The Gipper in transition
REAGAN RISING: THE DECISIVE YEARS, 1976-1980
By Craig Shirley Broadside Books, $29.99, 432 pages
When we think of Ronald Reagan, it usually involves either his two successful terms in the Governor’s Mansion of California or the White House. What we rarely consider is the period when this great modern conservative figure was trapped in the political wilderness — with a future that was far from certain.
Craig Shirley’s “Reagan Rising: The Decisive Years, 1976-1980,” is the first detailed examination of the Gipper in transition. The author/media commentator is one of the foremost experts on Reagan’s life and career. (He also holds the unique, and envious, distinction of being the first Reagan Scholar at the late president’s alma mater, Eureka College.) This scintillating account of a turbulent time for a determined man with a principled vision, and how he turned a stunning defeat into a memorable victory in four short years, is a joy for Reagan scholars and enthusiasts alike.
The book’s opening line is clear: “The rise of Ronald Wilson Reagan began with a fall.” Indeed, the loss to sitting President Gerald Ford in the 1976 Republican presidential primaries would have easily shattered the fragile state of most mortal politicians. It was a brutal campaign, and the two men “really did not like each other.” Their competing visions for the Republican Party were so intense that Ford “refused to consider putting [Reagan] on the ticket, even if it was the only way to unify the party.”
Mr. Reagan was no mere political mortal. When motioned by Mr. Ford to give a concession speech, with “no plans, no teleprompters, no script” in sight, he hit it out of the park with the combined force of Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron. “We carry the message they’re waiting for,” he told the enthusiastic crowd, and “[t]here is no substitute for victory.” As Mr. Shirley notes, “for those who would look at 1976 as a turning point in history,” Mr. Reagan’s speech was the vision of hope and clarity they clamored for.
During the 1976 presidential campaign, Mr. Reagan and Mr. Ford rarely appeared together — although he made several appearances with vice presidential candidate Bob Dole, “whose wit and ribald honor he often enjoyed.” The campaign experienced wild swings, as Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter’s 30-point lead almost dissipated by Election Day. The fact that Mr. Ford came as close as he did to winning is astonishing in itself, but his loss opened the door to a Reagan revival.
Mr. Reagan and Mr. Carter were also different political animals. Yet the former was “impressed” with “Carter’s anti-Washington message,” while the latter acknowledged that Mr. Reagan “was a superb user of the television medium . ... I would have been at a disadvantage.” It’s a fascinating historical note that Mr. Reagan praised small components of Mr. Carter’s early political strategy as he built a policy plan that was “anti-big business” and in support of supply-side economics, and rejected the ideas of former Republican presidents such as Mr. Ford and Richard Nixon.
The Ford wing of the party also watched as Mr. Reagan’s shadow hovered over them.
Mr. Reagan made speeches about the “giveaway” of the Panama Canal, and “with every fibre of his being, disagreed that America owed the Panamanians an apology.” He spoke to the NAACP “instead of the snooty Republicans” that opposed him. He addressed his “Achilles’ heel,” which was a “lack of foreign travel,” and became a forwardthinking politician on international issues. His support of the free market grew stronger, and his trademark anticommunism was “deep and firm.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Reagan remained an underestimated political force. Many moderate Republican opponents were frustrated “he wasn’t campaigning hard enough, or at all” for the party. Carter Democrats “wrote Reagan off as a dumb bunny, a not very good actor who was old, rigid, and an extreme right-wing kook.” They all thought the GOP would be foolish to nominate him.
What they didn’t understand was Mr. Reagan connected with people, and there was a groundswell of support for a conservative president. He had the ability to translate “complex ideas into concepts that could be readily understood by the average person.” Moreover, “Americans also were coming to believe that government could not solve all the ills that afflicted society,” and the Gipper was their champion.
We know the rest of the story: Ronald Reagan built a powerful political movement, beat George H.W. Bush and others for the Republican nomination, and won the 1980 presidential election against Mr. Carter. What Craig Shirley proves is the late president “charged into destiny,” and how “the age of Reagan was just beginning to dawn over America and the world.”