Engaging Look at Reagan's Pivotal '76 Campaign

Given the huge and growing volume of books written that examine Ronald Reagan the man, his life and presidency from almost every conceivable angle, it is strange that, up to now, none of them has been dedicated to Reagan’s pivotal pursuit of the GOP presidential nomination in 1976.

In that campaign, Reagan failed narrowly to unseat incumbent Jerry Ford for the Republican nomination, but his strong showing that year and the loyalties his campaign forged paved the way for his nomination and subsequent election four years later.

Fortunately, this missing piece in the Reagan mosaic has been put in place by Craig Shirley in his new book, Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All.

The 1976 Reagan campaign is a major story and Shirley has covered it with admirable thoroughness. Reagan’s Revolution runs more than 400 pages, reflects interviews with more than 100 people, and includes a lengthy bibliography, substantial references to original source material and 47 pages of footnotes.

This thoroughness enables the author to tell the saga of the Gerald Ford-Ronald Reagan mano a mano in a comprehensive way for the first time. Interviews were conducted with key Ford operatives such as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and James Baker, as well as the main figures on the Reagan team, thus providing a fascinating look into how the leaders of both campaigns acted and reacted to events as the closely fought battle moved forward toward the climactic showdown at the Kansas City convention.

Remarkable Candidacy

One thing that makes the story of Reagan’s ’76 campaign so amazing is that it should never have happened in the first place. The Ronald Reagan of 1976 was not the legendary figure he later became, but he was the leading spokesman for the dominant conservative wing of the GOP and had been so for almost 10 years. Reagan was well aware of his standing with the Republican rank and file, and he wanted the GOP presidential nomination and felt he deserved it.

But he was also a loyal Republican who had coined the term, “the 11th Commandment”–thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican–and he was receptive to appeals for party unity and his sense of duty.

The fact that Gerald Ford–an unelected President–through a combination of ignorance, stupidity, vanity and petty jealousy, allowed the Reagan candidacy to develop was a mind-boggling blunder and Shirley carefully retraces Ford’s missteps and Reagan’s growing antipathy.

Instead of developing a rapport with Reagan, Ford kept his distance. Instead of seeking Reagan’s counsel as a leader of stature, Ford offended him by offering him two minor Cabinet positions. In 1974, instead of offering the vice presidency to Reagan, Ford gave it to Nelson Rockefeller–the very individual most likely to inflame the conservative grassroots of the GOP, which had battled Rocky in the bitter campaign of 1964.

The author also discusses Ford’s policy mistakes–including the defense of Henry Kissinger and his d???? ┬ętente policy, which were anathema to conservatives; the snubbing of Alexander Solzhenitsyn; the absurd WIN buttons (Whip Inflation Now); and the Republican National Committee’s “Republicans are people too” campaign. These goofs, combined with the President’s physical stumbles, verbal blunders and overall fecklessness led to a growing perception that Ford was in over his head and destined for defeat in the presidential election.

They also created a climate that made the incredible suddenly conceivable: success for Reagan’s growing determination to unseat an incumbent President of his own party. Here the author takes us inside the Reagan operation in the waning days of his governorship in 1974 and the ongoing discussions about the presidency between Reagan and key advisers Bob Walker, Jim Lake, Pete Hannaford, Mike Deaver and Jeff Bell, and the discussions the advisers held among themselves.

Reagan had the desire to run but wondered if he could succeed. The enthusiastic reception Reagan was getting around the nation to his speeches, newspaper columns and radio commentary told him there was a lot of enthusiasm for a possible candidacy but, on the other hand, virtually the entire Republican establishment was for Ford. Could Reagan win?

The “Californians” thought so, but concluded that, to be taken seriously, especially by the national press, they would need a non-Californian of stature as campaign manager. Thus the selection of John Sears, a key political operative for Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign.

Sears certainly had his virtues. He was exceptionally articulate and possessed a detailed knowledge of the workings of the nomination process. He was also very adroit in dealing with the press, both in formal briefings and in his leaks and off-the-record conversations.

Shirley contends that were it not for Sears there would have been no Reagan candidacy, because it was Sears who convinced Ronald and Nancy Reagan that, given Ford’s weakness as an unelected President, it would be possible for Reagan to beat him and to do so, moreover, by running a positive campaign that would not be divisive. It is certain that Sears’ analysis appealed to Reagan since he decided to run. It is far from certain, however, that some other political manager could not have also played successfully on Reagan’s desire to run.

It is also clear that Sears had numerous negatives. He was a poor manager (a fact that the author acknowledges), and the internal chaos of the ’76 Reagan campaign is legendary.

Moreover, Sears had a dim view of Reagan’s intellect, seeing him as “a magnificent piece of horseflesh” who could be molded, trained and guided to victory by a gifted handler (Sears).

The way Sears planned to accomplish this was to downplay conservative issues–Sears told the author that Reagan was perceived to be closely akin to George Wallace, a perception that had to be dispelled–and then fight the battle between Ford and Reagan on the issue of competence. Thus voters in conservative New Hampshire and elsewhere were bombarded by ads touting Reagan’s successful record as governor of California, to the near total exclusion of ads pointing out Reagan’s differences with Ford on policy issues.

Sears was also a poor strategist, who believed mistakenly that the only way to defeat an incumbent President was to knock him off quickly. This led to a front-loaded strategy, gambling everything on a win in the New Hampshire primary.

