The Gip­per in tran­si­tion

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Michael Taube Michael Taube is a con­trib­u­tor to The Wash­ing­ton Times.

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.”

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