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Maddow: Reagan Failed "Moral Test Of Leadership," McCain Did Not

MADDOW: And when that Panama Canal conspiracy theory was lighting up the tin foil hats of the far right wing a generation ago, it was an ambitious politician named Ronald Reagan who took that issue from the fringe and decided to mainstream it into national mainstream Republican politics. In 1976, Ronald Reagan based his presidential campaign, in part, on this insane idea that the Panama Canal was basically an American State, that we can’t let the Communists steal this American thing from us. He mainstreamed this paranoid far-right fantasy that if we went along with our treaty obligations to let Panama run its own canal, then America would cease to exist; we would be destroyed as a nation. If Panama got control of the Panama Canal, that would be the beginning of a very quick and bloody end for America.

This worked great for Ronald Reagan in political terms. This was one of the main issues that he rode to power on in the late 1970s, even as people on his own side of the aisle, people in his own party, even his own friends saw what he was doing as disgusting and craven and bad for the country.

Quoting from a book about this chapter of history that I wrote, "While William F. Buckley and America’s beloved tough guy John Wayne (yes, that John Wayne) campaigned full-on for the ratification of the Panama Canal Treaty, Reagan demagogued it with a vengeance. Reagan said in one of his weekly radio addresses, 'The loss of the Panama Canal would contribute to the encirclement of the United States by hostile naval forces and thereby threaten our ability to survive.' Even after John Wayne sent Ronald Reagan a private and personal note offering to show him 'point by goddamn point in the treaty where you are misinforming people,' and offering fair warning that it was time for the Gipper to shut his pie-hole, saying, 'If you continue to make these erroneous remarks, someone will publicize your letter to prove that you are not as thorough in your reviewing of this treaty as you say you are or you are damned obtuse when it comes to reading the English language.'" Even in the face of that, from his friend, the movie star John Wayne, Ronald Reagan doubled down.

And you know what? We did end up giving the canal back to Panama. And the United States did not cease to exist. Ronald Reagan was totally wrong about the whole Panama Canal thing being a major threat to us. And from his private correspondence, it seems like Ronald Reagan knew that. But publicly, he carried on. It was too tempting. It was too tempting for him not to use it anyway. And that craven decision on his part is a little tiny piece of why not everybody thinks that Ronald Reagan should be on Mount Rushmore. However much you may like Ronald Reagan, this is part of his legacy too.

And politicians confront questions like this all the time; the opportunity to mainstream really destructive, prejudicial, hysterical stuff, to mainstream conspiracy theories for your own political gain. That is something that politicians of lots of different eras have confronted on a fairly regular basis. And you know what? It is always a moral test of leadership when that happens. Ronald Reagan, frankly, failed that test when it came to the Panama Canal nonsense, which, if it sounds unfamiliar to you as a thing about Ronald Reagan’s biography, it’s because the Panama Canal nonsense has essentially been written out of his biography because it is a little unflattering.

Now, John McCain, whatever else you think about the rest of John McCain’s career in politics, John McCain is someone who did not fail that moral test of leadership when he ran for president in 2008.”

SPEAKER: I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him, and he’s not… He’s a… He’s an Arab. He is not -

MCCAIN: No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man, citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. And that’s what this campaign is all about. He’s not. Thank you.

MADDOW: John McCain’s vice presidential pick, Sarah Palin, did at times in that campaign traffic in some prejudicial conspiracy theories about Barack Obama, but John McCain pretty much did not. And the campaign as directed by John McCain really did not. John McCain was offered the opportunity to traffic in conspiracy theories about Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers and the president being a secret terrorist or a secret Muslim or maybe just secretly foreign. And by and large, John McCain just said no. I mean, a lot of the right said yes. But the candidate himself pretty much in 2008 said no.

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