Republicans, on the mend as the opposition but lacking a unifying leader, yearn for Ronald Reagan. Two decades after leaving office he is nostalgically remembered by many Americans as a reassuring leader who stayed the course at home and abroad and left our country happier and stronger than he found it. Even on the left, which savaged him when he was president, Reagan has won retrospective praise for producing the first-ever treaty to reduce U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals and ending the Cold War.
History, however, is written backwards but lived forward. Throughout Reagan’s political career, beginning when he was a two-term governor of California from 1967-1975, Reagan was denounced and dismissed as an irresponsible and uninformed cowboy who if he had the chance would be likely to lead the nation into war. Given Reagan’s talents as a campaigner, it is understandable that Democrats would seek to diminish him, but, as Craig Shirley demonstrates, the Republican mainstream of the time was equally vituperative. In 1976, President Gerald Ford fended off a challenge from Reagan for the GOP presidential nomination partially by fear mongering. In California, the Ford forces produced a television commercial in which Reagan reached for the hotline that connected the White House and the Kremlin as a voice-over intoned, “Remember, Governor Reagan couldn’t start a war. President Reagan could.” By 1980, when Reagan sought the presidency for the third time—he had also run in 1968— his own polls showed that voters worried he might start a war.
In 1980, Craig Shirley was a 23-year-old activist who was approached by the Fund for a Conservative Majority to run an independent expenditure campaign on Reagan’s behalf after George H.W. Bush won an upset victory in the Iowa caucuses. He was given $750,000 for this purpose—nearly $2 million in today’s dollars—and effectively used most of the money to air Reagan speeches in upcoming primaries, particularly New Hampshire. In the process Shirley listened to hundreds of Reagan speeches and read everything he could find that had been written by or about Reagan. In a later incarnation as a campaign biographer, Shirley revisited these speeches and writings to write a compelling history of the 1976 campaign, “Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All.” This new book carries the story forward with a multi-layered account of how Reagan won the presidency.
(Disclosure: Shirley has been consistently helpful to me over the years in responding to my inquiries and is generous in his citations of my coverage of Reagan’s campaigns for The Washington Post.)
Although present-day Republicans might yearn for “another Reagan” the GOP establishment in its day did everything it could to stop the real McCoy. In 1976, against Ford, Reagan lacked support from high Republican officeholders except for his friend, Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt. After Ford won the nomination by a whisker and then lost to Jimmy Carter in the general election, Reagan was the frontrunner for the nomination in 1980, but leading Republicans couldn’t wait to tell the world that he was too old and uninformed to be president. Reagan’s GOP opponents in that campaign included Bush, John Anderson, Howard Baker, John Connally, Phil Crane and Bob Dole. Waiting in the wings was Ford, who made it known he was ready to answer the call if the others faltered. In the end, the call did not come, and Ford did not run. The others dropped by the wayside except for Bush, who grittily hung in through every primary, losing most of them, and was rewarded with the vice presidency and a stepping stone to the White House. Anderson ran as an independent, to the dismay of President Carter, and helped Reagan win the electoral votes of Massachusetts and New York.
As Shirley reconstructs it, Reagan had a clear sense of where he wanted to take America but dithered with management decisions involving his campaign staff. (In some ways this foreshadowed the problems President Reagan would have in controlling his national security staff but Shirley does not go there.) After Reagan’s loss to Bush in Iowa, his campaign was almost consumed by a power struggle between his campaign manager, the brilliant but moody John Sears, and Californians who had been with Reagan since his political creation. Prodded by his wife, the astute Nancy Reagan, and Laxalt, Reagan dumped Sears of the New Hampshire primary and replaced him with William Casey. It was a necessary change, but Casey’s national political experience was limited, and the campaign was plagued by infighting until election day. Reagan surmounted this disharmony and a recurrent tendency to coast when he was ahead with a powerful message and his force of character, but it was not a pretty thing. This story has been told before by journalists and historians, including myself, in books and articles, but Shirley’s account brings an inside dimension to the campaign’s travails. The election of Reagan may have been inevitable, but it often didn’t look that way on the bumpy campaign trail.
