Winning One for the Gipper A new book chronicles Reagan's rise from the ashes of 1976.

Reagan Rising: The Decisive Years, 1976-1980

By Craig Shirley (2017, Broadside Books) 409 pages including index, notes, and bibliography

How Trump Channels Reagan

Make America Great Again. It seems inevitable, inescapable, that any opposition party candidate for the American presidency, that is, the candidate from the major party that is not in power, would have to use some variation of this theme, this political tagline, to have any sort of campaign at all. It could be expressed as criticism as Republican presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower blasted the Truman administration and, by inference, Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson, for “Korea [an unpopular war at the moment], Communism [who lost China in 1949], and Corruption [in politics, scandals are like streetcars that go wherever you want and after 20 years in control of the national government the Democrats had their share].” Implicit in this line of attack is that the presiding administration has diminished, compromised, or tarnished American greatness. “Korea, Communism, and Corruption” was simply another way of saying “Make America Great Again” by voting for the general and war hero.

There is also the visionary rhetoric of someone like Democratic presidential aspirant John F. Kennedy who, in 1960, running against the Eisenhower administration and Republican candidate Richard Nixon, spoke of a “New Frontier” and a “New Generation of Leadership.” Vote for Kennedy in order to renew or reignite American greatness. All this business is the old American jeremiad, partly inspired by the belief in American Exceptionalism. Donald Trump may have been most blunt, the most obvious in creating the explicit phrase, but he was also stunningly concise in conflating both declension and triumph, the complex, sometimes conflicting American notions of individual freedom and inexorable fate at the hands of divine providence, in just four words. Generally, most Americans believe that the United States ought to aspire for greatness but deserves whatever it gets if it does not try to be worthy of its ambitions. Politicians exploit this belief, as simplistic as it is daring, for as much mileage as they can get from it.

Most Americans believe that the United States ought to aspire for greatness but deserves whatever it gets if it does not try to be worthy of its ambitions. Politicians exploit this belief, as simplistic as it is daring, for as much mileage as they can get from it. … no presidential candidate exploited this jeremiad-esque slogan, this notion that reflects both our insecurities and our egotism as a nation, more brilliantly than Ronald Reagan.

But no presidential candidate exploited this jeremiad-esque slogan, this notion that reflects both our insecurities and our egotism as a nation, more brilliantly than Ronald Reagan. Nearly all of his biographers say so, especially the conservative ones like Craig Shirley. When the late Phyllis Schlafly in her last book, The Conservative Case for Trump, constantly compared Trump to Ronald Reagan, the campaign of the New York real estate magnate may have been, for movement conservatives like her, the past repeating itself. Perhaps Trump running against Barack Obama, which, of course, he was, was a repeat of Reagan running against Jimmy Carter in 1980.  (More than a few conservatives have pointed out the similarities between Carter and Obama.) Perhaps for movement conservatives, since the presidency of Roosevelt during the Depression, the heart of the ideological conflict has always been about making America great again, especially against feckless, liberal politicians who do not believe in or who do not wish to be burdened by the idea of American Exceptionalism.

 

Our Rendezvous with Destiny

The immediate impression anyone with even superficial familiarity with presidential books has while reading Shirley’s Reagan Rising: The Decisive Years 1976-1980 is that this story has been told many times before and in much the same way. Indeed, Shirley himself told this story in a longer tome in 2009, Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America, which covers the exact same years: from Reagan’s defeat at the 1976 Republican convention in Kansas City, when he barely lost the nomination to Gerald Ford to Reagan’s reemergence to win the Republican nomination decisively at the convention in Detroit in 1980. Ford deserved being dubbed “His Accidency” far more than President John Tyler, as Tyler, unlike Ford, actually was elected as vice president, not appointed, as Ford was, by Nixon after Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace. This, plus the fact that he pardoned the fallen Nixon, who was sure to have been impeached if he had not resigned, accounts for why Ford lost to the unusual political comet of Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter in a close 1976 presidential race. Ford’s loss is the beginning of Reagan’s comeback, in fact, made it possible, as Ford almost certainly would have run again in 1980, foreclosing, as the Republican incumbent legitimately elected, any successful challenge on the part of Reagan who had to overcome the widely held objections that he was too old, too dumb, too conservative, and too inexperienced to be president.  (Of course, on the last point, it is clear that the only people who truly have the proper experience to be president are former presidents. The job is unique in that no one can really train for it, which may be why the Founding Fathers made no qualifications for it other than minimum age and “natural born” citizenship.)

