Some of the remaining original foot soldiers, captains and generals who broke political ground in early days of the Reagan Revolution gathered this past weekend in California to once again celebrate the Reagan legacy, this time marking 30 years since the hard fought Ford-Reagan presidential primary contest. About 70 people who played varying roles in the 1976 Reagan campaign were on hand at the Reagan Ranch deep in the Santa Inez Mountains near Santa Barbara to share stories and reflect on how their efforts helped to make a difference in the history of the late 20th Century.
Taking a cue from activist/author Craig Shirley’s book on the subject, “Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started it All,” organizers of this past weekend’s reunion event reinforced the theme that while the 1976 campaign fell short at the time, it was indispensable to Reagan’s election victory in 1980 and all that followed, from the U.S. economic recovery of the 1980s, to the restoration of American self-confidence and patriotism, to the unraveling of the Soviet Communist empire.
The event featured remarks and recollections from several prominent Reaganites that brought back many memories while at the same time evoked the pride that all there still intrinsically feel about their association with the 40th President almost two years to the day after his state funeral and a remarkable 17 years since he left office.
Former Attorney General and longtime Reagan confidante Ed Meese began his keynote remarks with a touching special toast to the recently departed Lyn Nofziger without whose memory no Reagan gathering can be truly complete. As Reagan’s colorful and devoted press and political advisor, Nofziger, who died in April at 81, always carried the torch inside the Reagan camp for Reagan’s most devoted supporters around the country, especially those from the 1976 campaign when it wasn’t as politically easy to be on the conservative side.
Meese noted that the ’76 campaign was essential to bringing together a nationwide cadre of field-tested volunteers and supporters whose continued work in the years between 1976 and 1980 helped communicate Reagan’s message and broaden his appeal in a way that made the 1980 victory possible. Meese also pointed out Reagan’s critique of the failures of détente and his devotion to challenging the underpinnings of the Soviet enterprise — key themes of the 76 campaign — were the central driving forces behind his seeking the presidency in both 1976 and 1980.
Martin Anderson, Reagan policy advisor and author of recent revealing books on Reagan’s handwritten writings, noted Reagan’s remarkable toughness in the face of adversity. He recalled one of the darkest days of the 1976 campaign came after Reagan had lost seven straight primaries and polls were showing him down by 10 points in the next primary in North Carolina. His campaign was $3 million in debt with 25 primaries to go, and the media were clamoring for his withdrawal from the race.
At a special war counsel of Reagan’s top campaign advisors, the consensus was that Reagan should start looking for the exits. According to Anderson, Reagan listened politely and then turned to the group to announce with determination that contrary to such counsel, he was in it to stay and was going to run in every primary to the convention even if he lost every single one. Of course, he then went on to win North Carolina and by the time it was done, Reagan had actually won more primary votes nationwide than Ford, despite coming up short in delegates.
Peter Hannaford, another longtime Reagan aide and author of numerous Reagan books and frequent contributor to HUMAN EVENTS, recalled the period from 1973 to 1975, when Watergate exploded and some conservatives were calling on Reagan to lead a third party effort (which Reagan rejected). Hannaford noted that Reagan’s radio commentaries, newspaper columns and personal appearances after leaving the governorship of California played an important role in making a serious presidential bid possible.
Charlie Black, one of Reagan campaign manager John Sears’ top lieutenants in 1976, summed up by saying that the ’76 campaign “was not a victory, but it was a success.” It demonstrated to conservatives the essential ingredients for successful future political efforts: a courageous and effective leader articulating powerful ideas, backed up by dedicated and resourceful volunteers.
Craig Shirley recalled that his own inspiration to become involved in politics came when watching on television Reagan’s remarkable speech to the 1976 Republican convention in Kansas City, and he pointed out that many others in the Republican Party, such as this year’s Maryland Republican U.S. Senate candidate, Michael Steele, had the same reaction. In it, Reagan upstaged President Ford, leading not a few delegates in the hall that night to murmur that, in backing Ford, the convention had selected the wrong man to carry the Republican banner. When Shirley replayed a video of the speech again this weekend, it was an emotional high all over again for many of the Reagan faithful, even 30 years later.
Another high point of the reunion gathering was hearing special greetings from devoted Reagan friend and former national security advisor and cabinet secretary, Bill Clark, and from Michael Reagan, the former President’s son and well-known radio talk show host.
The group also took a special tour of Reagan’s beloved Rancho del Cielo, now aptly restored by Young America’s Foundation to be a living monument and testimonial to Reagan the man and his embodiment of enduring American values.