaca” comment and failure to address the situation quickly.

Best Choice: Don’t run it

Likely Choice: Since it is now early AM on 9/10/06, and since the news cycle is about to be inundated with sports news from the first weekend of the NFL, and coverage of the 5th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I say the ads are still going to run.

However, I have to believe the best course is to not run the advertisements.

Why pull the ad?

Run the advertisement, and the Webb campaign has the emotional satisfaction of telling Nancy Reagan to stuff it and of feeling like he has withstood some kind of attack. But in the aftermath Webb will have to deal with the fact that he left the Reagan administration after only a few months, that he has spoken badly of this experience in said administration, and his campaign staffers have said some really nasty things about Reagan. Run the ads, and Webb looks like a dishonest squish is trying to have it both ways. He looks like a man who wants the benefit of a Reagan imprimatur without actually being tied to Reagan. It is an act that will be seen by many as disingenuous and less than valorous.

Morever, run the ads and Webb opens the door for rebuttal ads by Allen that will include quotes the Webb and from his campaign managers that are less than complimentary toward the late President Reagan. AND…do you really want to open the door to the possibility of an advertisement for Allen starring Nancy Reagan talking about Webb’s decision and the kind of man it shows him to be?

The practical benefits of pulling the advertisement far outweigh the emotional satisfaction of running it.

Pull the ads, grab the publicity points for grace under pressure and adherence to gentlemanly values, highlight the differences between Webb and Allen in reacting decisively, and move on.

It was suggested in a discussion at Not Larry Sabato that Webb has to run the advertisement to keep control of the news flow. I tend to think Webb reclaims the news cycle when he pulls the ad. He will surrender the news initiative if he runs the ad and makes his refusal to pull the ad the hot story. But to make this work, the sooner the decision is made the better.

It can also be argued that by now the ad is useless. Everyone already knows what is in the ad. At present, the value of the ad is overwhelmed by the question of will he or won’t he.

The question the Webb campaign must answer is which is the better course to follow. Making a quick, gentlemanly decision to agree not to run the ad makes him look good, draws a difference between himself and the way Allen was not quick to apologize in the macaca situs, and prevents the Allen campaign from legitimately running ads that showcase what Webb and his staff have said about Reagan, and will probably prevents the airing of an advertisement for Allen starring Nancy Reagan.

Nonetheless, I think the die is cast. It is 0828 EST on 9.10.2006, and I have seen no news that the ads are pulled. For the reasons listed above, I think this means the ads are running. To pull them as we head into the NFL and 9/11 cycle diminishes the benefit of pulling them. Also, for the reasons listed above, I think it is the wrong decision.

OH, and get ready for the Nancy Reagan spot endorsing George Allen, to be seen in late October.

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