Even back in November 1980, a time that seems so far removed from our technological age, political campaigns knew things long before the voters did. Both Ronald Reagan’s and Jimmy Carter’s insiders understood a day or so before the election that the President was done for. Weekend polling told Patrick Caddell what he needed to know, and he passed the word along to Carter. Reagan was going to become the next president.
For all the American people knew, the race was still essentially a toss-up, though it had seemed to be moving slightly in Reagan’s direction. The week before, the two candidates faced off in their only debate. History remembers that night for two Reagan lines that have become part of our political vocabulary, for good or ill: “There you go again,” which must be the most overhyped political one-liner of all time; and “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” which largely deserves the stature it attained, as one of the great framing devices any politician has used.
But Reagan was much more than one-liners. The reason those sound bites resonated so much in the 1980 debate was that they came in the context of his all-around strong performance, outclassing Carter not just in quips but in content, command, and presence. The lines were just ribbons on a box.
For voters, the debate performance seemed to put to rest the fear the media and the opposition had been drumming up about Reagan as a reckless cowboy who would “push the button.” That was always founded in politics, not reality. Even as a mere 14-year-old at the time, I’d sensed immediately that Reagan was not dangerous, but that he was tough.
I’d first heard him speak in July, 1980, when I sat on the floor of my family’s living room in Illinois, watching him accept the Republican presidential nomination in Detroit. My father sat behind me in his reading chair, holding the newspaper up as he was wont to do, but mostly peering over it at the TV, the way he did on those rare occasions when what was being broadcast was better than what he was reading.
The man on the screen was sublime. I’d never heard anyone talk that way before, not at my youthful age, in the waning months of the worst presidency of the American century. It didn’t seem, in Jimmy Carter’s America, that politicians could say things like:
My fellow citizens, I utterly reject that view. The American people, the most generous on earth, who created the highest standard of living, are not going to accept the notion that we can only make a better world for others by moving backwards ourselves. Those who believe we can have no business leading the nation.
I will not stand by and watch this great country destroy itself under mediocre leadership that drifts from one crisis to the next, eroding our national will and purpose…
Reagan was inspiring that night, but he was also, at points, just short of angry and irritable. That phrase — “I utterly reject that view!” — was delivered with a pursed lip expression he rarely wore in public. He must have been some kind of magician, though, because he seemed to be talking directly to both me and Jimmy Carter. He didn’t sound like a madman. If anything, he sounded like my father, the most sensible man I knew.
On election night, the newscasts had barely gotten started when they were announcing that Carter was going to concede, a gesture grounded in empirical logic — the election was lost — but also in Carter’s customarily disastrous political judgment. Getting on television and conceding the election before the polls had closed on the West Coast was a perfect expression of the wreckage that he had brought to his country and his party. Even today, Democrats fume about it, and with good reason. For myself, I was grateful to President Peanut for conceding before my bedtime. I could never watch the second half of Monday Night Football, but at least I knew who our next president was.
I remember Carter coming into the hall of his election headquarters to make his concession speech, wearing that hapless, hangdog look on his face, an expression that is etched into my memories of growing up. I did pity him. The poor man, I thought, he tried his best. And I thought then that he was a good man, though 25 years later I’m not so sure.
So Carter would go. And with him would go the “crisis of confidence,” which he had both inflicted and reflected; the willful refusal to distinguish friends from enemies; the “shock” at the presence of evil in the world; the hectoring self-righteousness and spiritual emptiness; the paralysis in taking action, like a father unwilling to defend his sons in a fight. God help this country if another man like him comes along anytime soon. A great country’s Carters should be spaced out by at least a century.
I remember less about Reagan’s victory speech. Having won, he had less need of oration beyond expressing his thanks and his confidence in the future, a note he would never stop sounding. The important thing was that we would be seeing much more of Reagan and much less of Carter. Eventually, Carter would develop a shadow ex-presidency every bit as sanctimonious and wrong-headed as his real one, but that is another story. Reagan would serve two terms, change history, and leave Washington with the gratitude of his countrymen ringing in his ears. He had no need for shadows, and the monuments are going up.
“Thank God,” my father said to someone on the telephone that night. Our phone kept ringing.
“And so,” one of the newscasters intoned as Reagan departed the victory stage, “it is over.” It was. And then something else began.
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