Drama of a bro­kered con­ven­tion

In 1976, Ford and Rea­gan took it to the wire

The Washington Times Daily - - Metro - By Craig Shirley

As the Re­pub­li­can Party hur­tles to­ward a pos­si­ble An­i­mal House-like cli­max at their con­fab in Tampa Bay in late Au­gust, the na­tional dis­cus­sion has turned to con­tro­ver­sial GOP con­ven­tions of the past, most miss­ing the mean­ing of each and how these ide­o­log­i­cal food fights some­times changed the face and fu­ture of the party. Pol­i­tics goes with dou­ble-deal­ing “like peas and car­rots,” in the im­mor­tal words of For­rest Gump. Con­ser­va­tives in the Re­pub­li­can Party know this all too well, es­pe­cially in the con­ven­tions of 1952 and 1976. The 1952 con­ven­tion fea­tured a mighty strug­gle be­tween the forces sup­port­ing “Mr. Re­pub­li­can,” Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio and the hero of World War II, Dwight David Eisen­hower.

Brown Univer­sity his­to­rian James T. Pat­ter­son said years ago that the 1952 GOP gath­er­ing in Chicago “was re­ally the last na­tional con­ven­tion that opened with much drama or un­cer­tainty about the out­come,” but Mr. Pat­ter­son was mis­taken. The 1976 edi­tion of the Re­pub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion be­gan ar­guably with even more doubt and more con­tro­versy.

At this last “bro­kered” GOP con­fab in Kansas City in 1976, two men bat­tled down to the wire for the nom­i­na­tion — in­cum­bent but un­elected Ger­ald Ford and his chal­lenger, for­mer Cal­i­for­nia Gov. Ron­ald Rea­gan. It was the cliffhanger of all cliffhang­ers. The nom­i­na­tion was as up for grabs as at any time in a quar­ter of a cen­tury.

Del­e­gate counts were all over the place, ag­gra­vated by the fact that both camps floated phony num­bers in a game of psy­cho­log­i­cal war­fare and dozens of del­e­gates kept telling the me­dia and the war­ring camps dif­fer­ent pref­er­ences.

Phrases such as “high noon” for Gary Cooper fans and “po­lit­i­cal danse macabre” for the lit­er­ate lit­tered the ex­cel­lent re­portage of the era. Both camps and most columnists pre­dicted — if the other can­di­date pre­vailed — the death of the GOP. At the time, for­mer Ge­or­gia Gov. Jimmy Carter, the im­prob­a­ble nom­i­nee of the Demo­cratic Party, was wip­ing the floor with both Rea­gan and Ford in sum­mer polls.

Karl Rove re­cently pointed out the like­li­hood of a bro­kered con­ven­tion for the GOP is low given the fact there are no longer po­lit­i­cal bosses who con­trol blocks of del­e­gates, and he is right. This was also the case in 1976, in the wake of Water­gate and “re­forms” in­sti­tuted by the newly con­fig­ured Fed­eral Elec­tion Com­mis­sion.

Only in Philadel­phia, In­di­ana and Mis­sis­sippi did any sem­blance of po­lit­i­cal ma­chines re­main, omi­nous for Rea­gan. Del­e­gates in 1976 be­came in­de­pen­dent of po­lit­i­cal forces in their re­spec­tive states and the same re­mains to­day. The New York GOP was, of course, one of a kind. Nel­son Rockefeller con­trolled the Em­pire State’s Repub­li­cans so strongly that to say it was an iron fist would not do jus­tice to iron fists.

Names fa­mil­iar now were then lined up be­hind their fa­vorite can­di­date: Jim Baker, Dick Cheney, David Ger­gen, Don Rums­feld, Mr. Rove and oth­ers were mar­shaled for Ford. Jesse Helms, Jeff Bell, Frank Donatelli, Char­lie Black, Phyl­lis Sch­lafly, Mark Levin, Ha­ley Bar­bour, Peter Han­naford, Richard Viguerie and oth­ers mo­bi­lized for Rea­gan.

As the del­e­gates gath­ered in the Kem­per Arena on the Mis­souri River in the mid­dle of scorch­ing Au­gust heat, no one knew what the out­come would be.

Would Ford lose the nom­i­na­tion, fol­low­ing Ch­ester A. Arthur in 1884, the last in­cum­bent to be turned away by Repub­li­cans, or was Rea­gan des­tined to be­come the tough­est chal­lenger since Teddy Roo­sevelt took on Wil­liam Howard Taft in 1912, beat­ing him in a se­ries of pri­maries but still los­ing the nom­i­na­tion?

