Foreword, by Fred Barnes
The presidential race of 1976 brought forth two new political stars, but the press was excited about only one of them. This was Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer who emerged spectacularly in the presidential primaries, won the Democratic nomination with ease, and captured the White House by defeating Americaís only unelected president, Gerald Ford. Carter was a Southern pragmatist with moderate to liberal views and a crew of smart young political advisers. He was seen by reporters and commentators not only as the savior of the Democratic party, but as a political heavyweight capable of reshaping public policy in creative ways. Carter was the future, the vanguard of a progressive future. The other star was Ronald Reagan, the former California governor and conservative whose spirited challenge of Ford for the Republican presidential nomination was viewed as his swan song. At 65, his political career was over. He represented the past.
Such was the convention political wisdom in 1976. And seldom has the political press been so wrong. True, Carter left his mark on the nation, mostly by weakening it. The economy during his presidency was beset by a new phenomenon called stagflation - high inflation and unemployment at the same time - that mystified Carter. And he was unable to slow the march of Soviet communism around the world. But Carter had a political legacy, an inadvertent one. He paved the way for Ronald Reagan to be elected president and become the most event-making leader of the second half of the 20th century. More important, of course, was what Reagan himself achieved in 1976. While losing, he laid the foundation for his successful capture of the presidency four years later. This is what Craig Shirley explains with such insight and thoroughness in Reaganís Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign that Started It All. Itís a story thatís never been fully told before.
As a young reporter for The Washington Star, I covered several episodes of the Reagan story in 1976: the North Carolina recovery, the Texas blowout, the convention speech that changed the Republican party. By the time the North Carolina primary arrived, the Ford camp was cocky and confident and Reagan was reeling. The exception was two Reaganites, Republican Senator Jesse Helms and his sidekick Tom Ellis, who hadnít given up. To say Ford, having won the New Hampshire, Florida, and Illinois primaries, was shocked by North Carolina is putting it mildly. Neither he nor the press had any idea that Helms and Ellis might engineer a huge Reagan upset, a victory that kept him in the race.
Then came Texas. Ford had meticulously organized what few Republicans there were in the state. His chief Texas strategist, Jim Francis, persuaded me that despite Reaganís popularity with conservatives, Ford was poised to win the primary with a record turnout. So I wrote exactly that. It turned out to be the worst story I ever wrote. On primary day, Francis gave me the bad news. He knew Ford was in trouble when he arrived at his local precinct voting place and encountered a line filled with people heíd never laid eyes on. They werenít regular Republicans, thatís for sure, but Reagan had attracted them. Ford actually got his record vote. But the turnout for Reagan swamped it. The Texas primary was the same day as the White House Correspondentsí dinner in Washington, attended by Ford and all the bigwigs in his administration and campaign. They were a glum lot at the dinner.
For me, the lesson from Texas was never under estimate Ronald Reagan. Texas was also significant for another reason. Reagan reached top form in campaigning in the weeks before the primary. To this day, I have never seen any candidate in America arouse crowds the way Reagan did. His riff about keeping the Panama Canal prompted his audiences to go practically beserk. Weeks earlier, Iíd seen Reagan drop his note cards on the floor at a luncheon speech in Joliet, Illinois, then fail to get them back in the right order. His speech that day was dreary and incoherent. He looked like a loser. But in Texas, a different Reagan had stepped front and center, the Reagan we came to know as president and world leader.
He ran off a string of primary victories - Indiana, Georgia, Alabama - that left him close to Ford in delegates at the convention in Kansas City. Political reporters, including me, could scarcely believe it. But once the Mississippi delegation, led by conservative Clarke Reed, sided with Ford, it was clear Reagan couldnít win the nomination. However, he remained a major presence at the convention, which the Ford forces resented. They were delighted when Reagan sent word he didnít want to be considered as a vice presidential running mate. Ford was glad not to ask.
But then one of the most amazing and emotional moments Iíve ever witnessed in politics occurred. Ford, accepting the nomination, gave the best speech of his entire life. But thatís not the moment Iím referring to. It came when Reagan, asked by Ford to say a few words, went to the podium. Ford and his allies expected Reagan to look like a loser, a humiliated foe. He didnít once he began speaking.
I now know from Craig Shirley that Reagan spoke without notes. But it didnít seem like that was the case at the time. I thought Reagan, because he was so clear in what he was saying, must be reciting the text of what would have been his acceptance speech had he won the nomination. The audience - 15,000 people or so - was rapt. Some were weeping. Nobody got up. The arena was still. And Reagan was eloquent. It was obvious the delegates were his, both the Reaganites and the Ford delegates. The Ford people were locked into backing an incumbent president of their party. But their hearts were with Reagan. In the time it took for Reagan to speak, the Republican party escaped the clutches of its moderate establishment and fell into Reaganís lap. He lost the nomination, but won the party -- and ultimately the presidency, the country, and the world.
After the convention, the future was obvious. The nomination was Reaganís in 1980 if he wanted it. But I guess this wasnít as clear to others. Some Reaganites from the 1976 campaign urged Jack Kemp to run, figuring Reagan would be too old in 1969 to win the nomination. Several others jumped to George Bush (the father). And the press, wrong once again, grabbed onto the idea that Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee, a moderate with great skill as a legislator, would emerge as the powerhouse in the 1980 race.
The media and the political community simply didnít understand the role 1976 had played in Reaganís advance to the White House. It escaped them that Reagan had achieved credibility as a candidate, developed a fervent national following, and created a lasting political organization. Worse, what they knew for sure about Reagan - that his conservatism was too extreme for most voters - was wrong. When it came to Reagan, the political cognoscenti didnít have a clue.
That leads me to Craig Shirley and Reaganís Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign that Started It All. Iíve known Craig for two decades. He is not a journalist or an historian or a political scientist or a professional writer. Heís a Washington-based political consultant who knew and understood Reagan far better than the supposed experts. Craig has also proved to be a dogged reporter and researcher and a man of rare political insight. Even now, many whoíve written about Reagan donít know what to make of his appeal to so many people, not just conservatives. Some still insist Reagan was a boob propped up by a clever staff. Others claim it was merely his optimism and acting skill that made him a political success. Craig knows better. He knows it was Reaganís belief in America, his deep conservative convictions, and his faith in ordinary people that catapulted him to greatness. Raw political skill? He had that too.
The centrality of 1976 to the Reagan story has never been told before. I donít know why. There are books on Reaganís years as Screen Actorís Guild president, volumes on his governorship, and monographs and memoirs touching on every aspect of his presidency. But 1976 proved too elusive a subject for everyone except Craig. Reaganís Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign that Started It All fills a huge gap in the Reagan epic. It is, in fact, the missing chapter in the life and times of Reagan. Or I should say was. Thanks to Craig, that critical chapter is no longer missing.