Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Margaret Keesee-Forrester, April 21, 1989. Interview C-0065. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Evolution of the Republican Party in the 1970s and 1980s

Keesee-Forrester describes changes in the Republican Party during the 1970s and 1980s. Explaining her own reasons for identifying as a Republican (namely, a belief in limited government and strong national defense), Keesee-Forrester laments the growing trend to identify figures such as Jesse Helms as symbolic representatives of Republicanism. As Keesee-Forrester saw it, although North Carolina was traditionally a conservative state, trends in the 1970s and 1980s had began to greatly alter the meaning of conservatism to an extent that made her feel increasingly uncomfortable with the direction of the party.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Margaret Keesee-Forrester, April 21, 1989. Interview C-0065. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

KATHRYN NASSTROM:
It's clear, from what you've said so far, the many ways that you diverged from what nationally North Carolina is known for in terms of Republicans, Jesse Helms, that's what people outside of North Carolina know. Would you comment more on how that split in the party evolved as you see it, and maybe even what impact you think that's going to have over the next years?
MARGARET KEESEE-FORRESTER:
I like to tell folks I was a Republican before it became fashionable to be a Republican in North Carolina. I had grown up in a Republican home. I consider my family traditional Republicans. They're Republicans and they believe in less government involved in their lives. You know, government cannot do everything for everyone. That you want to have a strong national defense, but that the individual has to assume responsibility also for their own destiny. And you know, taking money away from everyone is not going to make everybody better. And I just had grown up feeling that I agreed. That government has to get involved in certain aspects. They have to set an example and be a role model, but they shouldn't try to dictate to people what they do as individuals. In the early '70s when I ran, I did consider my party to be very progressive. When Jesse Helms, and I love to tell my Democrat friends this too, that he was one of theirs before he joined us. And he decided it was fashionable, [he decided], "I can get elected." I mean, Nixon was running and it was obvious that he was probably going to get elected. Well, Jesse became a Republican. He was elected on Nixon's coattails. But he is not a true Republican. I can look at someone who calls himself a Republican, and you know, it's like it's convenient. It's a matter of convenience for them to be a Republican because of this perception that they're conservative. And they'll take parts of the Republican, I don't want to say platform so much as our mission statement: "We as a party believe. I'm Republican because I believe that's . . . " Well, they'll take parts of that that they can live with and then they bring their own agenda and say that their agenda and what the Republicans say they believe becomes one and the same. And it's not one and the same. The reason I have not become a chameleon and have not tried to change my colors to make myself more appealing to some of the Republicans who have been in leadership roles in recent years, is that I know that there are Republicans who do feel as I do, who do not believe that government should tell you what you should do in the privacy of your own home. Or should tell you that, as a woman, if you want to terminate your pregnancy, that you can't do it because I tell you that you can't do it. That that's purely a choice between a woman and her doctor and whatever, but that's not the government's role to get involved with that. I never have been able to foretell the future, but I think that in politics there's a pendulum swing. During that Watergate period with the very active participation of young people on college campuses, the women's movement sort of going to full bloom . . . [END OF TAPE 1, SIDE A] [TAPE 1, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]
MARGARET KEESEE-FORRESTER:
The seventies were a period of a lot of activism in this country, and, I think, would be perceived as a period of the Left, if you want to identify it politically. What has happened over the last decade or so is that the pendulum swing - people, for whatever reason, started getting uncomfortable with some of the direction the country was going, and because of the fact that we haven't had a war that we've been involved in, there's been relative peace in the world. We had a "feel good" President for eight years, and it made us feel good. The emphasis on people becoming more . . . I don't want to use the expression "Yuppie," but young people were more interested in getting themselves a BMW or having a nice home or eating sushi or whatever, their whole focus changed, and they became . . . When you start thinking about people having material things, people start thinking Republican. I don't know why. I used to get tickled when I'd hear someone saying, "Well, the Republicans are the party of wealth." And I thought, "But I don't know any wealthy Republicans!" I mean, what's Teddy Kennedy? I'm sure there are Rockefellers; there are plenty of Republicans, but I don't know these people. But I think that a lot of younger people became involved in the Republican mentality of the right, the conservatives, the business interests, and less attention to human issues or social issues, and Jesse Helms had some appeal, I guess, to them, perhaps. A lot of people in North Carolina, of course, it was already a very conservative state - he runs very strong in rural areas, particularly, and those are not Republican areas of the state. Most of the state still is very Democratic, or at least the registration reflects that, even though they will elect a Republican Senator, and we had two Republican Senators at one point, but I just think the pendulum is going to swing away from that. It's going to go back. There's going to be more of a moderation perhaps. I'm hoping it will be. I'm not comfortable with the far right thinking, the new right, the moral majority mentality. They're very judgmental, and I'm uncomfortable. I mean, I can decide who I want to talk to and who I want to like and who I want to be friends with, but I don't want it legislated. That makes me uncomfortable.