Rick Perry has been taking a lot of flak this week for his 2007 executive order mandating that Texas girls receive Gardasil, the HPV vaccine. I think he would benefit from studying a bit of history — namely, how Ronald Reagan grappled with the abortion issue.
In June 1967, then-California Governor Ronald Reagan signed into law a bill that greatly liberalized access to abortion in the Golden State and helped pave the way for the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. According to reporter and Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, it was the only time, either as governor or as president, that Reagan acknowledged making a mistake on a major piece of legislation.
In his book “Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power,” Cannon describes how Reagan (having been in office for only a few months) was blindsided by the abortion bill. Referring to his 1967 struggles with the issue, Reagan admitted, “[I]t was a subject I’ve never given any thought to before.” The topic simply didn’t arise during Reagan’s 1966 gubernatorial campaign.
It didn’t help that Reagan’s own cabinet was divided on the issue — some counseled that he veto the measure, others wanted him to side with his party’s state legislators who had signed on to the bill. Pressure was mounting, and it seemed that Reagan just wanted to get the whole thing over with.
When the California Senate passed the bill (with the next step being the governor’s desk), press secretary Lyn Nofziger quickly told Reagan that he wanted to issue a press release to the effect that Reagan would sign the bill the next day. According to Cannon, “Reagan wearily agreed” and Nofziger issued the press release only minutes later — before the boss could change his mind.
At the time, Reagan thought that the abortion bill he signed was less bad than the abortion bill that the legislature would have passed over his veto.
But by 1970, Reagan realized that he had made a mistake, as he strongly, publicly and successfully opposed the legislature’s attempt to further liberalize the 1967 law.
In 1979, Reagan (who was gearing up for his presidential campaign) came out in support of a human life amendment to the U.S. Constitution — clearly having made peace with pro-life conservatives.
What might Perry learn from this? Mainly that Reagan owned his mistake. He took awhile to fully own it, but in the end he did, as shown by his actions in 1970 and later. He didn’t blame Nofziger or distance himself by using the royal “we” (as in, “when we made the decision”). Reagan, in his forthright manner, said in 1973, “I think one of the hardest decisions that I ever had to make had to do with the abortion legislation” [emphasis added].
Perry should also know that once Reagan comprehended his mistake, he was steadfast and unambiguous in opposing abortion. For example, in 1983, on the 10th anniversary of Roe, Reagan wrote a long, thoughtful statement against abortion-on-demand. At the time, some thought it a risky step for a president facing re-election (and the women’s vote) in a year and a half, but Reagan did it anyway.
Ronald Reagan showed us how a great leader handles his mistakes on social issues. Now it’s up to this generation of politicians, including Rick Perry, to heed Reagan’s example.
Joanne Butler is a senior economics fellow at the Caesar Rodney Institute of Delaware. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.