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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Mary Dent Crisp : Can She Sell Pro-Choice to the Republican Party?

<i> Jefferson Morley is former Washington editor of the Nation and former associate editor of the New Republic</i>

Mary Dent Crisp is an unlikely hell raiser. A 68-year-old grandmother, she wears pearls, gold earrings and a red, white and blue suit. She entered politics in Phoenix, 30 years ago, as a volunteer and supporter of Barry M. Goldwater. She worked her way up through the ranks of the party to become co-chair of the Republican National Committee from 1977 to 1980. Today, she is spokesperson for the National Republican Coalition for Choice. She and other advocates are pressing for debate on the issue on the floor of the Republican convention in Houston this week. The prospect dismays leaders of President George Bush’s embattled reelection campaign, but Crisp is unruffled. “The ball is in their court,” she says.

Crisp combines an air of sweet reason with the resolve of a political infighter. She proudly recounts her years of service to the GOP--and her denunciation of the party in 1980 for its abandonment of abortion rights and the equal rights amendment. She is realistic enough to know that the odds will be against the pro-choice forces in Houston but insists, “It would be a mistake not to go for it.” Sometimes Crisp even sounds surprised by the ferocity of the struggle she is caught up in. At a speaking appearance in Oklahoma last spring, Crisp had to have security guards posted around the auditorium to prevent disruption by anti-abortion advocates. “Can you imagine?” Crisp says. “It wasn’t very pleasant.”

Crisp has a BA and an honorary degree from Oberlin College. She is divorced and has three grown children. All around her apartment and office near the White House in Washington are signs of her political education: a silver tea service, a copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” and a copy of Susan Faludi’s “Backlash.”

Question: When was the National Republican Coalition for Choice formed?

Answer: About three years ago, it was formed in the wake of Webster. All during the ‘80s, pro-choice Republicans felt Roe vs. Wade protected a woman’s constitutional right to choose, so we didn’t have to worry. But after the Supreme Court’s Webster decision came down, that changed. Professional young men and women came to me and said, “What can we do?” For the first time they felt the threat of losing a right they had.

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Q: The stated intention of overturning Roe vs. Wade was there all along. Did pro-choice Republicans wait too long?

A: There’s no question about that. But I think a vacuum was there. Pro-choice Republicans or moderates--whatever you want to call us--never seemed to have the passion and the intensity. The right-wingers knew what they wanted, and they knew how to organize . . . . So in precinct after precinct, state party after state party, they just (took over).

Q: President Bush and Vice President Quayle have now both said they would support women in their own families who choose to have an abortion. Yet they also support a constitutional amendment to ban abortion in most circumstances. What do you make of these statements?

A: It’s a double standard and it’s contradictory. When (the issue) hits home in a personal way, they show their compassion, concern and love as fathers . . . . I wish they would extend that compassion to all American women . . . . I don’t think they understand what they’re proposing for the rest of American women. If you think about that, it’s really rather tragic.

Q: Would you say that choice is a family value for the Bushes and the Quayles?

A: But what they’ve said shows choice is a value they treasure and hold dear, like the rest of us. I don’t know how they reconcile or rationalize their position. Or if they do. You’ll recall Marilyn Quayle said her daughter would carry that child to term. She was asked who would decide. She said that they--the parents--would. That’s the kind of attitude that makes teen-agers so afraid to talk to parents about abortion, and it’s what makes parental consent laws so problematic.

Q: Barbara Bush will address the Republican Convention. Is she pro-choice?

A: I never talked to her about it. But from everyone who has talked to her about this issue, people who have known her for years, all say that she is very definitely pro-choice.

Q: Did the White House decide to have her speak because of discontent among Republican women such as yourself?

A: I think they asked Barbara Bush to speak because she is so beloved and so respected. But . . . for women like myself it doesn’t change anything. As long as you have a party platform that is anti-choice, litmus tests for judges and no federal funding for poor women, whatever they do in a showcase kind of way is still unacceptable.

Q: What happened on the abortion issue in the GOP platform committee meeting?

A: It was a stacked deck. They went through the motions of giving our pro-choice people a hearing. But even when we offered an exception on rape and incest--the President’s position--it was rejected. It was pretty heartless.

Q: Barry Goldwater has written to you that the GOP “will go down in a shambles” if it sticks to its anti-abortion position. How did this come about?

A: Barry called me and said, “I just can’t believe where this party is and where the President is on this issue.”

Q: Yet Barry Goldwater, in the 1970s, voted the straight anti-abortion line.