What is interesting is that none of Shirley’s books on Reagan are studies of his presidency as such; rather they are about Reagan pursuing the office or Reagan after he left it. Of course, there are several conservative books on the Reagan presidency, particularly on how he ended the Cold War, one of his major accomplishment according to his partisans, although the actual collapse the Soviet empire happened in 1991 under George H. W. Bush’s watch. His other major accomplishment as president was the success of what is called “Reaganomics,” the supply side theory of government de-regulation of the economy. His partisans, as expected of any partisans, paint a rather sunnier picture of “the longest peace time economic growth in American history” than might have actually been the case. Two who were present at the creation, so to speak, David Stockman and Bruce Bartlett, recanted their belief in supply-side economics respectively in The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed (1986) and The New American Economy: The Failure of Reaganomics and a New Way Forward (2009).

But several books on Reagan, particularly by movement conservatives, tend to concentrate on his rise to the presidency, suggesting the old Japanese saying, “It is better to travel hopefully, than to arrive.” (The best concise book for the general reader by a conservative scholar on Reagan’s 1980 win is Andrew E. Busch’s Reagan’s Victory: The Presidential Election of 1980 and the Rise of the Right, 2005.) For movement conservatives, it is better to consider and celebrate their rise to national power as they succeeded in taking over the Republican Party and the White House, than it is to consider what happened when they had power.  (This noted conservative intellectual exhibits such disappointment with the Reagan years in this famous retrospective essay that one can hardly imagine what might be left for a Democrat to say except to bristle with more moral indignation about Reagan and the poor.) The ascendancy of conservatism as a political movement and a set of public policy challenges is, for movement conservatives, a tale of triumph and heroism (Barry Goldwater as John the Baptist, Reagan as Jesus, William F. Buckley as Paul, and Frank Chodorov or John M. Olin as Peter); the story of actually governing is far more a mixed bag of successes, failures, and compromises, with conservatives discovering the seduction of the leviathan of the welfare state undermining their own resolve and deeply affecting cultural attitudes in ways that seem impossible to counteract effectively. Conservatism has its attractions but being cool and humane, as many in the public saw it, were not among them. The miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, before his conversion to sentimental welfare philanthropy and buying friends in order to have people at his funeral, has been a very powerful and thoroughly assimilated image of the selfishness and stodgy-ness of conservatism. (Conservative scholar Arthur C. Brooks wrote a book called The Conservative Heart, 2015, about how compassionate conservatism truly is, something the general public would know if only conservatives would do a better job of promoting that aspect of their ideology. Can anyone imagine a liberal scholar writing “The Liberal Heart” with the same objectives?  It goes without saying that liberals have a heart.)

So, the story of the rise of Reagan is the story of the successful rise of movement conservatism through rebranding the Republican Party. As Shirley writes astutely, if somewhat glowingly, in Reagan Rising: “In fact, the party was broadening the base by narrowing the appeal. Instead of trying to be all things to all people, the GOP, with Reagan’s gutsy leadership, was becoming one thing to all people. The party was becoming commodious by standing on principle and not power.  … Nixon’s Republicans defended the status quo. Reagan’s conservatives challenged it.”  The Republican Party has been suffering from an identity crisis since the ascendancy of FDR and the welfare state. In the post-World War II era, the American conservative movement, first, established and stabilized its own identity and principles—reading out the John Birch Society, Ayn Randian objectivists, and eventually segregationists (reading out racism was another far more complicated and unfinished story)—and then plotted its take-over of the Republican Party, which, as the conservatives saw it, suffered from “me tooism” in its struggle with liberals. By redefining the party, the conservatives felt, and in good measure rightly so, that they saved it from oblivion. What the movement conservatives did most successfully was to define themselves as a dynamic movement of change, not an ideology of stasis. The welfare state liberals—in their defense of the morality and bureaucracy of wealth redistribution and the managerial, interventionist, activist state, the dominant practices of the modern western society—became the party of the threatened and threatening status quo.

