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Conservatives Warning Against Politicizing Kennedy's Death, Did Just That For Reagan

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Conservatives accusing Democrats of trying to reap political advantage from the passing of Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) are conveniently ignoring the politicization of former president Ronald Reagan's death by Republican more than four year's earlier.

Just two days after Kennedy lost his yearlong struggle with brain cancer, conservative media personalities are already decrying Democrats for using his death to jumpstart health care reform's passage.

The main criticisms have come from the likes of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, who have warned of another "Wellstone effect" -- a reference to the partisan fracas that followed former Sen. Paul Wellstone's highly political memorial service in 2002, after his death in a plane crash.

But when the shoe was on the other foot, Republicans went to great lengths to use the death of a conservative icon to validate their candidates and policies. Four years before he accused Democrats of using Kennedy's death "as a sympathy ploy to advance a health care bill," Limbaugh was drawing direct lines between Reagan's legacy fighting communism and the need for further U.S. engagement in the war in Iraq.

"Back then," the conservative radio host said, following Reagan's death on June 5, 2004. "[Strategic Defense Initiative] was regarded much as the whole war in Iraq is today. SDI was treated was treated as a joke; SDI was dangerous; SDI was going to blow up the world; SDI was impossible. It was typical liberalism: greatness couldn't be done. Greatness can't happen."

"Reagan was right just as George W. Bush is today," Limbaugh concluded, "and I really believe that if Reagan had been able he would have put his hand on Bush's shoulder and say to him, 'Stay the course, George.' I really believe that."

Reagan's death was also used as a campaign tool for conservative pushing for Bush's re-election.

"[N]o one wants to politicize the death of a recent president," the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol, bluntly declared during a July 13, 2004, appearance on Fox News Sunday. "But you know what? The Bush campaign should. And, in my view, they should go out with an ad next week, a very respectful ad about President Reagan and say, We have a disagreement. George W. Bush is a Reaganite. John Kerry thought the Reagan presidency was a period of moral darkness."

Kristol wasn't alone in his inclination toward political opportunism. A whole host of GOP officials pushed to frame Bush as a Reagan disciple - a tax cutting, war fighting, conservative firebrand to contrast with the more passive Democrat John Kerry.

"Americans are going to be focused on President Reagan for the next week," said then-RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie. "The parallels [between him and Bush] are there. I don't know how you miss them."

"[Reagan] was a large man with large ideas," wrote conservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer "He slipped a lot of the times. He had his difficulties, but in the end he was vindicated by history, if you get the big ideas right. And I think there's a lot of application to President Bush, who also is interested in the big ideas in the war on terror, the war in Iraq, changing the economy, all of this."

Indeed, Bush directly sought to profit from Reagan's passage. The campaign put a tribute page to the former president on its website. It also sent an e-mail inviting supporters to add to a "living memorial" for Reagan on the page. As the Boston Globe noted "one click away from the page," was another page "that solicits campaign donations and recruits volunteers."

The Reagan-Bush comparisons, on occasion, went too far even for the Reagans. Members of the former president's family complained after the Club For Growth ran an ad that compared Reagan's fight against communism to the war on terror.

The Drudge Report, meanwhile, memorably used a frame from C-Span of Bill and Hillary Clinton with their eyes closed to claim that the former first couple was taking a nap during the Reagan eulogy. They weren't.

At the time, Democrats were well aware of what was happening but felt almost helpless in stopping it. Jim Jordan, Kerry's former campaign manager, said he was "dreading" the fact that Bush would fully attach himself to Reagan. "He's going to turn Reagan into his own verifier."

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