Asked to comment after a record number of women signed up to seek office on the Republican ticket this year in Arkansas, Joyce Elliott -- a Democratic state senator from Little Rock -- started off fine. She noted that young mothers tend to put off entering politics (not to mention other careers) till their children are older. That figures. Just ask anybody with little kids at home. They get priority, and need to. We all have our priorities, and children tend to change them. And how.
But when the lady and senator started discussing the relevance of age to a political career, she went headlong off the tracks. First she noted the talk about how old Hillary Clinton would be if -- more likely, when -- she declares for president in 2016, which would be 69. And she had to add: "That same conversation doesn't happen around older men who run for office."
Ronald Reagan was 69 when he was first elected president in 1980, and his age came up in a presidential debate when he was running for re-election four years later against Walter Mondale. It was a memorable moment because The Gipper, seldom if ever at a loss for words, made it so. It may also have been the moment of decision in his landslide victory that year.
It was Henry Trewhitt of the Baltimore Sun who brought up the subject. "Mr. President" he began, "I want to raise an issue that I think has been lurking out there for two or three weeks and cast it specifically in national security terms. You already are the oldest president in history. And some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale. I recall yet that President Kennedy had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuban missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?"
"Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt," the president responded, "and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience...."
The rest of the president's response may have been lost in the applause and laughter that followed. Even his worthy opponent had to smile. And from that moment on in the campaign, Walter Mondale seemed to realize he would not be the next president of the United States. Ever.
Presidential debates can be not only revealing but relevant even years later. It was in that same presidential race that his critics accused President Reagan of spending entirely too much on defense. Sound familiar? It should at a time when the current administration has proposed slashing the country's defense budget, dramatically reducing the size of the fleet and cutting our land forces to pre-war levels. Pre-World War II levels. If this secretary of defense gets his way, the U.S. Army will be cut down to 1940 size. When the same debate was being held in 1984, Ronald Reagan responded to criticism of his policy of Peace Through Strength by noting Mr. Mondale's claim that he would be a strong leader, too:
"I'm not going to continue trying to respond to these repetitions of the falsehoods that have already been stated here," he said. "But with regard to whether Mr. Mondale would be strong, as he said he would be, I know that he has a commercial out where he's appearing on the deck of the Nimitz and watching the F-14s take off. And that's an image of strength -- except that if he had had his way when the Nimitz was being planned, he would have been deep in the water out there because there wouldn't have been any Nimitz to stand on it -- he was against it."
After the laughter died down, the president continued: "He was against the F-14 fighter, he was against the M-1 tank, he was against the B-1 bomber, he wanted to cut the salary of all of the military, he wanted to bring home half of the American forces in Europe. And he has a record of weakness with regard to our national defense that is second to none."
If all that sounds frighteningly familiar, so do the results of such weakness in 2014: Russia on the march again, this time in Crimea and maybe beyond. The vivisection of Syria is now entering its fourth year with 140,000 dead, millions more homeless and exiled, chaos spreading throughout the region like the waves of Syrian refugees, and no end of the suffering in sight. The resurgence of terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan has been dramatic as wars once won are lost. The Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Romanians -- indeed, all of Europe -- grows nervous, and has good reason to be.
Once again the West does little more than wring its hands and talk of sanctions and negotiations, much as it did when another aggressor was taking over its neighbors one by one in another era of appeasement. Our president and vice president sound shocked -- shocked! -- when, after having issued an invitation to aggression, the aggressor accepts. Whether it's called appeasement or DÃ©tente or, as in the lastest case, a Reset, the result remains the same. What did our leaders think would happen when they made nice with Evil -- that we'd all go out for ice cream afterward?
But this is what the world looks like without a strong America, and why the American electorate would have done well to consider the youth and inexperience of the Hon. Barack Obama before electing him president -- and commander-in-chief! -- and watching another failed presidency unfold at home and abroad.
. . .
You needn't go all the way back to 1984 to watch a presidential debate that, in retrospect, had telling moments of insight. Just a couple of years ago, in the presidential election of 2012, Barack Obama dismissed Mitt Romney's concern about an undeterred Russia with what he must have thought was a clever quip at the time: "Gov. Romney, I'm glad that you recognize that al-Qaida is a threat because a few months ago, when you were asked what's the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia. The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War's been over for 20 years...."
So much for Ronald Reagan's foreign policy, which oversaw the end of the Cold War, and the end of the Soviet Union and the nuclear arms race with it, and a new birth of freedom throughout Eastern Europe. Not just the Berlin Wall fell thanks to the foreign policy of the 1980s, but a whole evil empire. But our current president has been busy reversing all those gains. For the latest results of his Reset, see the news and stark images out of Crimea, complete with Russian troops on the march again. From Yalta on the Black Sea to Rostov on the Don, an iron curtain is descending over Europe again.
Barack Obama's punch line about the 1980s wanting their foreign policy back doesn't sound quite so funny now. Maybe because only the Russians are laughing.
(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is email@example.com.)
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