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Their Finest Hour

Craig Shirley has written the definitive book on Ronald Reagan's winning campaign of 1980.

By From the December 2009 - January 2010 issue

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Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America
By Craig Shirley
(ISI Books, 740 pages, $30)

The landslide outcome of the 1980 presidential election now seems a foregone conclusion. With double-digit inflation and interest rates, high taxes, a loss of international prestige, and the indignity of American hostages in Iran, President Jimmy Carter's loss to former California governor Ronald Reagan seems inevitable. The electoral blowout of 489-49 and the popular victory by almost 9 million votes seems as unsurprising in retrospect as Franklin Roosevelt's fourth term. But as Craig Shirley shows in his new book, Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America, Reagan's path to the White House -- from the Republican primaries to the general election -- was anything but a smooth journey, and nearly ended in failure.

In truth, Reagan's 1980 victory began with his 1976 sliver-thin loss to then president Gerald R. Ford in the Republican primaries. Reagan's convention speech that year galvanized the Republican Party -- and made many wonder if they had chosen the wrong candidate. Reagan spent the four years from 1976 to 1980 speaking and writing about conservative causes and ideals, and campaigning for GOP candidates across the country. He entered the 1980 Republican primary as the clear front-runner, but by no means the only candidate. It became a race not just for the leading of America, but for the soul of the Republican Party. It was a contest between men of vastly different political ideologies: liberal Republicans such as John Anderson, moderate, country club Republicans like George H. W. Bush, and conservatives such as Ronald Reagan.

Who knows or remembers today how perilously close Reagan came to losing the nomination that year? Shirley reveals the Reagan campaign's strategy and characters in more detail than has ever been accomplished, from the arrogant yet brilliant campaign manager John Sears, to the involvement of Nancy Reagan, to the vagaries of the candidate himself. As Shirley clearly shows, Ronald Reagan was an exceptional visionary, politician, and campaigner, but his great weakness was his penchant for coasting through a campaign if he was not challenged. This, in fact, along with bad advice to avoid campaigning in the all-important Iowa caucuses, led to Reagan's shocking loss to George H. W. Bush in the Hawkeye State. After this loss, Reagan was "on the brink of political oblivion," as Shirley states.

From this first loss until his ultimate victory in the primaries, we see Reagan not as a flawless conservative hero, but as the man and the candidate that he honestly was, one with great strengths and also weaknesses. His political acumen, his intelligence and charm, his ability to communicate and connect with voters, all are evident. But while Shirley clearly admires Reagan, the author pulls no punches and makes no excuses for the Gipper's flaws. He shows time and again how Reagan "coasted" through certain areas and aspects of the campaign; how Reagan made mistakes by skipping debates and made misstatements on the trail; that Reagan at times put too much faith in certain of his advisers, and as a consequence even betrayed the loyalty of other friends and advisers, such as the firing of longtime friend and adviser Michael Deaver. Shirley shows Reagan's occasional temper, such as when his argument with campaign manager John Sears nearly ended with Reagan punching the obstinate and arrogant man in the face.

The narrative of Rendezvous with Destiny flows smoothly from campaign to campaign, showing the workings and strategies, the successes and failures of all the candidates: Reagan, Bush, Anderson, John Connally, Bob Dole, Howard Baker, and the waffling indecision of former President Ford. There also is equal study given to the Democratic primary race between President Carter and Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy -- a race that showed Carter's ruthless campaign tactics, and bloodied him up severely for the general election. As the reader is moved through these interweaving stories, the classic events of the campaign are always looming on the horizon, such as the great two-man debate at Nashua High School in New Hampshire where Reagan outflanked his main opponent, George Bush, by bringing the other non-invited candidates to the stage. When the moderator tried to turn off Reagan's microphone, the governor's angry shout of, "I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!" resounds through the story.

The exhaustive study of both the Republican and Democratic primary races is followed by an equally meticulous recounting of the general election between Reagan and Carter. In this epochal race, the outcome of which ultimately transformed the entire American political landscape and national direction, Shirley reveals many of the criticisms that dogged Reagan throughout his two terms as president, such as his advanced age (which Shirley says Reagan's enemies chewed on "like a mongrel dog on
a soup bone"), and his perceived "warmongering" and lack of intelligence. Though all without merit, these attacks were continuous by his Republican opponents, by President Carter, and by the national media, and the repetition of these attacks aggravated Reagan to no end.

As with the description of the GOP primary races, Shirley's narrative of the general election flows liquidly between the two campaigns, examining their highs and lows. Reagan's relentless optimism is as shiningly evident throughout the story as Carter's depressing pessimism. The story is as exhilarating as it is illuminating, as the sense of expectation builds toward the famous lone debate between Reagan and Carter, in which Reagan quips, "There you go again," and then on to election night, when Carter concedes before the polls are even closed and Reagan takes the call while standing in a towel just after a shower.

