Tuesday, May 22 , 2018, 9:07 pm | Fair 59º


Mark Shields: Republicans Should Follow Democrats’ Lead and Reject Party’s Militant Wing

The slump of his shoulders told the story. He cleared his throat and then told the 100 or so reporters waiting at Los Angeles’ Good Samaritan Hospital: “Sen. Robert Francis Kennedy died at 1:44 a.m. today, June 6, 1968. With Sen. Kennedy at the time of his death was his wife, Ethel; his sisters, Mrs. Patricia Lawford and Mrs. Stephen Smith; his brother-in-law, Stephen Smith; and his sister-in-law, Mrs. John F. Kennedy.”

Thus did Frank Mankiewicz, Robert Kennedy’s trusted press secretary and traveling companion, inform the world that Camelot, which had actually begun on Nov. 22, 1963, with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, was now officially over.

Mankiewicz, whom I have happily known and liked for some 47 years, is one of Washington’s Good Guys. As a teenager, he had enlisted in World War II. As a private in the Army’s storied 69th Division, he fought the Germans in Europe. He has also been a lawyer, the Peace Corps country director in Peru, a columnist, a congressional candidate, the author of four books, the president of National Public Radio and a successful Washington wise man.

And, let us not forget, he was one of the charter members of President Richard Nixon’s White House enemies list.

That last honor was conferred when Mankiewicz and later-to-be U.S. senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart were co-managing the 1972 Democratic campaign against Nixon of Sen. George McGovern. As a distinct dark horse, McGovern had sought and won the support of the True Believers — liberal cause activists, especially those most vehemently opposed to the U.S. war in Vietnam — in the Democratic primaries to capture his party’s presidential nomination.

After Nixon’s landslide re-election win over McGovern, Mankiewicz spoke to Theodore White, the legendary chronicler of American national campaigns.

“We were always subject to this pressure from the cause people,” he honestly admitted. “We reacted to every threat from women or militants or college groups. If I had it to do all over again, I’d learn when to tell them to go to hell.”

Of course, Mankiewicz was right then, just as the astute former Virginia Republican Rep. Tom Davis was right more recently when he reminded the GOP that a political party is a coalition of disparate people who basically agree on a lot more than they disagree on and not, as Rush Limbaugh and others argued, a social club with a strict admissions test of ideological purity.

Before he was GOP national chairman or governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour was political director in President Ronald Reagan’s White House. Barbour reminds his fellow Republicans of what the Gipper told him: “Remember that the fellow who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and ally; he is not a 20 percent traitor.”

This is a hard truth of American two-party politics. In order to win, you generally have to win a majority of the ballots cast. But if you insist on branding those who disagree with you on a couple of issues as an ethical eunuch or a moral leper, chances are you’re not going to win their support.

It took many Democrats a string of painful presidential defeats over 20 years to understand what Mankiewicz had learned about being able to say no to the non-negotiable demands of the party’s most militant groups. What we’ll find out between now and 2016 is whether the Republican Party, in and out of Congress, has the backbone necessary to stand up to the heretic-hunting zealots in its ranks.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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