Be­hind the scenes, Ford’s forces, led by the es­timable Mr. Baker and Mr. Cheney, ma­neu­vered, ca­joled and en­ticed 150 un­com­mit­ted del­e­gates into the Ford col­umn. They had been work­ing over these un­com­mit­ted del­e­gates for weeks, phoning them, meet­ing with them, lis­ten­ing to their gripes. One such del­e­gate from Long Is­land came out from a pri­vate meet­ing in the Oval Of­fice with Ford with the prom­ise of a sewer con­tract. Oth­ers were in­vited to sit on the deck of an air­craft car­rier in New York har­bor with Ford to watch the bi­cen­ten­nial fire­works. Mr. Baker and Mr. Cheney left no stone un­turned.

This, com­bined with a last minute be­trayal in the Mis­sis­sippi del­e­ga­tion — which took 30 del­e­gates out of the Rea­gan col­umn and put them in the Ford col­umn — helped de­liver the nom­i­na­tion to Ford, who ended up win­ning 1,187 votes, only 57 more than needed to be cho­sen by the Repub­li­cans.

The leader of the Mag­no­lia State Repub­li­cans, Clarke Reed, had promised the Rea­gan forces he would de­liver 30 votes to Rea­gan in Kansas City at the right time, but af­ter much court­ing and ca­jol­ing and near-bribery of the del­e­gates by the Ford White House, Reed and other Mis­sis­sippi del­e­gates suc­cumbed to the pres­sure. With that, Rea­gan’s chal­lenge was fin­ished.

Rea­gan also lost be­cause of mis­takes by his own cam­paign, such as not fil­ing enough del­e­gate slates in the crit­i­cal Ohio pri­mary and not more ag­gres­sively con­test­ing the pri­maries in New York, Penn­syl­va­nia, Mas­sachusetts and Rhode Is­land.

Bet­ter decision-mak­ing by Rea­gan’s team — led then by John Sears — might have de­liv­ered the nom­i­na­tion to the Gip­per. In hind­sight, they should have in­sisted on a pri­mary in Mis­sis­sippi rather than a state con­ven­tion, which would have guar­an­teed the 30 del­e­gates for Rea­gan.

Be­cause of the rules of the era, had Team Rea­gan de­nied Ford the nom­i­na­tion on the first bal­lot, the Cal­i­for­nian might have well won it on a sec­ond bal­lot. Rea­gan had hid­den del­e­gate strength in the North Carolina, Ken­tucky, Virginia and other state del­e­ga­tions. Be­cause of the rules, how­ever, del­e­gates in each states were re­quired to vote for Ford on the first round, rather than vote their hearts, which were with Rea­gan. This is what kept Mr. Baker awake at night — the thought of miss­ing on the first bal­lot and go­ing to sub­se­quent votes.

Mean­while, Rea­gan’s cam­paign was push­ing hard with the pre-con­ven­tion se­lec­tion of Sen. Richard Sch­weiker of Penn­syl­va­nia as Rea­gan’s run­ning mate. The Rea­gan camp was also push­ing for ad­dresses by both Ford and Rea­gan be­fore the vot­ing be­gan and this, too, ter­ri­fied the Ford men.

They knew that the “true be­liev­ers” in the arena out­num­bered the “squishes” and the vi­sion of Rea­gan giv­ing a rip-roar­ing stemwinder and send­ing the con­ven­tion ca­reen­ing into his corner was also some­thing they wanted to pre­vent. Iron­i­cally, in the mil­lions of votes cast in the con­tested pri­maries of 1976, Rea­gan had de­feated Ford 50.7 per­cent to 49.3 per­cent. At the GOP con­ven­tion, where power pol­i­tics trumped con­ser­va­tive prin­ci­ples, Ford won by the nar­row­est of mar­gins, and then went on to lose in the gen­eral elec­tion by the nar­row­est of mar­gins. Ford staged one of the great­est near-come­backs in Amer­i­can his­tory. The Re­pub­li­can Party’s nom­i­na­tion in 1976 did not ul­ti­mately turn on any great ideas or is­sues. Rea­gan al­ready had the con­ser­va­tives and Ford had the mod­er­ates. In­stead, the out­come was de­ter­mined by the seat­ing of un­com­mit­ted del­e­gates at White House state din­ners, pri­vate meet­ings in the Oval Of­fice and other good­ies and ac­cou­trements of high of­fice, which Ford gave away to get the prize he so des­per­ately wanted and fought for.

In the end, though, each man got what he most wanted at the time: Carter, the nom­i­na­tion and the pres­i­dency, Ford, the nom­i­na­tion and a chance to fight for the of­fice in his own right, and Rea­gan, a cause to lead.


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