Things were going bumpily according to plan for the men in charge of the President Ford Committee at the Republican National Convention in Kansas City, Mo., in August 1976. With so many moving parts, however, most campaigns are at best “garbage moving in the right direction,” as GOP operative Eddie Mahe once quipped.
The Ford campaign was no exception.
The battered GOP gathered in a glass, steel and concrete edifice called Kemper Arena amid heat, humidity, tension, polyester, cigarette smoke, bouffant hairdos and visceral contempt between supporters of Gerald R. Ford and Ronald Reagan. No attempt was made by either camp to conceal the animosity, and much was seen on live network broadcasts.
That convention was as real as it could get, with clashes over platform planks, seating credentials, polygraph tests and hotel arrangements. You name it, the Reagan and Ford legions fought over it.
It was the first time the Republicans had met in the “cow town” since 1928, when they had nominated the very popular Herbert Hoover, who had gone on to crush Democrat Al Smith in the general election. Smith had no choice but to be a “Happy Warrior.” Good humor was about all he could count on.
Through the spring of 1976, the insurgent challenge by former California Gov. Ronald Reagan had bedeviled the president’s often star-crossed campaign. It was only when Stu Spencer, Dick Cheney and Jim Baker asserted themselves that the Ford campaign slowly righted itself.
Even so, Ford won the nomination in a nail-biter by just 57 votes more than the 1,130 he needed to defeat the Gipper, whom he personally detested and didn’t mind telling people he loathed. A “test vote” on a pro-Reagan rule change — infamously known as “16-C” had been bitterly fought over (including within the Reagan camp) and had gone down to narrow defeat on Tuesday.
Shoving and shouting matches between Ford’s forces and Reagan’s renegades were not uncommon, and the vice president of the United States, Nelson Rockefeller, was involved in a melee on the floor of the convention over a torn sign and a ripped-out telephone.
It simply was the most intense, heart-stopping and historic convention in the history of the Grand Old Party. As hard as it was to believe, there was yet abundant drama to come.
In preparation for his own history, Ford had practiced his acceptance speech for hours, assisted by David Gergen, a young White House aide. On Thursday evening, Ford, by universal agreement a poor public speaker, gave the best speech of his life before the pleasantly stunned media and convention hall.
The party was still asunder. Ford could not leave Kansas City leading a broken party against the Democratic nominee, Jimmy Carter, who at that stage was 30 points ahead of Ford in the national polling. No one much liked the Republicans in 1976 after Richard Nixon, Watergate, Nixon’s pardon, Henry Kissinger, the state of the economy and the state of the world. Everything was pretty much a mess, and most people blamed it on the Republicans.
In order to pull together his bloodied party, Ford at the end of his remarks motioned to Reagan, who was high atop the hall in his skybox, to come and join him at the podium. Ford also had a hidden agenda, even as Reagan flashed a “thumbs up” while shaking his head no, that he would prefer to stay where he was.
The audience of 17,000 joined in with Ford, applauding and calling for Reagan, some chanting “We want Ron!” and others motioning with their arms. It was erroneously reported in a recent book, “The President’s Club,” by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, that Reagan favorite Lyn Nofziger was there that night, advising “Ron” not to respond to Ford’s entreaty. Nofziger had told this author that in fact, he hadn’t even gone to the arena that night, so angry was he over Reagan’s loss the evening before.
What convinced Reagan to go to the rostrum — albeit reluctantly — was not the urgent pleading of Ford, Ford’s aides or any of his own staff, but the thought of disappointing the Republican faithful. That Reagan could not abide.
Reagan arrived onstage, and Ford warmly introduced his loathed opponent (politics is indeed the art of the possible) and asked him to make a few remarks. Frankly, the Ford people were hoping Reagan would choke.