- The Washington Times - Monday, January 31, 2005


Craig Shirley, Nelson Current, $25.99, 448 pages

When Ronald Reagan arrived in Kansas City for the 1976 Republican National Convention, his face was wreathed in smiles and his hopes were transformed into high expectations. When the convention was over, however, it was Gerald Ford who was nominated to succeed himself as the Republican president. Nevertheless, the 1976 convention was the launch pad for Gov. Reagan’s campaign in 1980.

“Reagan’s Revolution,” by Craig Shirley, is a complex and detailed book, and its subject matter does not end with the radical changes brought about within the Republican Party and the two-party system within the United States. The book is a forerunner to the conservative achievements which led to Mr. Reagan’s election and to the ultimate changes in the world at large that were brought about by Mr. Reagan’s election to the presidency.

Fred Barnes, author of the foreword to “Reagan’s Revolution,” writes that with the conclusion of the 1976 convention, “at age 65, Reagan’s political career seemed to be over.” As we now know, of course, his career then had a new beginning.

The book offers an extensive cast of characters, identifying the men and women who would be at Mr. Reagan’s side from then on. It was their transformation of Mr. Reagan’s revolution from defeat into future victory that now gives the book its subtitle, “The Untold Story of the Campaign that Started it All.”

The declining status of the Republican Party in those days of the mid-1970s is carefully examined. We see the political costs of actions and inactions by Richard Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller, Gerald Ford and others. Their ultimate result was to open the future to Mr. Reagan and to shift the balance of political power from the East Coast establishment to a nationally based conservative revolution.

When the nomination was cast for Gerald Ford, Mr. Reagan was asked to say a few words and went to the podium. Mr. Barnes argues that in the time it took for Mr. Reagan to speak on that occasion, the Republican Party escaped the clutches of its modern establishment and fell into Mr. Reagan’s lap. He lost the nomination, but won the party, and ultimately the presidency and affected the course of world history.

Mr. Barnes describes what he calls “one of the most emotional and amazing moments I have ever experienced.” President Ford and his allies expected Mr. Reagan to look like a loser, a humiliated foe. He did not. Once he began speaking, Mr. Reagan spoke without notes and the audience of 15,000 people or so was rapt. Some rose to their feet. The arena was silent. It was obvious to both the Reaganites and the Ford delegates that the Ford people were locked into an incumbent president.

“Reagan’s Revolution” notes that Richard Nixon filled his cabinet with moderates and liberals, and Mr. Ford did the same. As for Mr. Nixon himself, he was unnoticed and unmentioned in Kansas City — nowhere to be seen. Republican National Chairman Mary Louise Smith thought that the party ought to broaden its base and “move to the middle.” Mr. Reagan and other conservatives took that as a sell out of their ideology. Some of the party’s criticisms were aimed at Mr. Reagan by name. The long and almost brutal pre-convention struggle between Mr. Reagan and Mr. Ford was determined by a narrow margin of just 57 votes for Mr. Ford over Mr. Reagan. Yet in the popular primary votes before the convention, Reagan conservatives had collected hundreds of thousands more votes than Mr. Ford.

In advance of the ‘76 convention, Nelson Rockefeller and his friends were anticipating “grave dangers” of a lurch to the right.

Mr. Ford thought Mr. Reagan was a phony and Mr. Reagan thought Mr. Ford was a lightweight, and neither one thought the other was fit to be president. By the end of the convention, despite defeat for Ronald Reagan, the rafters were ringing with the cheers of 15,000 people for his impromptu speech — and in Ronald Reagan’s mind at that moment his future plans were being drawn.

Many of the irritations and animosities between Mr. Reagan and Mr. Ford before the convention continued in later days. A young staff member was threatened with a cut off of funds for a youth group if he refused to remove a photograph of Reagan from his office. Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan, as fellow governors of the two most populous states, disagreed with each other ideologically, but they were actually good friends who could and did cooperate on major issues. Together, they had tried to stop Richard Nixon’s nomination; both saw him as a flawed man who had the capacity to wreck the party. “Reagan’s Revolution” captures the drama and emotion of a political battle of historic proportions.

Ambassador Robert M. Smalley was appointed by President Reagan.

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