Musical orchestras struggle between obtaining a high quality of overall sound (“dynamics”) and preserving the precision of individual instruments (“harmonics”). Writers struggle with this, too, and Shirley does better with the harmonics of the day-to-day combat between Reagan and Carter than with the dynamics of analysis. I came away from the campaign believing that Reagan’s secret weapon was his master political consultant, Stuart Spencer, whom Nancy Reagan brought into the campaign despite the resentment of Reaganauts who never forgave him for helping Ford turn back the Reagan challenge in 1976. Mrs. Reagan was on target in her judgment; Spencer settled Reagan down at a shaky point in the campaign and proved a better tactician than his rivals on the Carter team. Shirley does not give Spencer sufficient credit, but he’s on to something in underscoring the importance of speechwriter Ken Khachigian, whom Spencer brought on the Reagan campaign plane. Khachigian was both fast and good; he could and did whip up a timely speech on any subject on short notice, a useful quality in a campaign full of twists and turns.
In writing about Reagan’s struggle to secure his party’s nomination, the first 300 pages of this book, Shirley gets both dynamics and harmonics right with near perfect pitch. “At first blush and from the safe perch of history, Reagan’s nomination seemed as if it was a cakewalk,” Shirley writes. “But in fact it had been the toughest and most grueling street fight of Reagan’s career—a fight he nearly lost because of his own inattentiveness to his campaign, because he underestimated Bush, because of the infighting and incompetence of some of his staff, and because the Republican establishment and elements of the media were in league to destroy him.” This passage shows a great strength of the book, which is Shirley’s willingness to make honest and even harsh judgments about the candidate he favors. But whether any significant segment of the media wanted to destroy Reagan—as they did, say, Barry Goldwater—is questionable. All of us on the Reagan plane tried to trip up the candidate, as we’re supposed to do, but were on the whole fond of him. This was not lost on Carter’s operatives, who complained that the media favored Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in the Democratic primaries and Reagan in the general election. As often is the case, bias is in the eyes of the beholder.
“Rendezvous with Destiny” is prodigiously researched and well noted. Shirley weaves media accounts, interviews, speeches, transcripts and the diary entries of a campaign aide into a crisp narrative. He has a good ear for political anecdotes, my favorite being Reagan aide Lyn Nofziger’s reaction to a report that Don Rumsfeld was being considered as a running mate for Reagan: “Rummy would be fine, but you realize we’ll have to hire a food taster for Reagan.” Shirley also capably reconstructs seminal events of the campaign—the Reagan-Bush debate in Nashua, N.H., where the Gipper seized the microphone and the moment, and the Reagan-Carter debate of “there-you-again” fame. Even with hindsight, it’s unknowable if this latter debate was crucial to Reagan’s victory a week later, and Shirley wisely withholds judgment. Reagan was leading in the surveys taken for him by Richard Wirthlin, a superior pollster, before the debate and the Carter campaign was taking water from a torrent of bad economic news. In the debate itself Carter was upstaged by Reagan’s heady performance. While many reporters attending the debate thought Carter had won—for the record, I did not—it soon became apparent from focus groups that voters had been alienated by the president and impressed by his challenger. At a minimum, the debate probably turned what might have been a close election into a Reagan—and Republican—landslide.
This book, good as it is, could have used more disciplined editing. Shirley uses too many slangy clichés that detract from his narrative, as in “Reagan, the old jock, was working out the kinks, finding his form again.” He distractingly runs down people he dislikes, notably John Anderson and Bush press secretary Pete Teeley, and he includes an unnecessary chapter on the shadowy Paul Corbin, who may have given Carter’s debate-preparation papers to Reagan’s staff but is otherwise tangential to the narrative.
These failings are minor in comparison to the immense value of this engaging and revealing book. When future historians re-examine the 1980 campaign, one of their first stops is likely to be “Rendezvous With Destiny.”
Lou Cannon is a journalist, non-fiction author, and biographer. He was state bureau chief for the San Jose Mercury News in the late 1960s, and later senior White House correspondent of the Washington Post during the Reagan administration. He is a prolific biographer of Ronald Reagan, having written five books about him.