One of the many interesting subtexts of this book is a full accounting of former president Gerald Ford's place in the 1980 election. Would he run in the primaries or would he not? Would he endorse a candidate or would he not? After Reagan won the nomination, where did Ford stand in relation to his 1976 opponent, whom the former president believed had lost him the election to Jimmy Carter four years previous? Also included is the full story of the nearly-accomplished-but-not-to-be "dream ticket" of Reagan-Ford at the Detroit convention. How did this potential pairing occur? Why would Reagan have considered such an arrangement? And how exactly did the idea fall apart to make way for George Bush as Reagan's running mate? All of these questions are answered, and show the pragmatism as well as the wisdom of candidate Reagan.

Interestingly, it is a chapter that seems to stall the narrative flow that is actually one of the great moments in the book. For nearly 30 years there has been a mystery as to how and by whose hand the Reagan presidential campaign had obtained President Carter's top-secret debate briefing books. There was even a congressional inquiry into the theft in 1983, with no solution reached. Craig Shirley has unearthed the answer, and reveals it to have been unsavory political operative -- in fact a former Communist organizer -- Paul Corbin. Corbin was a friend of the Kennedy family and an earnest supporter of Edward Kennedy's bid to dethrone President Carter in 1980. Yet when Kennedy failed to win the nomination, Corbin's hatred of Carter led him to assist the Reagan campaign.

Shirley shows how Corbin offered to help the campaign with organized labor, and that campaign manager Jim Baker (brought over from the Bush primary campaign) had a hand in bringing him in, despite his dislike of the man. Corbin claimed his position was to produce research reports on Florida, but in reality his intention was not so much to help Reagan as it was to destroy Carter. Shirley shows how Corbin obtained the books, who knew about it in the Reagan campaign, and how the 1983 congressional inquiry failed to name the thief.

This revelation is an impressive bit of historical sleuthing, and a microcosm of the craftsmanship
of the entire book. Shirley's sources are vast and impressive, utilizing not only primary and secondary source books, but dozens of archival collections from across the country; volumes of contemporary news accounts in newspapers, periodicals, and television; and nearly 200 interviews with all the major players throughout the entire 1980 election season. These sources augment the author's clear and complete understanding of his subject matter.

Shirley has proven himself a master of presidential campaign histories -- a true heir to Theodore White, whose histories of the presidential campaigns of 1960, 1964, 1968, and 1972 are benchmarks for political literature and campaign histories. Shirley's first book, Reagan's Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All (Nelson Current, 2005), tackled the history of Reagan's quest to wrest the 1976 Republican presidential nomination away from then president Gerald R. Ford. That book was not merely an applause at near victory; it was an exhaustive study of the entire campaign, the national scene, the state of the political parties, the nature of every candidate and every state primary. It showed Reagan virtuous and flawed, winner and loser, and immaculately set the stage for Shirley's latest offering in Rendezvous with Destiny. Likewise, this book will make readers hungry for a study of the 1984 presidential campaign, which Shirley has already begun, and which promises to be the concluding masterstroke in his triptych of Reagan campaign studies.

Perhaps George Will explains Rendezvous with Destiny best when he writes in his foreword to the book, "This book is both a primer on practical politics and a meditation on the practicality of idealism. It arrives, serendipitously, at a moment when conservatives are much in need of an inspiring examination of their finest hour."

History vindicates truth; that is an axiom of the historical profession. We are now at the beginnings of the dispassionate historical study of Reagan's legacy. It takes decades for contemporary passions to cool, for the memoirs of those who knew and worked with Reagan to be written and digested. Now comes the time of the research historian.

The historiography of all epochal figures runs the same schedule. Abraham Lincoln's legacy was at first clouded by his martyrdom, then by the passions of the Civil War generation. As sociologist Barry Schwartz has so deftly explained his book, Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory, it took decades for Lincoln to be examined objectively, and it took a new generation of Americans to appreciate Lincoln for his faults as well as his virtues.

The study of Ronald Reagan is following this same path. It is now in the beginning stages of objective inquiry, where Reagan's strengths and his weaknesses, his virtues as well as faults, are all under consideration to give a complete view of this iconic man. It is a crucial period when historical objectivity is coupled with the knowledge and reminiscences of people who knew Reagan. Craig Shirley's Rendezvous with Destiny, just as in his previous book, Reagan's Revolution, is a paradigm of this period of Reagan scholarship. It is an exhaustive study that will be at the very core of the Reagan bibliography for future generations, and will not anytime soon -- if ever -- be surpassed.

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About the Author

Jason Emerson is the author of Lincoln the Inventor, The Madness of Mary Todd Lincoln, and a forthcoming biography of Robert Todd Lincoln.