The Reagan Transformation
The Republican Party “cannot be limited to the country club, big-business image that it is burdened with today. The ‘New Republican Party’ I am speaking about is going to have room for the man and woman in the factories, for the farmer, for the cop on the beat.”
That was Ronald Reagan’s challenge to a post-Watergate Republican establishment as the party was mired in a support level of 18 percent, threatening its very continued existence.
How all of that was reversed in 1980 is chronicled blow-byblow in “Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America.” The author, Craig Shirley, has an insider’s advantage, having run several independent pro-Reagan campaigns in 1980 — and again in 1984. As one would expect, conservatives will love this book, and political junkies of all stripes will find it fascinating. Readers looking for high drama will eagerly absorb its more than 600 pages, even knowing the story’s real-life happy ending. It is the behindthe-scenes drama that lends real suspense to the narrative.
Reagan’s ability to take the Republican Party beyond the country clubs was never better illustrated than in Mr. Shirley’s chapter on the “Reagan Democrats.” The Gipper — himself of humble origins — did not require a “grand strategy” to accomplish that goal. He wowed the folks of South Side, Milwaukee, who were “100 percent Democratic, 100 percent Catholic.” These were blue-collar people, first-generation Serbs, Poles, Czechs, Russians, Ukrainians, Hungarians and others who had escaped Josef Stalin or Adolf Hitler and hated communism and socialism.
Reagan’s first campaign manager, the Wall Street wunderkind John Sears, failed to utilize the candidate’s talents with blue-collar voters, and that is why the author approves of his firing. Mr. Sears tried to get Reagan to go against his natural instincts. Having traveled every corner of the country, the candidate did not need advisers “whose view of America rarely extended be- yond” a Washington bar stool.
Today, Republicans of all stripes fall all over themselves claiming the Reagan mantle, as witness a 2008 Republican presidential debate — attended by Nancy Reagan — where the contenders for the Republican nomination strove in vain to out-Reaganite each other.
Moreover, many of today’s claims of people who say they always supported Reagan are branded by the author as “poppycock.” Long forgotten but cited in “Rendezvous with Destiny” is that all through the 1970s, party committees — including the Republican National Committee — were “incubators of anti-Reagan sentiment,” buying into liberal characterizations of him as a hasbeen actor and a lightweight.
During his presidency, Reagan lunched weekly with his vice president, George H.W. Bush, and they forged a true friendship. However, before reluctantly selecting Mr. Bush as his running mate, the Gipper had a highly unfavorable opinion of the man who would ultimately succeed him. And that animosity went far beyond the normal aversion one would expect to a rival for the Republican Party’s nomination.
Donald Devine, the Maryland academic, Reagan adviser and later top administration official, told the author that when he suggested picking Mr. Bush for the vice presidential slot, Reagan went on a 15-minute rant that left Mr. Devine “scared . . . .” Conservatives, recalling the first President Bush’s abandonment of his “Read my lips. No new taxes” pledge, will deem the former California governor as prescient when muttering of the man he did not really want on his ticket, “He [Bush] just melts under pressure.”
The book takes us through the twists and turns of the nominating convention’s heavy flirtation with a “co-presidency” putting former President Gerald Ford nominally in second place but with unprecedented — and possibly unconstitutional — powers. Many attendees at the Detroit gathering shared the view of House Republican Leader Rep. John J. Rhodes Jr. of Arizona that this was a “cockamamie” idea. When Ford demanded a veto over Reagan’s Cabinet members and that all information going to Reagan be filtered through Ford first, the idea was doomed by its very absurdity.
The question was how to dump the scheme given that a coy Ford was clearly trying to maneuver Reagan into a corner where he would have to accept it. Reagan saw that bullet coming and dodged it. The author speculates — and not without reasonable suspicion — that in private, Reagan maneuvered Ford into talking himself out of the plan.
Mr. Shirley’s skill as an investigative author (viewing himself as a reporter more than pundit) comes through where he devotes an extremely interesting chapter to the shadowy figure Paul Corbin.
Corbin orchestrated the plot to steal President Jimmy Carter’s briefing books and hand them over to the Reagan team. Here you have all the ingredients of high-stakes intrigue whose results were nonetheless irrelevant. George Will, who helped prep Reagan for his one and only debate with Mr. Carter, deemed the papers worthless after noting they contained the candidate’s columns, broadcast transcripts, statements and speeches — about which the Gipper was already well-prepared to discuss.
Corbin was a Kennedy man, having been close to the late Robert F. Kennedy. He was angry when Sen. Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy of Massachusetts lost the Democratic nomination to Mr. Carter. The papers ended up in the hands of Reagan campaign chairman Bill Casey, who passed them on to other operatives.
To this day, the mystery remains: Who lifted the briefing books from inside the Carter White House? The author, a onetime poker partner of Corbin — names some likely suspects, including White House staffers with connections either to the defeated Kennedy campaign, the ongoing third-party effort of John Anderson, or with Lt. Col. Oliver North, later of the IranContra affair. Corbin took the mystery to his grave in 1990. Mr. Shirley notes there was no evidence or “tiniest shred of accusation” that Reagan knew about the stolen papers.
What comes through in this account of the Reagan campaign is a man who was confident of his ultimate goals. Only years later, with the collapse of the Soviet empire and 26 years of prosperity (1982-2008, with only minor hiccups along the way), did we come to appreciate fully that historical moment.
Wes Vernon is a Washingtonbased writer and veteran broadcast journalist.