Instead of being able to bring us out of the doldrums of the 1970s, Carter became, according to at least the conservative narrative, a symbol, indeed an instrument, of American decline. For the movement conservative, liberalism, in the form of Jimmy Carter, was finally having its rendezvous with destiny, an adverse destiny. By the late 1970s, liberalism was, at least for a time, exhausted.

Reagan Rising tells the story of the second half of the dismal 1970s, a decade now framed by conservatives (and many other Americans as well) by declension and decadence: the first half is the story of the fall of Nixon, defeat in Vietnam, the spread of Third World communism, the increasing mainstream acceptance of hardcore pornography, gasoline shortages, and energy price spikes, deteriorating cities. Shirley alludes to some of these aspects of the first half of the 1970s but his real story is the second half of the decade which is largely the story of the presidency of Jimmy Carter and what Carter wrought, which was the complete collapse of liberalism as an effective ideology of governance. Instead of being able to bring us out of the doldrums of the 1970s, Carter became, according to at least the conservative narrative, a symbol, indeed an instrument, of American decline. For the movement conservative, liberalism, in the form of Jimmy Carter, was finally having its rendezvous with destiny, an adverse destiny. By the late 1970s, liberalism was, at least for a time, exhausted.

Reagan kept himself relevant and in the news after 1976 by attacking the Panama Canal Treaties, an effort that predates Carter but that Carter expended a great deal of political capital to get approved by Congress. (Reagan had originally used the issue of the treaties in his fight for the 1976 nomination against Ford.) Not all conservatives, and certainly not all Republicans, agreed with Reagan’s opposition, but Reagan’s effort kept his core following together, ignited by the issue of strident American nationalism versus some sort of internationalist collaboration in surrendering the canal to the Panamanians. The treaties were advantageous to the United States, although not outrageously so. The Panamanians would not get control of the canal until 1999 and surrendering the canal, which had ceased being profitable for the United States, would improve our relations with other Latin and Central American countries as the canal was something like a symbol of North American hegemony. Probably the small advantage of the treaties is why they were never popular in the United States and redounded little to Carter’s credit.

That Carter tried to win Reagan over was clearly in hindsight a tactical error, for it made Reagan seem both reasonable (in being open to this overture) and resolute (in resisting being persuaded). In the end, being against the treaties was far more politically useful for Reagan than being for them. For some liberals and leftists, Reagan’s opposition to the treaties had a whiff of racism about it not only in its implied assumption of American superiority in managing the canal but also because the treaties themselves were largely in response to the 1964 riots in Panama over the sovereignty of the canal that resulted in Canal Zone police (the zone was a separate entity from Panama itself, a sore point with many Panamanians; a leftist would call it “U.S.-occupied Panama,” although the United States did buy the land) shooting Panamanian student protestors. In the end, peace was restored with the intervention of the U.S. Army, leaving 22 Panamanians and four U.S. soldiers dead. So the treaties to some conservatives must have seemed like acquiescing to or rewarding ragtag, nihilistic disorder by a disgruntled group, much like the violence that afflicted American cities in the 1960s when young blacks rioted over police brutality and racist practices in general. For many conservatives, submitting to the violence of the radicalized disenchanted, especially the “colored” radicalized disenchanted, was no way to formulate policy. As Shirley put it, “The canal was … a part of Americans’ national consciousness. … it was held up in every public school in America as a wonder of technology and as one of the greatest accomplishments of the American people.” What Reagan tapped into was the myth of the canal; his political skills were such that he was able to do this in a way that his opposition was a broadly inclusive act of patriotism and defending national interests while also being subtly racial. In effect, opposing the treaties made Reagan the outsider and the insider, a man with a strategic oppositional opinion, not merely a contrary or hostile one.

More riots in Panama were possible in the 1970s under Panamanian president and military strongman Omar Torrijos and the United States wanted no repeat of the 1964 debacle or of the recently concluded Vietnam War where the left raked white America for shooting colored people who were seeking self-determination. As Noel Maurer and Carlos Yu put it in their book, The Big Ditch: How America Took, Built, Ran, and Ultimately Gave Away the Panama Canal (2011), “The United States would have to choose between using violence against foreign civilians or appearing to retreat from the canal in the face of mob violence. That was a choice that no American president would find palatable, especially so soon after the American withdrawal from Vietnam.” Shirley does a good job in presenting how Reagan used the treaties to his political advantage as well as Carter’s struggles in getting them passed. However, he provides no historical context for the treaties, never fully explaining what they are or why Carter and the Democrats staked so much on getting them passed.

