A History of Beltway Reformers: Sarah Palin, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan

Jimmy Carter didn't "mingle with the right people," but Ronald Reagan did.

Palin at the Republican National Convention.

Palin at the Republican National Convention.


ST. PAUL—Gov. Sarah Palin's acceptance speech last week called to mind a couple of history lessons, though I suspect she doesn't actually need to learn them. This is not necessarily a good thing.

Cleaving to the night's theme, Palin leveled attacks against the liberal media and Washington establishment.

"Here's a little news flash for all those reporters and commentators," she said. "I'm not going to Washington to seek their good opinion—I'm going to Washington to serve the people of this country. Americans expect us to go Washington for the right reasons, and not just to mingle with the right people."

I was reminded of a pair of presidents from not too long ago. Both went to Washington as conquering outsiders vowing to reform the wicked city. One very aggressively pursued his anointed agenda, going so far as to suspend wasteful spending items--even ones favored by members of his own party.

The other president charmed the establishment. He and the missus were honored guests at the home of the publisher of that insidious liberal Washington establishment institution—the Washington Post. They mingled with the "right people." (Or perhaps with the "wrong people," depending on your view.)

I refer of course to Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, respectively.

Carter came to Washington with few friends and little interest in making any. He and Mrs. Carter did not make the Georgetown scene. He suspended water projects that legislators from his own party favored. Edmund Muskie complained that Carter needlessly made Democratic members of Congress look like wild overspenders. He was a tough reformer (including of his own perks, getting rid of the presidential yacht, though not on eBay). He was a splendid failure. "The Carters never bothered to embrace the mainstays of the Washington establishment," network correspondent and Georgetown socialite Nancy Dickerson later recalled. "Presidents come and go, but most of us stayed, and they did little to endear themselves to the locals. They scorned Washington society. They alienated the press. They created a good deal of resentment, and when they returned to Plains, Ga., it was as if they'd never been to Washington in the first place."

Reagan might have learned the Carter lesson: It's easier to work your will in Washington if you can get the denizens to go along. His and Mrs. Reagan's visit to Mrs. Graham's house—especially in the wake of the Carters' general social snub of the establishment—was part of a campaign to charm Washington in an effort to grease the skids for his program. Nancy Reagan enlisted Graham as an unofficial media adviser. Critics and fans of Reagan alike agree that Reagan was nothing if not an effective president.

Palin's speech also brought Carter and Reagan to mind for quite a different reason.

"Among politicians, there is the idealism of high-flown speechmaking, in which crowds are stirringly summoned to support great things," Palin said. She later added: "For a season, a gifted speaker can inspire with his words. For a lifetime, John McCain has inspired with his deeds."

This theme is familiar to anyone who has followed the campaign through its endless months—Barack Obama is a fine speaker but words are less important than actions. Carter never grasped the importance of the bully pulpit as a presidential tool. He resisted rhetoric, flourishes, themes, what we would today call messaging. Reagan was the "Great Communicator"—he got the importance of speechmaking (high-flown and otherwise), and by my count his "season" has lasted something in excess of 40 years (going back to his 1964 speech at Barry Goldwater's Republican convention).

The last president who thought that he would not have to worry about his words because his actions would speak for themselves was George H. W. Bush. Look at how that turned out: His words and actions went crosswise and he was never able to explain to the electorate why.

But these historical discussions are premised on the notion that Palin's convention rhetoric reflects the reality of the McCain campaign's thinking, that their words are more than just, well, words.