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the 11th commandment

By Brian Williams, Anchor and managing editor

Did anyone hear the interview with Rudy Giuliani this week, when he pulled out a great phrase from the grab bag of political arcana and spoke of the "11th Commandment" in the Republican Party?  My partner in all things history around here, Andy Franklin, had the same idea I had.  This calls, I think, for a review of the history of the phrase.  When Giuliani uttered the "Commandment" while campaigning in New Hampshire, he suggested that the Democratic presidential candidates lately had been more negative than his fellow Republicans were. And he invoked the name of Ronald Reagan, "because he was the most successful Republican in a long time," Giuliani said. "He used to have an 11th Commandment. It was, 'Thou shalt not attack another Republican.'"

The so-called 11th Commandment has served the Republican Party well over the years. Ronald Reagan is often given credit for coming up with the rule, but in fact, it was someone else's idea -- someone named Gaylord Parkinson, who years ago was chairman of the Republican Party in California. In September 1965, as California Republicans (including Reagan) prepared to compete for the GOP nomination for governor, Parkinson decreed that the candidates should refrain from attacking each other. He called it the 11th Commandment: "Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican." The idea was to foster party unity and avoid the acrimony of the year before, when moderate and conservative Republicans were bitterly divided over their presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater.

In the 1966 race for governor, Parkinson's rule actually gave a boost to candidate Reagan, who was then a former actor making his first bid for public office. In the primary campaign, one of Reagan's Republican opponents attacked him as an "extremist," and called him "temperamental and emotionally upset," adding that Reagan's earlier switch from liberal Democrat to conservative Republican "might indicate instability of some sort." It was even hinted that Reagan might have once belonged to Communist front organizations. The attacks backfired, leaving the high road to Reagan, who was only too happy to follow the 11th Commandment. He won the primary, and that November he was elected governor, defeating incumbent Democrat Pat Brown.

Ten years later, things had changed. In 1976, Reagan was a former governor challenging an incumbent of his own party -- Gerald Ford -- for the Republican presidential nomination. Ford, who made no pretense of following the 11th Commandment (he said only that he would "abide by the first ten"), had beaten Reagan in the early primaries. Reagan's campaign was faltering, and his own advisers urged him to take the gloves off. He did. Campaigning in Florida that March, Ronald Reagan broke the 11th Commandment and attacked Gerald Ford. He accused Ford, who had then been president just 19 months, of presiding over "the collapse of American will and the retreat of American power," and said Ford "must be held accountable to history for allowing this to happen." He said Ford lacked "vision," that he found it "difficult" to trust his leadership. He accused the president of favoring "pre-emptive concessions" in talks with the Soviet Union, and said, "I fear for my country when I see White House indifference to the decline in our military position."

It wasn't enough, or perhaps it was too much. Ronald Reagan lost the Florida primary to Gerald Ford, who was privately furious at Reagan over the attacks. Reagan's campaign never recovered.  Even so, there was talk in Republican circles of inviting Reagan onto the ticket as Ford's running mate. Had Reagan's criticism of Ford diminished that possibility? "I don't think so. It was said in the heat of the campaign," said Gerald Ford's White House chief of staff. And who was he? A young fellow named Dick Cheney.

In the end, Ford won the nomination in 1976, and -- with Bob Dole as his running mate -- lost the election to Jimmy Carter. Reagan ran for president again in 1980, and that January, riding high in the polls, he declined to participate in a GOP candidate debate in Iowa, saying he did not want to divide the Republican Party. One fellow contender, former Texas governor John Connally (also a former Democrat), was having none of it. "He talks about this 11th Commandment thing," Connally said of Reagan, "but he's the man who challenged an incumbent president in 1976. If he had not made that challenge, Jerry Ford would probably still be president of the United States."

History lesson over.  We have a great broadcast for you tonight, and we hope you can join us.