How the 1976 GOP convention set Reagan on the path to power

The future president lost to Gerald Ford in nail-biter but emerged wiser and stronger.

As another GOP convention looms this summer, 40 years later, many American history buffs don’t realize how close the race was in 1976 and how well the convention prepared Ronald Reagan for victory just four year later.

Former California Governor Ronald Reagan was a rather unlikely candidate for the highest office in the land when he arrived in Kansas City in the summer of 1976 for the Republican National Convention. A hotheaded politician known for his bitter standoffs with student protesters, the former Hollywood actor had once co-starred with a chimp named Bonzo.

But his rival, Gerald Ford, didn’t have a firm hold on his job. An accidental president who’d never been voted to any office beyond congressman, he’d annoyed much of the nation by pardoning Richard Nixon. And despite his history as an all-American football player and war hero, Ford found himself lampooned as a bumbler. To make matters more dicey, Reagan couldn’t stand him.

The race between the two men was close when the Kansas City convention began in August 1976. History tells us Ford would win the nomination and and go on to lose to Jimmy Carter in November.

As another GOP convention looms this summer, 40 years later, many American history buffs don’t realize how close the race was and how the convention prepared Ronald Reagan for victory just four year later.

Historian and political consultant Craig Shirley, who worked for Reagan’s campaigns in the 1980s and personally knows many GOP bigwigs, chronicled the surprising convention story in his 2005 book Reagan's Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All.

In an interview with the Monitor, Shirley talks about the acrimony, the shenanigans and the disunity. But thanks to a graceful decision by his rival, he says, a superstar is born when Reagan speaks “straight from the heart.”

Q: It’s fairly uncommon for incumbent presidents to face opposition when they run for another term. Why was President Ford so weak?

He was an unelected president and had only been voted in from one congressional district in Michigan. As a result, he had a very tenuous hold on the leadership of the party, and no Republican had made an investment in him. He didn’t have the diehard conservative support that Nixon enjoyed.

But he misunderstood that, and he proceeded to pursue all of Nixon’s liberal policies like continued detente with the Soviets, overtures to China, wage and price controls and a lot of liberal domestic foreign and domestic policy initiatives.

Q: Reagan couldn’t stand Ford. What was behind their acrimony?

What really set Reagan off was that there were a lot of personal insults emanating from the Ford White House that got back to Sacramento. For example, in October of 1974, Ford gave a jokey speech to the Gridiron Club and said Governor Reagan doesn’t dye his hair. It’s just turning prematurely orange.

They weren’t on the same wave length, and it was worse between Nancy Reagan and Betty Ford.

Q: What happened regarding the visit of Soviet dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn?

Solzhenitsyn came to Washington and was welcomed by Senators Jesse Helms and Joe Biden and unofficially by Ronald Reagan, who wrote columns and did radio commentaries.

But Ford, at the urging of Henry Kissinger, refused to meet Solzhenitsyn, even though he’d met with the Strawberry Queen of West Virginia. This knuckling under to the Soviets really teed off Reagan.

Q: Did Reagan really have a chance to win by the time of the GOP convention in 1976?

It was a seesaw battle all through the spring and into the summer. Republicans gathered in August in Kansas City without knowing who their nominee would be. Neither Reagan or Ford had enough votes for a first ballot nomination.

There were several hundred uncommitted and wavering delegates, and it all contributed to an surreal atmosphere of high drama and not knowing who the nominee was going to be.

It was a battle of the titans. These were two giant political leaders. One is president of the United States, and the other is a leader of the conservative movement.

Q: I have a sense that Ford wasn’t a tough politician, but I might be swayed by Chevy Chase’s portrayal of him as a clumsy oaf. What kind of political operator was he?

By contrast to Nixon, anyone would look like a nice guy. But let there be no doubt that Ford was a tough, hard-nosed political operative. After all, he’d attempted to impeach a Supreme Court justice in the 1960s.

Q: What was his background?

He grew up poor, an orphan, and he’d been an all-American football player and a legitimate hero in World War II.

What was it like at the Kansas City convention?

It was extremely hot, extremely humid. The men all wore polyester suits, and women had bouffant hair and synthetic pant suits. Everybody smoked, and a blue cloud would materialize over the convention hall each evening.

Q: What are some of your favorite stories of shenanigans at the convention?

The Ford boys and some Ford supporters were accused of dumping trash on the Texas delegates, who were all for Reagan. One of Ford’s sons says it was confetti. It wasn’t confetti.

Then there was the matter of a phone being pulled out of its holder by a Utah delegate. The phone ended up in the possession of Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. He was photographed with it over his head, cackling, trying to show he’d taken it back. But a lot of people saw it as a metaphor for Rockefeller not being able to talk to his own party.

Q: By your account, Reagan was able to turn his fortunes around at the end of the convention and put himself in a good position to run again in 1980. What happened?

He was not supposed to speak the last night of the convention. He’d already lost the nomination by 67 votes, just a handful of delegates.
Ford speaks and knows he’s still presiding over a divided party and the only way to unite them is to get Reagan down from his skybox to speak to the audience.

Reagan gives an extemporaneous speech. It’s straight from the heart, a peek into the big issues on his mind about freedom, peace and security, and nuclear war.

Q: How did the audience react?

As he’s giving a speech, a Ford supporter from Florida turns to one of Reagan’s aides, and she says, “Oh my God, we’ve nominated the wrong man.” This was probably the feeling of a lot of Ford people that night after Reagan spoke.

Q: What was the legacy of the convention for the general election in 1976, which was won by an upstart Democrat named Jimmy Carter?

The Republican party was divided, split evenly between Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford. Parties with divided conventions tend to lose in the fall, and parties with united conventions tend to win.

Ford wins the nomination and goes on to lose the election narrowly. But Reagan wins hearts at the convention and has laid the foundation to run again in 1980 if he wants to.

Q: What did it all mean for Reagan’s future?

If Ronald Reagan doesn’t run in 1976, then he doesn’t run in 1980, and there’s no Reagan revolution, and none of the monumental great ideas of the time.

By running in 1976, he becomes a better candidate, more thoughtful. The Reagan in 1964 or even 1976 is often angry – angry at student protesters, at Gerald Ford, at the economy, at the humiliation of Vietnam.

In 1980, he runs as a much more thoughtful conservative. He doesn’t talk about limitations. He talks about a limitless future.

Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is immediate past president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

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