What Reagan tapped into was the myth of the canal; his political skills were such that he was able to do this in a way that his opposition was a broadly inclusive act of patriotism and defending national interests while also being subtly racial. In effect, opposing the Panama Canal Treaties made Reagan the outsider and the insider, a man with a strategic oppositional opinion, not merely a contrary or hostile one.

The canal treaties were just one of several acts or inactions during Carter’s time in the White House that made him look weak. (Others included the persistence of the Iranian hostage crisis, the energy crisis with its attendant gasoline shortages, the famous or infamous “malaise” speech, and the primary challenge of Ted Kennedy.) Americans longed for a strong leader, a staunch defender of American nationalism and American Exceptionalism. Reagan emerged, through some strategic crafting on his part and some luck, as that leader. Shirley told this story before but he tells it well again. The book is informative, amusing, partisan but not offensively or obsessively so, and even exciting, when Reagan manages to shuck his mistakes, get off the floor after losing the Iowa caucuses to George H. W. Bush, to win the Republican nomination as a candidate about which the political establishment was surely skeptical, if not downright contemptuous at times. But what made Reagan different from, say, Trump, was not only the range of his considerable political skills but the generally genial nature of his temperament and his extraordinary optimism. He was, as any reasonably competent actor should be, believable as a principled and reasonable man. He went beyond being the angry white male conservative. Shirley notes: “The Reagan of the 1960s was often angry—angry at student protestors, angry at college professors, angry at recalcitrant Democratic legislators in Sacramento. By 1979, he had developed a more hopeful and more optimistic message.” He was often in his remarks both privately and publicly incredibly funny.

Reagan heard his favorite slogan as a young man listening to FDR in 1936 talking about our country having “a rendezvous with destiny.”  Reagan used this phrase in “The Speech,” the much-heralded televised campaign speech he gave for Barry Goldwater in October 1964 that made Reagan a political star on the right, just two years after he officially became a Republican. “You and I have a rendezvous with destiny,” Reagan said, “We can preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness.” (“The Speech” was in many respects a reworking of the typical speech Reagan gave while working for General Electric in the 1950s.) Certainly, no post-World War II conservative American politician ever framed the American jeremiad in such lyrical starkness or so compellingly. (That he borrowed from a great liberal president shows that perhaps underneath it all we are truly bipartisan, or at least as bipartisan as we hope to be.) The secret of Reagan’s success was that he made conservatism a source of inspiration, an uplift project, something that seemed, well, heroic. Leftists would say he made it a heroic form of whiteness but there was something about Reagan’s aspect that made him seem or feel inclusive or that, strangely, made whiteness seem inclusive.[1]  Every president tries to be both magisterial and plain.  Reagan pulled this off better than most. That is what made him a great politician. (Whether he was a great president is still a highly debatable point.) Shirley captures this accomplishment with tender, though not by any means entirely undeserved, admiration. 

[1] Let me illustrate two ways in which Reagan made whiteness inclusive: 1) under Reagan emerged a class of African American intellectuals and scholars who became known as black conservatives, most famous among these being economist Thomas Sowell and then-Chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and eventual Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. This was a cadre of thinkers who basically denounced what they saw as the limitations and flaws of civil rights activism, the ruinous distortions and destructive paternalism of liberalism on African American life and culture, and the hegemonic self-interests of white guilt and performative indulgences of black anger. In short, there came into being a group of black thinkers who justified a white conservative view of reality. 2) Reagan completed the process of re-interpreting Martin Luther King, Jr. and making him an anti-Affirmative Action, white conservative hero when he signed into the law in 1983. Reagan had previously denounced King as a communist. (Certainly, King’s view of the Vietnam War in his famous Riverside Church in 1967 was a leftist interpretation of the war and it is fair to say, as King scholar Clayborne Carson has pointed out, that King had Marxist tendencies all his life.) However, it was during the Reagan era that a sea change occurred among many white conservatives who chose not to oppose the growing movement to deify the civil rights leader. Rather, they chose to co-opt to their ideological ends, which, of course, is fair game in politics.

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