Reliving the Joy of Reagan's Great 1980 Victory

In Rendezvous with Destiny, author Craig Shirley has done a masterful job in recreating the election that made Ronald Reagan President and changed America. Shirley wisely took as the title of his book the best-known phrase from Reagan’s speech supporting Barry Goldwater in 1964, the speech that first placed Reagan on the national stage and won every conservative’s heart. It was a mutual love affair that never wavered over the following decades.

Winning the hearts of the rest of America is the story that is told in great detail in this new book by the same author who also penned the best-selling Reagan’s Revolution concerning the critical 1976 election that paved the way for’80. Shirley’s books will be the definitive works on both Reagan elections. It will be impossible to top his extensive journalistic research and, especially, his 150 interviews with and access to all of the movers and shakers of the campaigns. This insider author knows or can get to everyone, including former President Jimmy Carter.

Given the scope and detail of Shirley’s history, it is impossible to summarize its vignettes, historical facts and anecdotes in a short review. The reader must treat himself by personally consuming the inside tidbits as he would a fine meal, slowly and enjoyably. It is all there: the early efforts by the 1976 manager to control the campaign by purging any staffers he considered threats, Reagan’s stirring announcement of candidacy, the almost-fatal Iowa loss, the dramatic Nashua recovery, the firing of the campaign leadership, Reagan’s opposition to selecting George Bush as his running mate (somewhat over-dramatized), the almost-disastrous selection of Gerald Ford instead, the decisive general election debate in Cleveland with Carter that almost did not happen and the glorious November victory.  

Consultants’ Role

To the extent this history has a theme it is a tribute to the strength and character of Ronald Reagan and his effect on U.S. history. The book accurately portrays him and the events and peoples that provided the opportunity for him to shine. Shirley does not shrink from the candidate’s weaknesses — especially presenting the most-detailed description of his hesitation in rejecting the foolish “dream ticket” of Reagan-Ford that would have cost him the election. But in the end the overall quality of Ronald Reagan’s personal attributes and leadership qualities triumph. Shirley properly concludes with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s characterization of Reagan as a man “with greatness.”  

A secondary element of the book is an inside look at American politics of 1980 and especially the large role played by consultants in modern presidential elections. This reviewer must admit, in full disclosure, that he is among that tribe and is exposed as such in the book, so caveat emptor most certainly applies. Another member of the clan extensively covered in the book — George H.W. Bush’s political director in 1980, David Keene—perfectly characterized the modern consultant’s hubris in an earlier election classic, What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer. Keene bluntly said: “The candidate is the necessary pain in the ass,” meaning that the consultant saw himself as the important element in the campaign and viewed the candidate as only a potential impediment in his way to victory. Shirley calls this “consultants as celebrities.” No one better symbolized that conceit than the man, who if there is a villain to Reagan’s heroism in this book, was his campaign manager, John Sears.

Shirley traces the rise of the consultant as primus inter pares to the 1976 election, which makes sense, since Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and the Kennedy brothers pretty much ran their own campaigns — although an earlier consultant, Mark Hanna, might object, John Sears would not. He had an ego (remember the caveat, I was both his assistant and a later adversary) as large as his undeniable analytical talent. He gave me, then a raw and theoretical professor, great insight into real-world strategizing. His genius was innate as he absolutely denigrated scholarly knowledge, calling it useless. He was impressive in discussion, made enemies like molasses draws flies, and he could not organize a two-car funeral. But he could think.

As much as it sticks in my craw, it is quite possible that Reagan would not have been nominated if Sears had not set up the confrontation between Bush and Reagan at the Nashua, N.H., debate. When Reagan insisted the other candidates be included in the debate: “I am paying for this microphone. I am paying for this debate,” Bush dug in his heels insisting on confronting Reagan alone. Sears arranged this scene himself, with the specific goal of exposing Bush’s hardheadedness and Reagan’s magnanimity, and it worked — in spades. Bush’s win in the Iowa caucuses had him on the verge of repeating Jimmy Carter’s march to the White House. Reagan’s New Hampshire director, Jerry Carmen, had taken charge of the local campaign and encouraged “Reagan to be Reagan” and that was clearly helping. But as one who was there, I am not sure that would have been sufficient without Sears’ debate masterstroke.  

Shirley mentions another development that was critical to success in the general election in 1980: targeting the “Reagan Democrats,” the white, ethnic, blue-collar and Catholic voters who switched sides. He attributes this to a late change in strategy for Reagan — which it was. But the first project Sears gave me in 1977 was to devise a plan to win precisely these voters as the ones critical to a Republican victory in 1980. He had the vision well before the rest, including the early belief that Reagan could win. Like most geniuses, he had enormous blind spots. Most important, he did not trust Reagan’s ability and thought he stage-managed the candidate. Sears considered Eastern moderates like himself the real pols who needed total control to win — an obsession that cost him his job when he targeted Reagan’s closest personal friends.  

Reagan Really in Charge

For the general election, even an admiring Shirley ultimately judges the Reagan campaign leadership inexperienced, disorganized and inarticulate. So how did the Gipper win? He did it himself with a bit of help from his friends. Reagan’s strength was being an enthusiastic, intelligent, well-read, warm and engaging candidate whom people liked. Shirley even believes that Reagan’s “gaffes” were tactical to hide what would otherwise be unacceptable to folks if delivered raw. He had plenty of help from his large number of enthusiastic supporters and volunteers and those lower-level campaign officials Shirley designates as “perhaps the most impressive group of political operatives ever assembled.” But, in the end, it was the candidate that made the difference. For the proof, read this very objective book that makes the case merely by presenting the facts.  

My own view is that Ronald Reagan both outlasted and outshined the consultants and the smart guys by a country mile. Even the debate shenanigans would not have worked if Reagan himself had not taken charge. And although Reagan often deferred to his staff and left much to them, at the end of the day he was in charge and won the presidency that changed the world.