The Magazine

How He Did It

The bumpy road to the Reagan White House.

Jan 25, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 18 • By PETER HANNAFORD
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Rendezvous with Destiny

How He Did It

by Craig Shirley
ISI, 650 pp., $30

In his prologue, Craig Shirley puts the reader in the midst of Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena, where “Ronald Reagan stood before the multitude of cheering Republicans .  .  . at long last master of all he surveyed.” He looks out at “the thousands of gesticulating, dancing, partying, delirious” convention-goers who are exulting in the moment. From then until the last page, every event of the author’s tale of that multi-month campaign, culminating in Reagan’s November 1980 victory, has a you-are-there quality. As one who was there for most of it, I can attest to how well Shirley has caught the moments.

While he does not break new ground with revelations, his intention is to provide the reader with a definitive history of the 1980 campaign, and he succeeds almost too well. Lest your head spin by the details of ever-shifting polls, maneuvers, and news coverage of every step in every primary election campaign—keep going, for the reward will be a clear understanding of how Ronald Reagan’s appeal to “Main Street” Americans, including many blue-collar Democrats, coincided with his own determination to win.


The author has an eye for telling detail. He begins with the aftermath of the close 1976 loss to Gerald Ford, and recounts that Reagan’s newspaper column and daily radio commentaries began again only one month after the 1976 Republican convention. “One of Reagan’s early radio segments,” he notes, “touted the tax cuts in a bill offered by a young Republican backbencher in Congress, Jack Kemp.” Less than two years later, Reagan was campaigning steadily for the Kemp-Roth supply-side tax bill, and less than three years after that, after an intense effort in his first few months as president, he signed the historic tax-cut bill that, once it took full effect, led to an unbroken string of nearly 10 years of economic expansion.

Shirley describes the role in the buildup toward the campaign played by Citizens for the Republic, the ingenious idea of the late Lyn Nofziger to use leftover campaign money to create a multi-candidate political action committee with Reagan as chairman. It could only reimburse Reagan for travel, but travel he did to speak at a series of weekend campaign workshops around the country, whose attendees became the basis of the 1980 campaign’s ground army.

To be sure, this is a book for people who love politics, either as participants or observers. And for them, it is a trove of colorful, dramatic tales. The fate of campaign manager John Sears is an example. In the planning of the campaign, Reagan’s California circle did not want Sears, the 1976 manager, to repeat his role. They were mindful, however, that political reporters, based in Washington and New York, had much to do with the perception of a candidate’s credibility. Sears was popular with the press while a California-
based manager would be seen as an outsider. So, Sears became the “first among equals” of the leadership cadre.

As Shirley relates, it was Sears’s insistence that Reagan not campaign in Iowa, lest he appear no different from the other seven or eight aspiring candidates, that led to his downfall. The media called this “the imperial candidacy.” George Bush beat Reagan in the Iowa caucuses, and had what he called “the Big Mo” (for momentum). At that point, Reagan took charge of his own campaign in New Hampshire and (it was later learned) waited for his staff and key supporters to devise a plan to change managers. That plan was unfolded the night following Reagan’s famous Nashua debate with Bush, with its memorable line, “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!” The circumstances behind that declaration make for rich reading even 29 years later.

The decision was made to fire Sears and his key aides the afternoon of the New Hampshire primary, before the ballots had been counted. The planning had been done by a small group and kept secret largely because it was done in a series of telephone conference calls. There was no paper trail. As the press corps piled out of their bus at a Manchester hotel in mid-afternoon on Election Day, an aide was there to pass out a press release about Sears’s departure and the appointment of William Casey as campaign manager.

Recent Blog Posts