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Character Sketches

Character Sketches
Chapter 40: The Resurgence of Conservatism, 1980 - 1992


Edward Kennedy (1932 )

Kennedy is a Massachusetts senator and heir to the Kennedy legacy in American politics.

The ninth child and fourth son of the family, Kennedy was indulged by his father and not pushed into competitive activities as the older children had been.

In his freshman year at Harvard, Kennedy was expelled for having someone else take a Spanish exam for him. He later returned to graduate from Harvard and the University of Virginia Law School.

His first run for the Senate came in 1962, only a few days after his thirtieth birthday, and provoked much criticism. But he conducted a successful campaign with the slogan He can do more for Massachusetts.

The 1969 accident at Chappaquiddick Island, in which a young woman drowned, has remained Kennedys greatest political liability. He was most sharply criticized not for the accident, but for his failure to report it until the next morning and for his unconvincing explanations of the events surrounding it.

Quote: I understand that people feel strongly about me, as they felt about my brothers before me.[Some] people have been enthusiastic supporters, and others have been harsh critics. I would expect that to be the case as long as Im in public life. (1974)

REFERENCE: James MacGregor Burns, Edward Kennedy and the Camelot Legacy (1976).


Ronald Reagan (1911 - 2004)

The oldest president before Reagan was Eisenhower, who was about seventy when he left office; Reagan was that age when he first took office.

Reagans unemployed father worked for a time for Roosevelts WPA program. As a youthful lifeguard, Reagan saved over seventy people from drowning, and he was amazed that many of them later criticized him and claimed that they had not been in danger.

His break into movies came in 1937, when Warner Brothers signed him to a seven-year contract for $200 a week. In the movie Kings Row (1941), he played an amputee who said, Wheres the rest of me? Reagan used this line as the title of his 1965 autobiography.

His involvement with many liberal causes continued until the late 1940s, when he took the lead in driving communists from the Screen Actors Guild. His second marriage, to the daughter of a politically conservative doctor, also helped turn him into a staunch conservative.

Reagan first won national political attention for a speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater in 1964. His first try for the presidency came in 1968, when he lost the nomination to Nixon.

Quote: Either we accept the responsibility for our own destiny, or we abandon the American Revolution and confess that an intellectual belief in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them for ourselves. You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We can preserve for our children this last best hope of man on earth or we can sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness. (1964)

REFERENCE: Lou Cannon, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (1992).


Sandra Day OConnor (1930 )

OConnor is the Arizona judge who became the first woman U.S. Supreme Court justice.

Her childhood was spent on a ranch in Arizona. At Stanford Law School, Chief Justice William Rehnquist was first in her law class, and she was third.

She served as an assistant attorney general and was elected to two terms in the Arizona state senate, where she became majority leader. A Democratic governor appointed her to the state appeals court in 1979.

In her early days on the Supreme Court, OConnor was considered a conservative who almost always followed the lead of Justices Rehnquist and Powell. She showed an independent streak, however, in breaking with them on some civil rights and civil liberties issues. She also began as a strong critic of the Roe v. Wade abortion decision and was widely expected to join other Reagan-Bush appointees in a new majority to overturn it. But in Casey v. Planned Parenthood and recent decisions, OConnor sided with two other justices (David Souter and Anthony Kennedy) in upholding Roe, while accepting various state restrictions on abortion. In the 1990s, OConnor was usually the key swing vote on the Court, especially on issues of affirmative action and abortion.

Quote: Our decisionsestablish that the party seeking to uphold a statute that classifies individuals on the basis of their gender must carry the burden of showing an exceedingly persuasive justification for the classification.That this statute discriminates against males rather than females does not exempt it from scrutiny or reduce the standard of review. (Opinion in Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan, 1982)

REFERENCE: Vincent Blasi, ed., The Burger Court (1983).


George Herbert Walker Bush (1924 )

George Bush is the longtime Republican politician who won the presidency as Ronald Reagans successor in 1988 but lost his bid for reelection in 1992.

Bush is the son of wealthy Connecticut senator Prescott Bush. His private-school and Ivy League education at Yale were long seen as political handicaps, but he counteracted them by emphasizing his World War II service in the navy and such down-home pursuits as eating pork rinds and pitching horseshoes.

During Bushs youthful oil-business career, and his two terms in Congress as a representative from the Houston area, he formed strong alliances with the Texas business community. An associate from those days, James Baker, became his closest political ally and later served as his secretary of state.

Bush held a long series of appointed positionschairman of the Republican party, head of the CIA, ambassador to Chinabefore becoming Reagans vice president. Bushs extensive foreign-policy experience led him to focus his administration on international rather than domestic affairs, at considerable political cost. In the 1988 election and afterward, Bush denied any knowledge or involvement in the Iran-contra affair, although other Reagan officials, among them George Schulz and Caspar Weinberger, maintained that Bush was not out of the loop.

After his defeat in 1992, Bush retired to Texas. His son, George Bush, Jr., was elected governor of Texas in 1994 and president in 2000.

Quote: We are not the sum of our possessions. They are not the measure of our lives. In our hearts we know what matters. We must give [our children] a sense of what it means to be a loyal friend, a loving parent, a citizen who leaves his home, neighborhood, and town better than he found it. (Inaugural address, 1989)

REFERENCES: Peter Golman and Tom Matthew, The Quest for the Presidency, 1988 (1989); Bill Minutaglio, First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty (1999).



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