Spinning the Republican Color Wheel

Emerging consensus has it that the Republicans are holding a pastel convention. Tom Baxter of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution writes that the GOP platform is “a pastel version of its former self.” Andrea Billups of the Washington Times gushes over Laura Bush’s “chestnut hair, cornflower-blue eyes and softly cut pastel suits.” Rep. Peter King (R.-N.Y.) tells an AM radio station in Albany that Rick Lazio is not speaking at the Philadelphia convention because “this is a very pastel-type convention. … The Bush people don’t want to make this an anti-Clinton convention.” As these examples show, pastel Republicans are gentle and kind, guilty at worst of being a little boring–not a bit like the unpopular ideologues who took over Congress in 1994.

This formulation is strikingly different from the way Ronald Reagan described the Democrats in his 1984 Dallas re-nomination acceptance speech. To Reagan, “pastel” meant “sellout”:

I began political life as a Democrat, casting my first vote in 1932 for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. That year, the Democrats called for a 25 percent reduction in the cost of Government by abolishing useless commissions and offices and consolidating departments and bureaus, and giving more authority to state governments. … As Democratic leaders have taken their party further and further away from its first principles, it’s no surprise that so many responsible Democrats feel that our platform is closer to their views, and we welcome them to our side. Four years ago we raised a banner of bold colors–no pale pastels[italics added].

The genius of Reagan’s “pale pastels” formulation was that it carried a faint–but eminently deniable–hint that Democrats were a little light in the loafers. This slur echoed a more explicitly homophobic speech at that same convention, by United Nations chief delegate Jeanne Kirkpatrick, that railed repeatedly against the “San Francisco Democrats.” The Democratic convention had been held that year in San Francisco, then as now a city with a large gay population, in a building named after George Moscone, a murdered San Francisco mayor widely viewed as a gay-rights martyr. In Kirkpatrick’s formulation, a San Francisco Democrat was a Democrat who coddled Marxist dictators in Central America, who “blamed the United States” when the Soviets walked out on arms negotiations (“But then, they always blame America first”), and who in general behaved “less like a dove or a hawk than like an ostrich–like an ostrich convinced it could shut out the world by hiding its head in the sand.” He was, in other words, a damn queer. Four years later, at the Republican convention in New Orleans, New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean sounded the same theme in a keynote speech that mocked the Democrats’ “pastel patriotism.”

Precisely how pastel George W. Bush is seems a matter of some debate. In June, James Pinkerton, a former White House aide to Bush père, told Ronald Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times:

There’s no question that Bush Jr. is somewhere closer to Ronald Reagan in terms of painting in bold colors vs. pale pastels[italics added].The father’s natural instincts, especially on domestic policy, were all pale.

One whiffs some anxiety on Pinkerton’s part about letting Dubya’s “compassionate conservatism” be perceived as in any way soft. It’s clear, though, from this context, that Pinkerton would never go so far as to consider a “pale pastel” Republican weak and effeminate. (Presumably, Pinkerton remains loyal to Dubya’s father, whom he calls “pale.”) Apparently, it’s only pastel Democrats who are so soft as to be weak and effeminate. Pastel Republicans are so manly that even if they avoided the Vietnam draft by joining the National Guard (Quayle, Bush) or stringing together a variety of deferments (Cheney), their integrity and patriotism are beyond question.