A: I think that abortion wasn’t the issue that it is today. Since then, a lot of people, particularly the senator, have thought about the issue carefully. Until recently, a lot of members of Congress haven’t had to deal with the issue in a real way . . . . What the senator said in his letter was touching. He said, “As long as men and women have lived together on this earth there has been abortion.” . . . As a conservative and a believer in individual rights, he believes--and I believe--that the government has no place in this decision. And the party has no business having this position in its platform.

Q: Let me read you something George Bush said in 1970, when he was running for the Senate in Texas. The question was, “Do you favor legalizing abortion?” Bush’s answer was, “This is a complicated area. I do not favor a federal abortion law. It seems to me that this is a matter for the individual states to decide. I personally feel that women should have the freedom to choose or not choose abortion, and that it should always be done by competent medical personnel.”

A: Bravo. Isn’t that amazing? (Laughs)

Q: Why has he changed his mind?

A: Political expediency, I think. He would never have become the vice presidential candidate with Reagan. I remember at that convention, in 1980, when George Bush came on at like 12 or 12:30, something like that, in the morning, and he looked disheveled, like he’d been moving around his room restlessly. I remember vividly, he said he would support the Republican platform 100%. That was a sellout.

I was hoping, like a lot of us, that, come 1988, when he was elected President, that he wouldn’t follow that legacy, that he could be his own person. After all, he was President. Why not? But he didn’t choose to do that. I guess he felt so beholden to this hard-core right-wing--they delivered the money and they delivered the votes.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish in Houston?

A: To have a vote on the floor of the convention. We’ve been asking since January for the party leadership to allow a vote--a debate and vote. Let the delegates decide on this critical issue. The President could maintain his convictions on the issue, but release the delegates to have an open debate and decide on it. The perception of the public would be so different if the party was literally open.

Q: What happened in Salt Lake City?

A: Salt Lake City was the regional platform hearing, which included the issue of choice. And they chose Salt Lake City, Utah--Utah has one of the harshest and most restrictive anti-abortion laws in this country. They chose Memorial Day weekend. There were four witnesses on both sides of the issue, and we each had three minutes. So a total of about an hour, for this powerful issue, this central issue. That’s the only testimony that was granted anywhere.

Q: How do you respond to the argument, “Look Mary, the President has a difficult election. This is no time to be dividing the Republican Party. We need to focus on November, not on our personal issues "?

A: We don’t see ourselves as embarrassing the President or damaging the election. We see it as a party-building effort. The party’s already divided on this issue.

Q: How are you going to do it in Houston? Under parliamentary procedure you need to get a majority of six delegations to suspend the rules. Can you get a majority of six delegations?

A: That’s a possibility. I think we have a good shot at that. I think one of the things that’s going to be difficult is . . . a lot of the pro-choice delegates this time are going to be subject to silencing. It would be better from (the Bush campaign) standpoint to have no dissent, no freedom of expression. Because we disagree on an issue they say that we are disloyal. A party that’s so closed, so afraid of dissent is really an embarrassment.

Q: Couldn’t a debate over abortion help the President?

A: We think it can. You’re talking to the American public, which is predominantly pro-choice, the majority of Republicans are pro-choice. These are the voters out there. What comes out of that convention, the platform itself, the issue of abortion on the (planks) is going to be the perception of what people have of this party. They would say, “My gosh, the party really is open, the party is moving.”

I was out in California during the primaries, and I couldn’t believe the numbers of mainstream Republicans who said they were not going to pull the lever for George Bush.

Q: You think the abortion issue, the choice issue , was a factor in that?

A: Very definitely. I was talking to a group out in Arizona recently. There’s no way they’re going to vote for the Republicans. It’s their lives. It’s so invasive, they can’t even imagine.

Q: People have called this the year of the woman in American politics. It seems many of the prominent women running for the Senate and House are Democrats. Why do you think that is?

A: . . . This is another area where the Republican Party really misreads the undercurrent running through American women because of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings. It just isn’t confined to Democratic women. Republican women truly resented the way Anita Hill was treated.

This issue, I think, we forget sometimes. It transcends party lines. It’s not a Democratic issue, a Republican issue, liberal or conservative. You’re talking about a woman’s fundamental right to choose, and we’re talking about the destiny of American women--our daughters, granddaughters, future generations.

Q: It seems clear that if George Bush wants a debate in Houston, it will happen. What would you say to him to persuade him that it’s in his interest to have a debate?

A: I think (Bush) could be very presidential if he’d just say, “I’m going to maintain my position on this issue, I have my own personal convictions. But I really think maybe this is an issue the party should decide.” It would be unprecedented, but it certainly would shake up the American public and shake up the Republican Party. It might really politically be to his advantage.

We’re talking not (only) about the presidential election. We’re talking about congressional elections, senatorial elections, gubernatorial elections and legislative elections. That’s where the party’s going to suffer.


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