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.
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).