Lyn Nofziger, the political operative who briefly fell out of the fold and into the conservative rebellion over the tax increase, rejoined the Reagan team this week with the kind of minstrel-show humor that reflects the time warp of the Reagan administration.
"I was opposed to this thing, but they finally done explained it to me," he said, speaking in the finest tradition of Amos and Andy. And later: "I'm like a woman. I changed my mind."
Honest. He really said that.
Nofziger, by way of background, is a Reagan loyalist who was the White House political director before he left to head his own political consulting firm. He continued to meet regularly with the president and is held in such high esteem by Reagan that he will now head the public relations campaign to sell the tax increase to America.
Despite the fact that he sees the president frequently, he claims he didn't talk to the White House before forming his position on the tax increase. The fight over the tax increase, mind you, is not only a pivotal point in Reagan's failing economic program, but it has also been characterized by Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) as the "opening round of the fight for the soul and future of the Republican party." Yet Nofziger joined a powerful list of opponents, without taking advantage of his close ties to the president to find out why the White House was backing the increase.
Nofziger conceded that what he did was dumb, and on that point he was right. But he couldn't leave it at that. Dressed in a Mickey Mouse tie, he proceeded to try to joke his way out of a serious political blunder by leaning on sexual stereotypes. By associating female behavior with his own, at least in this farce, he is giving women a bad name.
Nofziger's offensive remark illustrates the insensitivity towards women that shapes the policies and programs of the Reagan White House. Despite poll after poll showing women abandoning Reagan and the Republican party, the administration still sees women as people to joke about.
Last week, it was the president who trivialized sexual harassment on a nationally televised news conference. Instead of treating Sarah McClendon's question about a Justice Department report on sexual discrimination as a serious question, the president showed himself to be uninformed and uncaring. When she asked about the report's references to sexual harassment of women, Reagan laughed about the press conference getting an R rating, while the predominantly male White House press corps giggled right along with him. He tried to turn sexual harassment, which is a serious problem for a large percentage of women who are in higher education and in the workforce, into a joke.
But these attitudes are not laughing matters to women. Reagan's popularity with women, who now constitute a majority of voters, has declined steadily since his election. An ABC-Washington Post poll taken last April showed a 19-point gap in the way male and female voters view his handling of the presidency. The biggest expression of dissatisfaction with Reagan and the Republicans is coming from working women.
A recent Louis Harris poll showed women feeling very differently from men about a wide variety of issues, ranging from war and peace to the economy to gun control. Harris found women inclining toward the Democratic party in the fall races by a 53 to 35 percent margin.
The overriding factor in women's feelings, he found, was a sense that most men still do not take them seriously and a deep-seated desire "to have society recognize their identity as they think it ought to be."
Women, in other words, don't want to be the butt of male locker-room jokes anymore, and yet that is obviously the kind of humor that is accepted in the Reagan White House. Reagan has surrounded himself with white males who don't understand that times have changed, that jokes about women not being able to make up their minds aren't appropriate anymore.
They aren't funny and, for an administration that's in bad trouble with women voters, they surely aren't smart. Unlike Lyn Nofziger, women have not had a hard time making up their minds about the Reagan programs. A lot of Republican candidates are right to be worried that come November, women voters will take the jokes out on them.