The Magazine

Ford Beats Reagan!

How conservatism won in 1980 by losing in 1976.

Jan 24, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 18 • By ROBERT D. NOVAK
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Reagan's Revolution

The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All

by Craig Shirley

Nelson Current, 417 pp., $25.99

LATE ON THE EVENING OF August 19, 1976, at the Kemper Arena in Kansas City, prospects looked bleak for the Republican party and even bleaker for the conservative movement. Gerald R. Ford had just barely survived a fierce challenge for the party's presidential nomination by Ronald Reagan. The Republican establishment at every level was furious, contending that Reagan's challenge had made it much less likely that President Ford could be elected. Not even Reagan's champions imagined that his failed campaign would be the salvation of the party and of the nation.

In Reagan's Revolution, the first book-length account of the only campaign Reagan ever lost, Republican activist Craig Shirley describes the state of the GOP at the moment of Ford's nomination in the opening paragraph of his first chapter: "By the late summer of 1974, the Republican party was in its death throes. Bereft, bedraggled, unloved, and unwanted, it stood for nothing and antagonized everyone. If the GOP had been a stray cat, it would have been hauled away to the animal shelter and immediately euthanized."

That graphic description is no exaggeration. As Shirley relates it, a sixty-five-year-old former governor of California who had spent most of his life as a B-movie actor nearly ousted an incumbent president. If Reagan had not challenged the president and had not come so close to succeeding, the subsequent history of the United States and of the world would have been quite different.

The Republican party indeed seemed to be dying after the 1974 election, in the wake of Richard Nixon's disgrace and resignation. The Democratic margin in Congress was staggering, 147 seats in the House of Representatives and 22 in the Senate. Only 13 governors were Republicans. As gloomy party members assembled in Kansas City, polls showed Ford trailing Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter by more than 30 percentage points.

Reagan's challenge was greeted by the party leadership as a stab in the back of a gravely ill person. That last night of the 1976 convention at Kemper Arena was not a happy occasion. Reagan had to be coaxed by Ford from his skybox to stand next to Ford on the podium after the president delivered his acceptance speech. Reagan said he did it because he didn't want to disappoint the cheering delegates. His impromptu remarks, eliciting a greater response than Ford's did, did not mention the president by name and praised only the conservative platform forced by the Reagan rebels on the party leadership. He had no plans to campaign for Ford, and it would be weeks before he did.

Considering the nation's veneration of Reagan at the time of his death, it is difficult to imagine the low assessment of him that prevailed in elite opinion thirty years ago. The New York Times's James Reston, the model for journalists across the country, wrote that Reagan's challenge was "patently ridiculous," an "amusing but frivolous fantasy," and an event that "makes no sense." When Theodore Roosevelt launched the last previous intraparty challenge against a Republican president by opposing William Howard Taft in 1912, he was the most popular living American. Ronald Reagan was hardly known outside California in 1976.

THE FAILURE of the Ford presidency was the reason Reagan became the first challenger since Roosevelt to threaten seriously the renomination of an incumbent Republican. His pardon of Richard Nixon is usually cited as the reason for Ford's unpopularity, but it went much deeper. He seemed to have no public purpose, and his presidency revealed no philosophy. A Republican president whose hero was Harry Truman has perception problems from the beginning. A career politician from Grand Rapids, Michigan, he appeared to share Henry Kissinger's belief that the declining West could not successfully compete with the Soviet bloc and an accommodation had to be found.

Reagan's grassroots popularity grew as the public perceived he would take a harder position against the Kremlin than the Republican president who declined to see Russian dissenter Alexander Solzhenitsyn because it might offend Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and undermine détente. But Reagan's clever and manipulative campaign manager John Sears pulled him away from such divisive issues in the interest of seeing him nominated by a united party. In the meantime, the Ford campaign pounded mercilessly against Reagan as unfit for the presidency. Ford disdained Reagan, and his attitude was spread throughout the president's campaign. The contempt for Reagan was palpable.