This week, we are also reposting a classic series from the FF archives: Geoffrey Kabaservice’s “Secret History of the Republican Party.”
Moderate Republicanism diminished as a national political force when its principal media organ, the New York Herald Tribune newspaper, folded in 1966. While the Herald Tribune is remembered as a “newspaperman’s newspaper,” with sparkling contributions from writers like Red Smith, Jimmy Breslin, and Tom Wolfe, it also served as the house organ of Eastern moderate Republicanism; its lineage extended to Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune and the foundation of the GOP.
Ogden “Brownie” Reid, before his election to Congress in 1962, was the president of the Herald Tribune, which in different inceptions had been in his family’s possession for nearly ninety years, and heir to an even longer Republican tradition. It was a matter of national significance, then, when Reid switched parties in 1972, and raised questions about moderate Republicanism and its future.
Reid joined the family paper in 1950, after completing college and paratrooper service in World War II. The Herald Tribune at that time was still a close rival of the New York Times, and its politics were congenial to the city’s business and professional elites. It was internationalist, strongly supportive of the United Nations, anti-imperialist and anti-Communist. In its pronouncements on domestic policy, it was pro-business, a defender of civil rights and civil liberties, censorious of corruption and complacency in New York City’s Democratically-controlled government, and bitterly critical of labor unions.
After a shaky start at the Herald Tribune in the early 1950s, when Reid wrote a crudely anti-Communist column spiced with unverifiable inside dope direct from J. Edgar Hoover, he moved to Paris for two years to head up the paper’s European edition and then returned to New York as president and editor in 1955. While Reid received mixed reviews for his performance, the paper’s circulation and advertising revenues continued to decline. The Reid family was forced to sell the Herald Tribune to Republican multimillionaire John Hay Whitney, a deal brokered in part by President Dwight Eisenhower, who was a daily reader of the paper. Ike appointed Reid the U.S. ambassador to Israel, an appropriate assignment given the Zionist leanings of the Herald Tribune and Reid’s WASPy philo-Semitism. Reid returned to the U.S. in 1961 to chair the New York State Commission for Human Rights on behalf of governor Nelson Rockefeller (whose 1958 campaign the Herald Tribune had championed), then was elected to Congress from a district representing most of Westchester County.
Reid began office as a Herald Tribune-style Republican, slamming Kennedy for weakness against Communism and listlessness in support of civil rights. (Reid’s civil rights concerns had a Republican spin, as he worried that repression of Southern blacks would make emerging African nations likelier to turn Red and criticized the Democrats for protecting racist labor unions.) He approved the education and health components of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, but not its public works spending on marginal enterprises: “Federal subsidies do not create new markets,” he insisted. He decried Johnson’s inflationary policies and demanded a return to pay-as-you-go financing and balanced budgets.
But the events of the ‘60s began to move Reid and other moderate Republicans leftward. The Herald Tribune, reacting against the GOP’s nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964, refused to endorse a Republican for the first time in its history. Reid formally supported the ticket but made plain his anger at the party platform’s abandonment of civil rights and its refusal to condemn extremism or assure civilian control over nuclear weapons. A visit to Vietnam shook his previously resolute defense of the American war effort there, as he realized that Johnson had not leveled with the American people about the scale of U.S. military involvement required or the weakness of the South Vietnamese government. From 1966 on, he faced primary challenges from the Conservative Party of New York, an organization created to defeat Nelson Rockefeller and all of his allies.
By the early 1970s, Reid was in more or less open rebellion against Richard Nixon, offended by what he perceived as the administration’s authoritarian ways and the efforts of Vice President Spiro Agnew to drive away whatever youth and minority support might have gone to the GOP with his pursuit of “positive polarization.” Reid believed that his evolving position was within the legitimate Republican tradition, and often quoted Lincoln’s 1862 message to Congress: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. … As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.” But Nixon’s perceived disrespect for Congress, Agnew’s attacks on the media, and the Southern Strategy finally led Reid and several other moderate-to-liberal Republicans to leave the party in 1972. As Reid put it, “Just as in World War II, there came a time when some of us simply couldn’t eat another can of Spam.”
Reid was reelected as a Democrat in the 1972 elections (overcoming a furious challenge from a Rockefeller-financed Republican) but declined to seek office in 1974, and never won office to any other posts in several attempts. In a 1998 interview, Reid sounded more sorrowful than angry about the changes that had led him and the party of his forebears to part ways: “In my own view, the Republican Party needs to latch onto the center and the future. It can’t be exclusionary.”
Originally posted on February 3, 2009