- The Washington Times - Friday, January 21, 2005

Craig Shirley learned two things when writing his book about Ronald Reagan’s unsuccessful 1976 campaign to take the Republican nomination away from Gerald Ford: Mr. Reagan’s explosive temper in private, and the depth of his self-confidence — his “utter belief in his abilities.”

Unfailingly genial and affable in public, Mr. Reagan had a rarely seen temper that could explode like a volcano. Mr. Shirley describes a conference telephone call in which Mr. Reagan gave Bill Brock, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, “unshirted hell” for refusing to release funds the California governor had raised for the national committee and wanted to use for a Panama Canal “truth squad.”

The temper could get physical, Mr. Shirley writes in “Reagan’s Revolution,” a detailed history of that important campaign. When an aide handed him the script of a Ford television commercial that characterized him as a warmonger, aides “saw the anger rise in his face. Reagan slammed his fist against the bulkhead of the plane and yelled, ‘That damned Stu Spencer!’” — a reference to Mr. Ford’s chief campaign strategist. “Reagan cut his hand from hitting it so hard.”

That 1976 campaign, in which Mr. Reagan came within a handful of delegates of denying the nomination to the party’s unelected incumbent, set in motion a historic shift in Republican politics.

“I’ve always thought the ‘76 campaign was fascinating but had never been really covered in book length, and in my view it is his most important campaign,” Mr. Shirley, a Washington public-relations man, said in an interview with The Washington Times.

“If he doesn’t run in 1976, then he doesn’t run in 1980 and there would be no Republican revolution, no fall of the Berlin Wall and no realignment of the two parties the way they are today.”

Most younger Americans, said Mr. Shirley, who was a college junior in 1976, cannot remember the moribund state of the Republican Party after the Watergate scandal and the resignation of President Nixon. Nearly everyone agreed the party was dying.

“The Republican Party stood for nothing and antagonized everybody,” he said. “Even after Nixon resigned, for two years of Gerald Ford’s presidency Republican identification continued to go down from 26 percent to 18 percent. Ford continued the pursuit of Nixon’s liberal policies, picking Nelson Rockefeller as vice president, appointing liberals to the Cabinet, proposing tax increases and, with Henry Kissinger, pushing detente with the Soviet Union.”

Mr. Reagan’s autobiography, “An American Life,” dismisses the 1976 campaign in a couple of pages, and “Revolution,” an account of Mr. Reagan’s rise to power by Martin Anderson, his chief domestic adviser, devotes little more attention than that. “It’s a period of political history that has not been written about much. This is the missing chapter in Reagan’s life.”

Mr. Shirley’s 417-page treatment deals with the campaign in minute detail — from the New Hampshire primary, where Mr. Reagan came within 1,317 votes of upsetting a sitting president, to the pivotal North Carolina primary, where after five straight primary losses his candidacy took off, with an emphasis on retaining sovereignty over the Panama Canal, standing up to the Soviet Union and curbing the size and growth of government.

“I never had as full an appreciation of Reagan’s convictions and utter belief in his abilities until I got into writing this book,” Mr. Shirley said. “And that really comes out in North Carolina. He had lost five primaries in a row and had the stuffing kicked out of him. Every day, someone was calling for him to get out of the race — and that never worked with Reagan. You didn’t tell Reagan what to do. All that did was stiffen his spine and make him more resolute.”

Even Nancy Reagan, concerned about her husband’s health, tried to persuade his press secretary and confidante, Lyn Nofziger, to talk him into quitting. Mr. Nofziger tells how Mr. Reagan walked into the room and “overheard part of the conversation, and assumed that it was Nofziger telling Mrs. Reagan that he should get out, instead of the other way around.

“Reagan yelled, ‘Lynwood, I’m not going to quit! I’m going to stay in this until the end.’ Reagan was angry, but he could also feel something out there that we couldn’t. Finally, it seemed to him that his message was getting through.”

After his victory in North Carolina — with the help of Sen. Jesse Helms and political strategist Tom Ellis — Mr. Reagan began winning primaries in a see-saw battle that went all the way to Kansas City, Mo., where Mr. Ford won the nomination with a 117-delegate margin.

But the times and the nation’s politics were changing. Mr. Reagan had won a legion of followers, setting the stage for his comeback campaign against President Jimmy Carter in 1980.

“After 1976, everybody was campaigning as a child of Ronald Reagan, running on tax cuts, cutting government spending. That was the key to his legacy, to turn the Republican Party into a more conservative party. By 1978, everybody was running against abortion, [in favor of] building the B-1 bomber, keeping the Panama Canal, prayer in the schools,” Mr. Shirley recalled.

“It is difficult to find a conservative Democrat today, but they were plentiful in 1975. It is difficult to find a liberal Republican today, but they were plentiful in 1975.”

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