Life hasn’t turned out to be a Dirty Dancing / The American President mash-up, but there is a small, precious intersection between my childhood fantasy and adult reality. In 2019, when I was curating the ACLU’s centennial exhibition, Ben Wizner, Director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, played a scene from The American President for me on his computer.
In it, President Andrew Shepherd makes a surprise appearance in the briefing room to address an aspiring candidate’s accusation:
For the record: yes, I am a card-carrying member of the ACLU.
You can’t make this stuff up. Aaron Sorkin didn’t.
In 1988, Vice President H.W. Bush, the Republican candidate for president, accused his opponent, Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee, of being so liberal that he was a “card-carrying member of the ACLU.” This was no revelation. Dukakis had said as much in interviews and that, as William Safire explained in The New York Times, was the problem:
Nobody could call the at-least-slightly-left-of-center Michael Dukakis a card-carrying anything, in light of this unspoken rule; anybody who did would have been engaging in a McCarthyite smear, which invites opprobrium. Nobody, that is, except Governor Dukakis himself. In that Los Angeles Times interview, when he used the term to mean ''authentic,'' he opened the way for George Bush to respond with glee: ''He says, 'I am a card-carrying member of the A.C.L.U.' Well, I am not and I never will be.''....The cat was out of the bag: Mr. Dukakis had described himself as card-carrying, and now others could belabor him with that as well. It sanitized what would otherwise be widely condemned as an unfair and objectionable imputation of Communist associations.
Bush successfully weaponized Dukakis’ liberalism and it became one of his campaign’s talking points. (Also, see Bush’s infamous Willie Horton ad, considered one of the most racist assaults on an opponent in modern history. The Trump campaign frequently challenged that dubious distinction.) The GOP push worked. The papers wouldn’t let Dukakis’s ACLU membership go, talk show host Phil Donahue devoted entire episodes to it, and Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Senator Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming debated it on the radio show “Face Off.”
The ACLU got in on it, too. “I am a card-carrying member of the ACLU,” Academy Award-winning actor Burt Lancaster announced in the nonprofit’s ad campaign. He lists General Dougals MacArthur and presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy also as supporters of the ACLU in one of three commercials released by the Southern California chapter. They all shared the same conclusion: “No one agrees with every single thing [the ACLU has] done. But no one can disagree with the guiding principle—with liberty and justice for all.”
Bush and Trump, both one-term Republican presidents, ended up helping the ACLU. This was true with George W. Bush and other presidents who have threatened to undermine American democracy. When Constitution-loving Americans feel their rights are threatened, they often turn to the ACLU to defend them.
Dukakis fought back, but Bush had the advantage. In the movie version, however, Andrew Shepherd was president. He used his platform to defend Sydney Ellen Wade, attack Senator Munson, and declare groundbreaking legislation in the most romantic five-minute speech [that wasn’t] delivered from the White House Briefing Room.
Here’s the rest of the script, with my favorite parts in bold:
But the more important question is, why aren't you, Bob? Now, this is an organization whose sole purpose is to defend the Bill of Rights, so it naturally begs the question: Why would a senator, his party's most powerful spokesman and a candidate for President, choose to reject upholding the Constitution?
If you can answer that question, folks, then you're smarter than I am, because I didn't understand it until a few hours ago. America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say "You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.
You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can't just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the "land of the free".
I've known Bob Rumson for years, and I've been operating under the assumption that the reason Bob devotes so much time and energy to shouting at the rain was that he simply didn't get it. Well, I was wrong. Bob's problem isn't that he doesn't get it. Bob's problem is that he can't sell it!
We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it and telling you who's to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections.You gather a group of middle-aged, middle-class, middle-income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family and American values and character.
And wave an old photo ofthe President's girlfriend and you scream about patriotism and you tell them, she's to blame for their lot in life, and you go on television and you call her a whore. Sydney Ellen Wade has done nothing to you, Bob. She has done nothing but put herself through school, represent the interests of public school teachers, and lobby for the safety of our natural resources. You want a character debate, Bob? You better stick with me, 'cause Sydney Ellen Wade is way out of your league.
I've loved two women in my life. I lost one to cancer, and I lost the other 'cause I was so busy keeping my job I forgot to do my job. Well, that ends right now. Tomorrow morning, the White House is sending a bill to Congress for its consideration. It's White House Resolution 455, an energy bill requiring a 20 percent reduction of the emission of fossil fuels over the next ten years. It is by far the most aggressive stride ever taken in the fight to reverse the effects of global warming. The other piece of legislation is the crime bill. As of today, it no longer exists. I'm throwing it out. I'm throwing it out writing a law that makes sense. You cannot address crime prevention without getting rid of assault weapons and handguns. I consider them a threat to national security, and I will go door to door if I have to, but I'm gonna convince Americans that I'm right, and I'm gonna get the guns.
We've got serious problems, and we need serious people, and if you want to talk about character, Bob, you'd better come at me with more than a burning flag and a membership card. If you want to talk about character and American values, fine. Just tell me where and when, and I'll show up. This is a time for serious people, Bob, and your fifteen minutes are up. My name is Andrew Shepherd, and I am the President.
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