The Rea­gan Trans­for­ma­tion

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.