In the recent CNBC documentary, The Rockefellers, one segment really caught my attention.
The film reviewed the life of Nelson Rockefeller, who served as vice president to Gerald Ford and was New York's governor for many terms. It recounted his 1964 run against Barry Goldwater for the GOP presidential nomination.
It was a hard-fought campaign between two diametrically opposed party factions. Rockefeller lost, in part because he had recently divorced his wife. He also lost because Goldwater and the party's arch-conservatives crushed the party's then-existing liberal wing.
Though defeated, Rockefeller was given five minutes to speak at the Republican National Convention at San Francisco's Cow Palace.
When he stood to speak, boos and heckles rained down on him loudly. But in those few difficult minutes, Rockefeller boldly spoke against the reactionary politics that propelled Goldwater to the nomination, policies supported by radical right-wing groups such as the John Birch Society.
During this year, I have criss-crossed this nation fighting to keep the Republican party the party of all the people and warning of the extremist threat. It's a danger to the party and it's danger to the nation.
Some of you don't like to hear it, ladies and gentlemen, but it's the truth. These extremists feed on fear, hate and terror... There is no place in this Republican Party... for such hawkers of hate, such purveyors of prejudice, such fabricators of fear. Whether Communist, Ku Klux Klan or Birchers. There is no place in this Republican Party for those who would infiltrate its ranks, distort its aims and convert it into a cloak of apparent respectability for a dangerous extremism.
That 1964 campaign -- and that speech, in particular -- marked the beginning of the end of the GOP liberalism that Rockefeller epitomized, a Republican Party that tolerated people with different bents on some issues and ideologies.
Last Monday, former Gov. Jeb Bush similarly lamented the brand of intolerance found in the GOP of today. His father, President George H.W. Bush, would have trouble thriving in today's party, the governor said. So would President Ronald Reagan.
Reagan would have, based on his record of finding accommodation, finding some degree of common ground, as would my dad -- they would have a hard time if you define the Republican Party... as having an orthodoxy that doesn't allow for disagreement, doesn't allow for finding some common ground.
Bush spoke against the dominance of Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge that so many politicians have mindlessly signed. He said he'd take the theoretical deficit-reduction package that included $1 in tax increases for every $10 in spending cuts. And he spoke against the party's hard-line stance on immigration, which focuses on border security without embracing the social and economic prosperity that comes with robust immigration.
The backlash for breaking with his party was swift. Grover Norquist called him foolish. Bush says it goes to show he's not running for anything. For with the nation in a financial crisis and our debt spinning out of control, party extremists will take on GOP politicians who dare to think independently or show a willingness to reach across the aisle.
But while Reagan and Bush 41 were political pragmatists, Jeb should remember that here in Florida, the GOP leadership, many of whom served under his tutelage, is just as dogmatic and intolerant of opposition.
Even the late Barry Goldwater, a true gentleman even with those with whom he disagreed, would have been banished in Tallahassee for his libertarian views and his disdain for imposing religious dictates on citizens.
The fact is that the entrenched, evangelical brand of intolerance that dominates our politics today was incubated and grew unrestrained during the tenures of George W. and Jeb Bush.
Just as Rockefeller predicted, over the last half century the GOP has evolved into a party characterized by dangerous social -- and now fiscal -- extremism, masked in a cloak of apparent respectability.
The result: an inability to ignite needed change -- the kind that only comes with compromise -- in desperate times.
And like Nelson Rockefeller before him, Jeb Bush is about to pay the price for speaking up against such radicalism.
This post appeared in The Florida Voices on June 15, 2012.
Steven Kurlander blogs at Kurly's Kommentary, writes a weekly column for Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel and is a South Florida communications strategist. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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