Steelman: Republican Representative Don Bacon

The split in the Republican party between the Reagan Republicans and the populists

In 2001, Lou Cannon, a former political reporter for the Washington Post, wrote a review of Reagan in His Own Hand.  The book, a collection of Reagan’s notes and speeches, was the accidental project of several editors who had been given access to the former President’s archive.  The editors were struck – as George Schultz noted in the forward – how perfectly Reagan could change a note or cadence depending on if he was writing a letter, a communique, or speech.  Of course, it was not a surprise that Reagan wrote and spoke well – he was, after all, The Great Communicator.  Rather, it was the realization how finely tuned he was to every audience and medium; how much he considered history and policy in every edit.  In the last line of the review, Cannon wrote, “Whatever one’s view, (the book) drives a stake into the heart of the notion that the President was any kind of a dunce.”

Though not in the book, Reagan’s speech at the inaugural Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference in 1974 could be an example.  In it, Reagan told the story of Martin Koszta, a Hungarian revolutionary who had taken part in the political movement in 1848 to separate Hungary from the Austrian Empire.  After the movement failed, Koszta – fearing for his life as others in the movement had been assassinated – fled to the United States and declared his intention to become an American citizen.

A year later, Koszta returned to Turkey on private business and was seized by Austrian agents in Constantinople.  As Reagan tells it, Koszta’s local friends recalled Koszta’s love of his new country and his description of her flag.  With this in mind, they searched the harbor until they found the Stars and Stripes flying on the USS Saint Louis, a schooner.  Going aboard, Koszta’s friends told the captain what happened.  The Americans soon after discovered that Koszta was being held on an Austrian brig-of-war.  The American captain positioned the Saint Louis astride the Austrian brig-of-war and told the Austrians to give up Koszta or he’d open fire.  Presently, Koszta was put in a small boat and ferried to freedom.  And all this was for a man who had only so much as declared a desire to be a citizen. 

The point here is not about policy as much as Reagan’s vision and optimism.  But today, there is a split at the core of the Republican party on this vision.  As Don Bacon, Republican Representative from Nebraska’s Second District, said on this week’s Steelman, this split is between the Reagan Republicans and the populists.  In Rep. Bacon’s view, the Reagan Republicans have a positive vision for the country and America’s role in the world.  The populists seem to still be formulating their view, though they believe generally that the country is under urgent threat – a point with which many may agree; perhaps the disagreement is about from which direction the threat is coming.

This split broke wide open after Rep. Matt Gaetz moved to vacate Kevin McCarthy as Speaker.  In the fight that followed over McCarthy’s successor, Rep. Bacon opposed Jim Jordan.  For this, Bacon’s office received over 30,000 phone calls, many of which were threatening toward Don and his wife; the vast majority of which came from out of state.

Rep. Bacon has dealt with threats before.  In over 30 years of service in the Air Force, Don Bacon rose to the rank of Brigadier General and was awarded two Bronze Stars and two Legions of Merit.  Today, in what is arguably the most challenging and difficult time in congress since the Civil War, Don Bacon continues to serve.

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