T he life of Ronald Reagan continues to be profiled by an apparent ever-flowing stream of new books. What are surprising are the many new revelations: Just when we thought we knew everything about the man, some enterprising scholar digs up something new.
While not a total revelation — it was caught by a few early Reagan biographers — there was an event that occurred 40 years ago this month that has gone underreported and certainly unappreciated. The event concerns not only Reagan’s political life but that of an equally well-known rising star of the time: Robert F. Kennedy. It should be a permanent part of our mental history of Reagan’s rise, if not a permanent video exhibit at the Reagan Library and Museum.
There was total agreement, including among media sources who revered Bobby Kennedy, from the San Francisco Chronicle to Newsweek, that Reagan overwhelmingly won the debate. “To those unfamiliar with Reagan’s big-league savvy,” reported Newsweek, “the ease with which he fielded questions about Vietnam may have come as a revelation.” Newsweek judged that “political rookie Reagan … left old campaigner Kennedy blinking when the session ended.” Not having a crystal ball into the tragic year ahead for Kennedy, Newsweek pondered whether the debate might be a “dry run” for a future set of “Great Debates” between these two promising presidential aspirants.
The late historian David Halberstam acknowledged that “the general consensus” was that “Reagan … destroyed him.” Lou Cannon, in a 1969 book on Reagan and California assemblyman Jesse Unruh, agreed that “Reagan clearly bested Kennedy.” Another of Reagan’s first biographers, Joseph Lewis, recorded that the “tanned and relaxed” Reagan “talked easily and precisely without a hint of uncertainty or hostility,” and “deflated” the “anguished” Kennedy, who “gulped in restrained agony” when answering questions. Kennedy, said Lewis, “looked as if he had stumbled into a minefield.”
Reagan and Kennedy ended up debating the group of students, not one another. And it was there that Reagan was so effective, whereas Kennedy was passive, meek, and apologetic. Alarmed viewers looking for a defense of the United States as anything other than history’s greatest purveyor of global misery were frustrated by Kennedy’s lame responses but buoyed by Reagan’s strong retorts.
The fiasco began with a “question” from a female British student, who started: “I believe the war in Vietnam is illegal, immoral, politically unjustifiable, and economically motivated.” That opening salvo set the tone. In one particularly repulsive moment, the students mockingly laughed out loud when Reagan said (obviously correctly) that the people of Mao’s China had never chosen their government. At that moment, Mao Zedong was smack in the middle of his Cultural Revolution, where he was busy fulfilling his rightful role as the greatest mass murderer in the history of humanity: 60-70 million dead in under two decades. And yet, in an up or down vote, this group of students might well have elected Mao secretary general of the United Nations.
In another exchange still difficult to watch, a contemptuous Brit named Jeff Jordan, whom Kennedy permitted to roll all over him, complained that the Diem regime, with the alleged help of U.S. advisers, had incarcerated six million Vietnamese in “forced prison camps.” A smiling Reagan informed Jordan that there was no record whatsoever to confirm the allegation and that there were only 16 million people in all of South Vietnam. These facts did not rattle Jordan; like the others, he was not there to listen. Newsweek was at least impressed by this exchange, noting that Reagan “effortlessly reeled off more facts and quasi-facts about the Vietnam conflict than anyone suspected he ever knew.”
The most disturbing feature of the evening was the moral equivalency that was applied to every situation. Moral equivalency is a game the Soviets excelled at exploiting, and that the Left gobbled up; no doubt, it was a central part of the education these students received in college. Moral equivalency stated that neither the U.S.S.R. nor the United States could claim a moral high ground in the Cold War, both were equally culpable for its start and continuation, and neither nation’s political system was superior to the other. In one of its manifestations during the debate, a very confused student from Ghana lectured Reagan: “Excuse me, sir…. You think something is good; he thinks something else is good. You want him to give up some of his hostile views. You are not prepared to move back one inch from yours.”
The young man was hardly alone: The student who represented Japan taunted Reagan for the alleged hypocrisy of supporting the spread of his preferred system but not accepting the Kremlin’s spread of its preferred system. The English students, in particular, simply could not distinguish between the American Founders’ movement for self government and individual rights and the totalitarianism of Communist “national liberation movements.” The well-trained Soviet student seized the moment, urging Reagan to see that both the USSR and United States had their own self interests and each side must recognize, respect, and accept those interests.
Such reasoning was employed again and again to browbeat Reagan and the United States. For his part, Reagan detested moral equivalency and took it on each time it reared its ugly head during the evening. Kennedy did not.
Especially notable, but forgotten by history, were Reagan’s remarks that evening concerning the Berlin Wall. The governor asserted: “When we signed the Consular Treaty with the Soviet Union, I think there were things that we could’ve asked in return: I think it would be very admirable if the Berlin Wall, which was built in direct contravention to a treaty, should disappear. I think this would be a step toward peace and toward self-determination for all people, if it were.”
Here was possibly Ronald Reagan’s first public call for the removal of the Berlin Wall, offered in May 1967, 20 years before his famous challenge to Mikhail Gorbachev.
Once an hour had passed, Chris Collingwood jumped in to mercifully stop the spectacle. Kennedy interrupted, requesting a final word. Stating that he was speaking on behalf of Reagan as well, he concluded with a patronizing statement about “how much we’ve enjoyed” the internationally broadcast inquisition and the importance of “dialogue,” which, of course, this discussion was not. Kennedy’s compliment was obviously untrue and even more obviously undeserved; this group of petulant brats had earned not gratitude but a good spanking. Embarrassingly, Reagan felt it necessary to second Kennedy’s gesture. On the plus side, perhaps both men showed these 19-year-old know-it-alls a thing or two about civility.
Reagan performed so well that his presidential boosters sought to use clips from the debate during the 1968 Oregon presidential primary, and requested a copy from CBS. Kennedy, however, reportedly did not want the video to be made available; CBS, naturally, acceded to his request. Kennedy himself conceded defeat to Reagan, telling his aides after the debate to never again put him on the same stage with “that son-of-a-bitch.” Kennedy was heard to ask immediately after the debate, “Who the f— got me into this?” Frank Mankiewitz was that aide, as Kennedy was quick to remind him a few weeks later: “You’re the guy who got me into that Reagan thing.”
RFK had his reasons for shelving the debate. History, however, has no such excuse. Whether one is interested in presidential history or Cold War history or simply an entertaining blast-from-the-past, this is a moment that needs to be pulled off the shelf, observed, appreciated, and, most of all, remembered.
– Paul Kengor is author of The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism and professor of political science and director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania.