Steve Hayward is in my opinion the foremost historian of the Reagan presidency and the Reagan era. He is the author of the indispensable two-volume Age of Reagan. The two volumes of the history are The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order: 1964-1980 and The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution: 1980-1989. He is also the author of Greatness: Reagan, Churchill, and the Making of Extraordinary Leaders, an extended essay that interrupted and grew out of his work on the second volume of the two-part history.
In the first volume of the history Steve tells the story of Reagan’s audacious challenge of a sitting president for the Republican nomination in 1976. In my case the story bings back some dormant memories. Four years of studying English and American literature under NR senior editor Jeffrey Hart at Dartmouth had slowly turned me into a conservative. Although I had voted for McGovern in 1972, in 1976 I turned out at the Minnesota precinct caucuses to support Reagan on a cold winter night during which he would go on to lose the New Hampshire primary to Gerald Ford. Reagan subsequently recovered his footing and won several primaries against Ford, though he lost the nomination by an eyelash.
Even though Ford prevailed over Reagan for the nomination, Ford capitulated to Reagan in the battle over the 1976 platform. The 1976 platform of the Republican Party was in large part Reagan’s platform, restating several of the themes on which Reagan had staked his claim against Ford during the primaries.
After Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn arrived in the United States in 1975, for example, Ford had embarrassed himself and reinforced the suspicions of the critics of detente with the Soviet Union by refusing to meet with Solzhenitsyn at the White House. Among the series of reasons thrown up by the Ford administration for the snub was that Solzhenitsyn was promoting his books and that the president did not want to lend himself to commercial purposes.
“The week before, however,” Steve drily observes, “Ford had posed for photographs on the White House lawn with ‘the cotton queen’ and soccer star Pele. White House aides muttered about Solzhenitsyn’s mental stability while Ford privately called Solzhenitsyn ‘a goddamn horse’s ass.'”
Thanks to Reagan, however, Ford was now to run on a platform that held: “We recognize and commend that great beacon of human courage and morality, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, for his compelling message that we must face the world with no illusions about the nature of tyranny. Ours will be a foreign policy that keeps this ever in mind.” Thank you, Mr. Reagan.
At the convention after his acceptance speech, Ford called Reagan down to offer a few impromptu remarks. Steve recalls: “Reagan started out repeating some of the familiar stump themes from the primary season.” Reagan’s brief attack on the Democrats remains timely. It only needs to be updated to reflect the extension of the period during which they have been serving up the same thin gruel:
Mr. President, Mrs. Ford, Mr. Vice President, Mr. Vice President to be — the distinguished guests here, and you ladies and gentlemen: I am going to say fellow Republicans here, but also those who are watching from a distance, all of those millions of Democrats and Independents who I know are looking for a cause around which to rally and which I believe we can give them.
Mr. President, before you arrived tonight, these wonderful people here when we came in gave Nancy and myself a welcome. That, plus this, and plus your kindness and generosity in honoring us by bringing us down here will give us a memory that will live in our hearts forever.
Watching on television these last few nights, and I have seen you also with the warmth that you greeted Nancy, and you also filled my heart with joy when you did that.
May I just say some words. There are cynics who say that a party platform is something that no one bothers to read and it doesn’t very often amount to much.
Whether it is different this time than it has ever been before, I believe the Republican Party has a platform that is a banner of bold, unmistakable colors, with no pastel shades.
We have just heard a call to arms based on that platform, and a call to us to really be successful in communicating and reveal to the American people the difference between this platform and the platform of the opposing party, which is nothing but a revamp and a reissue and a running of a late, late show of the thing that we have been hearing from them for the last 40 years.
“But then,” Steve observes, “Reagan started, with a slight awkwardness and a hitch at the beginning, to tell a story. And as the story grew the hall became increasingly quiet and solemn….Reagan watchers will immediately recognize that this is the same story he started to tell at the end of the second debate with Walter Mondale in 1984, but which was cut short by the network moderator because Reagan had run out of time.” Here Reagan was able to finish the story:
If I could just take a moment; I had an assignment the other day. Someone asked me to write a letter for a time capsule that is going to be opened in Los Angeles a hundred years from now, on our Tricentennial.
It sounded like an easy assignment. They suggested I write something about the problems and the issues today. I set out to do so, riding down the coast in an automobile, looking at the blue Pacific out on one side and the Santa Ynez Mountains on the other, and I couldn’t help but wonder if it was going to be that beautiful a hundred years from now as it was on that summer day.
Then as I tried to write — let your own minds turn to that task. You are going to write for people a hundred years from now, who know all about us. We know nothing about them. We don’t know what kind of a world they will be living in.
And suddenly I thought to myself if I write of the problems, they will be the domestic problems the President spoke of here tonight; the challenges confronting us, the erosion of freedom that has taken place under Democratic rule in this country, the invasion of private rights, the controls and restrictions on the vitality of the great free economy that we enjoy. These are our challenges that we must meet.
And then again there is that challenge of which he spoke that we live in a world in which the great powers have poised and aimed at each other horrible missiles of destruction, nuclear weapons that can in a matter of minutes arrive at each other’s country and destroy, virtually, the civilized world we live in.
And suddenly it dawned on me, those who would read this letter a hundred years from now will know whether those missiles were fired. They will know whether we met our challenge. Whether they have the freedoms that we have known up until now will depend on what we do here.
Will they look back with appreciation and say, “Thank God for those people in 1976 who headed off that loss of freedom, who kept us now 100 years later free, who kept our world from nuclear destruction”?
And if we failed, they probably won’t get to read the letter at all because it spoke of individual freedom, and they won’t be allowed to talk of that or read of it.
This is our challenge; and this is why here in this hall tonight, better than we have ever done before, we have got to quit talking to each other and about each other and go out and communicate to the world that we may be fewer in numbers than we have ever been, but we carry the message they are waiting for.
We must go forth from here united, determined that what a great general said a few years ago is true: There is no substitute for victory, Mr. President.
Were the remarks really impromptu? Steve notes: “The disbelief of the veracity of this account derives from the sustained burst of eloquence that followed. . .Reagan spoke for six minutes without a script, without notes or a teleprompter, and, had the speech come two days earlier, might have prompted the delegates to change their mind.”