Thus, when Reagan, who was seen as the frontrunner, lost narrowly to Ford in New Hampshire, the press treated the defeat as a mortal blow. Moreover, there was no plan B to fall back on. Organizations of varying degrees of competence existed in most of the other states, but there was little money left to fund their campaigns. In some important states such as Ohio, the Reagan campaign had not bothered to file a full slate of delegates for the primary–a failure that would come back to haunt the campaign.

Reagan quickly lost five primaries, bringing him to the North Carolina primary on March 23, with the press and his top campaign staff having written off his candidacy.

Historic Comeback

Then came one of the greatest comebacks in American political history–Reagan’s victory in North Carolina, a deliverance that saved his candidacy, propelled him to a near victory in Kansas City and made him the front-runner in 1980. Without Reagan’s victory in North Carolina, there would have been no Reagan presidency, and Shirley provides a gripping account of this come-from-behind triumph.

It was a victory made possible because Reagan took off the gloves, campaigned hard and hit on such issues as defense, the Ford plan to give away the Panama Canal and the continuous encroachment of the federal government on the lives of the people. As Shirley documents, Reagan’s cause was aided enormously by North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms and his political guru, Tom Ellis, who put their organization and fund-raising expertise at Reagan’s disposal.

Also important was the independent effort for Reagan run by the American Conservative Union that emphasized the policy differences between Ford and Reagan–a pioneering effort that Shirley describes for the first time, to my knowledge.

Decidedly not a factor was Reagan’s campaign manager Sears, who was nowhere to be seen–and in fact was talking to Ford’s people about a Reagan capitulation.

The treatment of the Sears problem is my major quarrel with this book. There is voluminous evidence that suggests Sears cost Ronald Reagan the 1976 Republican presidential nomination. (It is equally certain that he almost cost him the nomination in 1980 when he was finally fired by Reagan.)

The author covers much of this evidence in passing, but shrinks from drawing the obvious conclusion. His assessment: “I don’t think Sears was a disaster …some of his actions were brilliant or could at least be justified.”

One of these brilliant moves, in Shirley’s estimation, was Sears’ orchestration of the selection of liberal Pennsylvania Sen. Richard Schweiker as Reagan’s vice presidential running mate–“the biggest, most shocking, most impressive, magical trick ever preformed by John Sears a/k/a Mandrake the Magician” to his supporters.

In fact, the Schweiker gambit was hardly magic. It failed. The selection cost Reagan more delegates than it gained for him, caused profound unhappiness among Reagan’s conservative delegates and gave Clarke Reed, the slippery Mississippi chairman, the excuse he was looking for to renege on a verbal commitment he had made to deliver his delegation to Reagan.

Shirley makes Reed, whom he unfortunately did not interview, to be the villain of the drama but, in fact, he was a petty player. In reality, Reagan had lost the nomination before the convention started. He was more than a hundred votes behind going in and lost 1,181 to 1,070.

The only thing that might have won it for him at that late hour was a frontal assault on Ford’s foreign policy and its controversial steward, Henry Kissinger. Many of Ford’s delegates were conservatives who might well have voted in a floor fight with the Reaganites on Kissinger, d???? ┬ętente, the Panama Canal, etc. A string of Ford defeats might have unraveled his campaign.

This was the approach favored by Helms and other conservatives, but Sears rejected this approach, instead banking everything on fighting for a rules change (Rule 16-C) that would have forced Ford to disclose the name of his VP choice. But the attempt to change 16-C failed and Ford was nominated.

One other demurral I have regarding Reagan’s Revolution is the idea that this was “the campaign that started it all,” meaning that in the Reagan campaign of 1976 conservatives finally and definitively took control of the GOP. That is clearly not the case. That takeover came in 1964 when the forces of Barry Goldwater wrested control of the party from its Eastern wing represented by Nelson Rockefeller, whom Goldwater defeated for the nomination.

Since that time, the Republican Party has been solidly conservative at the grassroots level and increasingly so in the ranks of its elected officials. It is simply not true that the party was drifting left in 1976.

It was the Goldwater campaign that “blooded the conservative troops” (Bill Rusher’s phrase) and brought thousands of conservatives into the political arena as activists and candidates. Reagan operatives Charlie Black, Dave Keene, Jeff Bell, Haley Barbour, all major figures in Shirley’s book, are good examples of this–as is Reagan himself, who came to national attention because of a phenomenally popular speech he made for Goldwater in 1964.

In shorthand history, the conservative intellectual movement began in the 1950s, made the transition to the political sphere in 1964 and consolidated these gains in the Reagan presidential victory of 1980 and the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994.

To say this, however, in no way diminishes the importance of 1976. It is almost certain that, without the Reagan presidential campaign of 1976, there would have been no Reagan presidency in 1981.

In an interview with Shirley, TV host Chris Matthews also makes the point that, had Reagan been elected President in 1976, he would have governed differently than he did in 1981. There would have been no supply-side tax cuts and no Republican-controlled Senate to help enact his program.

These and other questions about 1976 provide fuel for endless speculation.

What cannot be questioned, however, is the importance of the wild, unpredictable, exciting, hard-fought, intrigue-filled campaign of 1976, and Craig Shirley has done an admirable job in telling the story.