SHIRLEY: Another history-making GOP convention
John F. Kennedy often used the phrase “grace under pressure,” and if anyone ever embodied that term, it was Reagan the night of Aug. 19, 1976. Before a packed Kemper Arena and millions of Americans watching on ABC, NBC and CBS or listening on the radio, Reagan delivered one of his finest addresses and certainly his greatest extemporaneous speech.
His remarks were short, but they were not those of a defeated man. Reagan spoke of the future, of freedom, of communist tyranny, of hope, and of war and peace. He talked about the platform, that it was “a banner of bold unmistakable colors with no pastel shades.”
He knew about politics and coalitions, as he directed his comments not just to the Republicans in the hall, but also to “all those millions of Democrats and independents who I know are looking for a cause around which to rally.”
He effectively used an anecdote about writing a letter for a time capsule, to make his points to a still, hushed audience. “Let your own minds turn to that task. You’re going to write for people a hundred years from now who know all about us.
“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 freedom 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 and a hundred years later free, who kept our world from nuclear destruction? And if we fail, 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.”
Thousands wept at Reagan’s moving and all-too-human remarks.
He closed by quoting Douglas Mac-Arthur, a personal hero. Harry Truman was Ford’s personal hero. Truman and MacArthur hated each other, which speaks volumes to those who have studied Reagan and Ford’s own contretemps.
Mike Deaver was there in Kemper Arena with Reagan. As they marched through the catacombs to the stage, Reagan asked Deaver, “What should I say, Mike?” His close aide replied, “Governor, you’ll think of something.”
Absent this speech and Ford’s eventual loss, it is questionable whether Reagan would have run in 1980. The response to Reagan in Kemper Arena was astonishing, as everywhere he went afterward, policemen, cleaning women, bell hops, stewardesses and farmers all said, “Governor, you’ve just got to run again.”
Reagan’s counsel was more often guided by his fellow countrymen than many of the political consultants around him.
History took a radically course with his election in 1980, all because of Reagan’s remarkable impromptu remarks in Kansas City in August 1976.
Craig Shirley is president of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs and author of “Rendezvous With Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America” (ISI Books, 2009).