GOP loses a moderate voice


WASHINGTON -- These days the terms Republican and moderation seldom go together. The Grand Old Party has gone so far down the road of conservatism that you can probably name the prominent moderate Republicans on the fingers of one hand, or two anyway.

Liberal Republicans are an endangered species in what could be called the Reagan-Bush era, referring to President George W. Bush, not his Dad, who was never really embraced by the party's conservative wing.

For these reasons, the death at 61 last week of Republican political consultant John Deardourff recalls another era in which a true struggle for direction of the GOP was fought between a liberal-to-moderate wing and the steadfast apostles of the right.

Mr. Deardourff, along with partner Douglas L. Bailey, labored successfully in the political vineyards of the 1960s and 1970s in behalf of liberal icons such as Nelson Rockefeller and Jacob K. Javits of New York and such moderates as Gov. Christopher (Kit) Bond of Missouri and Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, against the tide of Republican conservatism.

Mr. Deardourff and Mr. Bailey elected a host of middle-road party leaders with a civility that often is lacking in the cutthroat drive for power within the GOP associated with the Newt Gingriches, the Trent Lotts and other right-wing ideologues.

Mr. Deardourff particularly enjoyed a wide circle of friends and admirers in both parties and in the political press corps. He seemed always to stand aside, loyal but quietly chagrined, through the excesses of tactics and philosophy that gradually were wresting the party from the middle course he advocated in his political efforts.

While generally favoring moderates, they both worked for candidates they liked across the spectrum, helping to re-elect liberal Gov. William Milliken in Michigan in 1974 and at the same time returning to office one of the great conservative rogues of the era, Gov. Jim Rhodes of Ohio.

For all the successes of the team, which included the election of a majority of the nation's Republican governors in the late 1970s, the two men's most impressive performance may have come in a narrowly losing cause in the 1976 presidential election.

Then, they joined the struggling campaign of President Gerald R. Ford against Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter and were instrumental in closing a gap in the polls of about 20 percentage points. But they were stymied near the end by a notorious Ford debate gaffe -- and perhaps their own sense of fairness.

They authored upbeat TV ads that included a positive tune called "I'm Feeling Good About America" that played deftly on Mr. Ford's personal optimism and easy good nature. But Mr. Ford's gaffe -- insisting in one debate that Poland was not under Soviet domination -- plunged his campaign into a long round of explanations that arrested his comeback.

One ad the team produced might have made Mr. Ford a winner, but Mr. Deardourff and his partner, after showing it to a focus group, decided not to use it. To contrast how the country had moved away from the dark days of the Kennedy assassination in 1963, it showed Mr. Ford speaking at a rally at the University of Michigan when a cherry bomb exploded, causing a startled Mr. Ford to duck.

Then the scene switched to Mr. Ford riding in an open car in Dallas as the voice-over said: "Neither the cherry bombs of a misguided prankster nor all the memories of recent years can keep people and their president apart ... When a limousine can parade openly through the streets of Dallas, there's a change that's come over America. The people and their president are back together again."

The ad was also a subtle reminder that Mr. Ford had put the country on course after the Watergate debacle that elevated him to the presidency two years earlier. But the visual impact was so jarring that it was feared it would backfire, especially in Texas, and was shelved.

Mr. Deardourff branched off on his own in 1992 and continued his success, almost always on the side of good government and moderate causes. To the end, he remained loyal to the GOP and hopeful that one day it would get off the neo-conservative path and back on the moderate road that he himself always trod.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

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