The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All
by Craig Shirley
(Nelson Current, 417 pages, $25.99)
As 1975 dawned, the Republican Party was in about the same shape the Democrats are today: reeling from election losses, demoralized, unsure of its footing, grasping at straws. Presidential calculations for 1976 had been thrown into a cocked hat. John Connally, Nixon’s favorite, had been derailed by the Watergate resignation. Ronald Reagan, who had been waiting his “turn” (“taking one’s turn” being a Republican staple), found the concept suddenly irrelevant. Gerald Ford, who, upon appointment as vice president assured Nixon he would retire in 1976, now, as the 38th president, was having second thoughts.
In Reagan’s Revolution, Craig Shirley sets the stage for the remarkable Ford-Reagan campaign for the 1976 presidential nomination by examining these and other antecedents going back to the Goldwater-Johnson campaign of 1964. He shows how Reagan’s late-campaign televised speech for Goldwater captured the hearts of a number of conservatives; how a small cadre of them pushed hard for Reagan to permit his name to be put into nomination in 1968 (he agreed, at the last minute), then clamored for him to run in 1976.
On joining Reagan’s senior staff in the Governor’s office in Sacramento in early 1974, I was advised by chief-of-staff Ed Meese, “We don’t know whether he intends to run for president in 1976, but we don’t want to do anything to close off that option.” In other words, do a bang-up job in the Governor’s final year in office. We all watched Watergate events with the avidity of tea readers that year. Those around him constantly recalculated the political calculus; however, Reagan kept his own counsel as to his future.
Late that year, the early months of Ford’s presidency, the White House watched the Californian warily. They even made heavy-handed attempts to preempt him by offering him minor cabinet positions.
Early in 1975, when he became a private citizen, Reagan was bombarded with friendly pleadings to found a third party or declare himself a candidate for 1976. He did neither. Instead, he plunged into his daily radio commentaries, weekly newspaper column, and frequent speaking tours. All this steadily broadened his constituency, as was little understood at the time, but which the author traces effectively.
Shirley had access to several fascinating internal Ford political documents and contrasts these with memos, conversations, and actions in the Reagan camp to give the reader a vivid you-are-there sense of participation in events as they unfold.
The author shows the suspense building as the year wears on. He also describes the tension between Reagan operatives who wanted an early candidacy announcement and those who wanted one as late as possible. Reagan, himself, was in the latter camp, so “later” prevailed. He details the almost constant misreading of Reagan by Ford operatives and the fecklessness of campaign director Bo Callaway’s planning until Stuart Spencer, one-time Reagan gubernatorial campaign wizard, came upon the scene to create an effective strategy.
Spencer correctly saw that a detailed addendum which accompanied a Reagan speech in Chicago in September 1975 (the “$90 Billion Speech”) offered solid material for undermining Reagan in tax-averse New Hampshire. While Reagan’s speech called for the transfer of several programs to states and communities, along with the resources to pay for them, he did not list the programs that would result in the estimated $90 billion federal savings. The addendum spelled these out. Spencer’s researchers projected that many of these shifts would require states to increase their taxes. Shirley’s dramatic narrative shows how Spencer & Co. used this to great effect in New Hampshire. The Reagan campaign was thrown on the defensive and kept there for several weeks.
Reagan recovered from the early losses, of course, with a dramatic come-from-behind win in North Carolina and went on to lose the nomination to Ford in Kansas City by a slim 1,187-1,070. This was to be the last presidential nomination of either party to be settled at a convention.
The final night of that convention brought the unprecedented call by President Gerald Ford to Ronald Reagan to come down to the floor and address the delegates. Reagan’s short speech riveted the audience. Shirley captures the intensity of the moment and concludes that this speech was a turning point for the Republican Party. Thereafter, Ronald Reagan and the conservatives would be in the ascendancy.
To produce this rich, comprehensive account of a complex campaign, the author conducted something on the order of 200 interviews and reviewed dozens of books and papers. For this writer, for whom the flames of political passion have been banked for some time, the book fanned an ember which for 417 pages was reignited.
Craig Shirley gores no oxen and grinds no axes here. He gives us a nearly fly-on-the-wall account of events. While he is a Reagan partisan, he is not tendentious. Thus, his book makes a useful and highly readable addition to the literature that is adding up to history’s assessment of a man who most agree was one of the most important public figures of the 20th century.