For three glorious weeks in May of 1976, Ronald Reagan zoomed ahead in the delegate count over the incumbent, Gerald Ford, defying the predictions of the GOP Establishment and the national media. Reagan took his lead seriously enough to tell trusted friend and aide Ed Meese to begin to quietly assemble a list of potential running mates. Reagan gave very clear instructions to Meese: His vice president should have the character and experience to become president should it become necessary, as it had been in 1945, 1963 and 1974.
It was supposed to be this way all along to Reagan and his revolutionaries. But because of the Gipper’s misfires and his campaign’s mistakes, Ford had won the first five primaries until North Carolina, which Reagan won in a huge upset, resetting the campaign contest. Reagan then reeled off victories in Texas, Indiana, Georgia, Alabama and several caucus states, putting him in the delegate lead for the first time.
By the time they got to Kansas City in August, neither had enough delegates for a first ballot nomination. It was the first time this had happened since 1952, when Republicans gathered in Chicago not knowing if their nominee would be Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio, “Mr. Republican,” or five-star Army General Dwight David Eisenhower. Only through the 11th hour seating shenanigans affecting pro-Taft delegates in the South, including Texas, were enough votes subtracted from Taft and given to Ike so that he would end up with the nomination, and “I Like Ike” became a national catchphrase.
Going into the North Carolina primary, nearly all GOP office holders were publicly calling on Reagan to get out of the race. He was so despised by the Republican Establishment, a studio portrait of Gov. Reagan and Mrs. Reagan was ordered removed from the offices of the Young Republicans, who were housed in the Republican National Committee on Capitol Hill. The RNC was a beehive of pro-Ford activity, even though he was unelected and even though he’d been handpicked by the now shunned Richard Nixon. The entire Establishment of the GOP, including the chairman of the College Republicans, Karl Rove, was firmly in the corner of Gerald Ford. Said Political Science Quarterly at the time, “The tactics used by the people in power — the Republican National Committee — were ruthless, cold-blooded and bordering on the fringe of being unethical.”
It had been like this since the beginning. Ford was a mediocre president, and a very flawed candidate who led a borderline corrupt GOP. In the House, he’d been marginally conservative, but after he became president, Henry Kissinger and Co. began whispering in his ear, including telling Ford to snub Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel prize-winning author. He’d been imprisoned for years in a Soviet gulag, but as he became more and more of a cause célèbre, he became more and more of a headache to the Kremlin, and they finally released him.
But instead of meeting with him, Ford offered one lame excuse after another, even though the real reason was he didn’t want to insult Moscow, effectively putting the interests of the communists ahead of the interests of America. Reagan was outraged and wrote a column eviscerating Ford, and he later also did several radio commentaries, also blistering Ford. At this point — despite the pressure from conservatives to take on Ford, Reagan had been reluctant to do so, but after the Solzhenitsyn incident — Reagan plunged in.
By the time of the convention in Kansas City, Ford’s forces knew one thing and one thing only: They were going to prevent Reagan from addressing the hall, whatever the costs.
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By the time of the convention in Kansas City, Ford’s forces knew one thing and one thing only: They were going to prevent Reagan from addressing the hall, whatever the costs. They were absolutely terrified of what the vaunted public speaker Ronald Reagan would do to stir up the 2,131 delegates and equal number of alternates gathered at the Kemper Arena. They’d seen Reagan raise millions through a half hour TV broadcast just weeks before and remembered his landmark and earth-shattering speech for Goldwater just a few years earlier.
Only a few days before the convention, Reagan did something audacious and brilliant. He named his running mate, Sen. Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania, which scrambled all the network and newspaper delegate counts including one planned for the lead story on the CBS Evening News, which would have put Ford over the top — keeping Reagan’s campaign alive until the showdown in Kansas City.
There was also the matter of about 150 uncommitted delegates, which the Ford White House went after with a vengeance, led by the president’s delegate honcho, Jim Baker. The White House used state dinners, private meetings in the Oval Office, rides on Air Force One, anything and everything to bring them over. One local Long Island official had a private meeting in the Oval Office with President Ford and came away with a federal sewer contract for his town, and Ford came away with his vote at the convention. Ultimately, Ford’s assiduous wooing of the uncommitted delegates would make the difference. Reagan had his message, but Ford had federal goodies.
Four evenings after the convention began, after Rule 16-C went down to narrow defeat (which would have forced Ford to name his running mate before the balloting) and after the Reagan nomination went down to defeat, 1,187 to 1,070 — and with Ford winning the nomination by just 59 delegate votes — Reagan got to finally address the convention. He gave a history-altering address, laying the groundwork for his win in 1980 and his momentous presidency.
The fight was over and Ford’s men knew after watching Reagan’s extemporaneous remarks that they’d just dodged a bullet.
Reagan spoke of the platform as a “banner of bold, unmistakable colors and no pale pastels”; he spoke of “horrible missiles of destruction.” He said of the Soviets, “this is our challenge,” and he spoke of there being “no substitute for victory.” He spoke of many things, about freedom and tyranny and the future. He did not speak of or even endorse the candidacy of Gerald R. Ford for president of the United States.
But he’d given the speech the Fordites had feared for so long. Later, the next year, he gave a landmark speech about a “New Republican Party” that could not be the party of “the corporate boardroom” or the “country club” but rather a party of shopkeepers and housewives and cops on the beat. In 1975, in announcing his decision to take on Ford in the primaries, he took on big government, “big labor,” and “big business.” He said: “In my opinion, the root of these problems lies right here in Washington, D.C. Our nation’s capital has become the seat of a buddy system that functions for its own benefit … Today, it is difficult to find leaders who are independent of the forces that have brought us our problems — the Congress, the bureaucracy, the lobbyists, big business and big labor. If America is to survive and go forward, this must change.”
And so it did. Later, in 1980, Reagan was elected the 40th president of the United States. He had two successful terms, governing as an American populist and American conservative, seeing the two philosophies not as competitive, but complimentary.
Craig Shirley is the author of several books about Ronald Reagan, including “Reagan’s Revolution, the Untold Story of the Campaign that Started it All,” the definitive account of the 1976 campaign.