President Ronald Reagan was far from the common Republican. If anything he was the exception to the rule in a party dominated by moderates and pragmatists. It’s one of the overarching themes of Craig Shirley’s new and epic account Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America. The book follows Shirley’s masterpiece Reagan’s Revolution, a study of Reagan’s 1976 insurgent candidacy against President Gerald Ford.
Shirley is exceptional at taking the reader back into the time period rather than reading back into the history from today’s vantage point. The account chronicles Reagan’s run against the Republican primary field and President Jimmy Carter in 1980. Today many think Reagan’s victory over the Republican field and his general election landslide over Carter were inevitable and Shirley is superb at recalling all the forces lined up against Reagan during this time. Since Carter could hardly run on a positive record his campaign strategy was to “scare the hell out of them with Ronald Reagan.”
He proposed a fusion between those mercantile and economic interests long associated with the GOP, who were mostly concerned with government regulations, and social conservatives, who believed the fabric of society was also threatened by big, intrusive government.
One of the areas where Reagan was transcending politics was his appeal among Democrats. In many open primaries he had strong crossover support from Democrats that helped him carry states. “As for Reagan, the [Washington] Post discovered an astonishing fact: the Gipper’s commercials were more popular with Democrats than they were with Republicans,” Shirley writes. The book also notes how many in the new right and followers of Reagan were making a visible break with big business. “Big business has become the handmaiden of big government,” said Congressman Jack Kemp. Shirley elaborates further on his appeal:
Reagan spoke to these urban, ethnic Democrats in a way no other politician had since JFK. He talked about community, responsibility, privacy, patriotism, the evils of Communism, and their children’s future. Although Reagan was Protestant, his father had been Roman Catholic and he had inculcated in his young son a parish perspective. As an adult campaigner, the Gipper still preferred the pronouns ‘us’ and ‘we’ over ‘me’ and ‘I,’ and these voters loved him for it. He made them feel good about themselves and, by extension, America. ‘Reagan has a personal following all his own,’ noted Time magazine.
Of course one of the biggest jabs against Reagan was that he wasn’t intellectual and was often referred to as a “simpleton” or merely a performer. Clark Clifford famously called him an “amiable dunce.” Shirley recalls many of the attacks on his intellectualism from the media and opponents. He also delves into the manner in which Reagan was so successful at popularizing conservative principles. The author captures the great wit and lines of Reagan from the campaign trail as well as some embarrassing gaffes.
Some who lived in this period may not remember just how hard George H.W. Bush fought Reagan for the nomination. He ended up lasting through many of the primaries and had many supporters in the party who were terrified of Reagan, but loved Bush too. Bush had a lot of support from GOP moderates. He capitalized on some of Reagan’s early mistakes and the author discusses how Bush and other candidates used the age issue against Reagan. Bush of course famously attacked Reagan’s tax plan dubbing it “vodoo economics.” The two absolutely did not like each other, and privately Reagan called Bush “a wimp.” Tough words from a man who was known for his graciousness. Of course after Bush was chosen as Reagan’s running mate a lifelong and genuine friendship would emerge, so much so that the 41st president would eulogize his former boss saying with a cracking voice, “As his vice president for eight years, I learned more from Ronald Reagan than from anyone I encountered in all my years of public life. I learned kindness; we all did. I also learned courage; the nation did.”
In the general election campaign of 1980 Reagan hit Carter hard on the economy. He delivered this memorable line in front of the Statue of Liberty:
Let it show on the record that when the American people cried out for economic help, Jimmy Carter took refuge behind a dictionary. Well, if it’s a definition he wants, I’ll give him one. A recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his!
The crowd was largely an ethnic blue collar constituency and at the end of his speech when Reagan embraced Stanislaw Walesa, the father of Polish labor leader Lech Walesa, the crowd went wild.
Another focus of Shirley’s is just how nasty the Carter campaign was at attacking Reagan. Carter said Reagan would bring about the “alienation of black from white, Christian from Jew, rich from poor, and North from South.” He continually predicted that a Reagan presidency would bring the country to a nuclear precipice. The author also notes that Carter’s campaign approached Ted Kennedy after he defeated him in the primaries, asking Kennedy to attack Reagan as anti-Catholic. Kennedy refused the request.
There are some very moving quotes by Reagan in Shirley’s book about the connection between God and the free society in America. Reagan said world peace was “jeopardized by those who view man not as a noble being, but as an accident of nature, without soul, and important only to the extent he can serve an all powerful state.” He brought to the forefront the importance of America’s spiritual commitment and made deep moral contrasts with Soviet totalitarianism.
This is a lengthy book that is well over 600 pages. It is wonderfully researched and is a treasure trove of information from the 1980 campaign. It is incredibly moving too. However Shirley is also responsible by covering many of Reagan’s weaknesses and how at times it almost cost him the presidency. There are numerous new books about Ronald Reagan, and while many don’t offer a lot of new information, this one does.
The epilogue is very emotional in that the author discusses the Reagan legacy and examines all the political forces who try to claim the Reagan mantle. Inspiring words about Reagan from Alexander Solzhenitsyn can be found in the pages of the epilogue. A friend of the Acton Institute, former Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar said simply, “Without this man, I would be somewhere in Siberia in chains.” Included also is a gracious quote from Reagan’s most ardent opponent in the Senate not just on domestic policy, but foreign policy as well. Ted Kennedy called Reagan at his death, “the president who won the Cold War,” and added, “His deepest convictions were matters of heart and mind and spirit – and on them, he was no actor at all.”