As the Republican Party hurtles toward a possible Animal House-like climax at their confab in Tampa Bay in late August, the national discussion has turned to controversial GOP conventions of the past, most missing the meaning of each and how these ideological food fights sometimes changed the face and future of the party.
Politics goes with double-dealing “like peas and carrots,” in the immortal words of Forrest Gump. Conservatives in the Republican Party know this all too well, especially in the conventions of 1952 and 1976. The 1952 convention featured a mighty struggle between the forces supporting “Mr. Republican,” Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio and the hero of World War II, Dwight David Eisenhower.
Brown University historian James T. Patterson said years ago that the 1952 GOP gathering in Chicago “was really the last national convention that opened with much drama or uncertainty about the outcome,” but Mr. Patterson was mistaken. The 1976 edition of the Republican National Convention began arguably with even more doubt and more controversy.
At this last “brokered” GOP confab in Kansas City in 1976, two men battled down to the wire for the nomination - incumbent but unelected Gerald Ford and his challenger, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan. It was the cliffhanger of all cliffhangers. The nomination was as up for grabs as at any time in a quarter of a century.
Delegate counts were all over the place, aggravated by the fact that both camps floated phony numbers in a game of psychological warfare and dozens of delegates kept telling the media and the warring camps different preferences.
Phrases such as “high noon” for Gary Cooper fans and “political danse macabre” for the literate littered the excellent reportage of the era. Both camps and most columnists predicted - if the other candidate prevailed - the death of the GOP. At the time, former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, the improbable nominee of the Democratic Party, was wiping the floor with both Reagan and Ford in summer polls.
Karl Rove recently pointed out the likelihood of a brokered convention for the GOP is low given the fact there are no longer political bosses who control blocks of delegates, and he is right. This was also the case in 1976, in the wake of Watergate and “reforms” instituted by the newly configured Federal Election Commission.
Only in Philadelphia, Indiana and Mississippi did any semblance of political machines remain, ominous for Reagan. Delegates in 1976 became independent of political forces in their respective states and the same remains today. The New York GOP was, of course, one of a kind. Nelson Rockefeller controlled the Empire State’s Republicans so strongly that to say it was an iron fist would not do justice to iron fists.
Names familiar now were then lined up behind their favorite candidate: Jim Baker, Dick Cheney, David Gergen, Don Rumsfeld, Mr. Rove and others were marshaled for Ford. Jesse Helms, Jeff Bell, Frank Donatelli, Charlie Black, Phyllis Schlafly, Mark Levin, Haley Barbour, Peter Hannaford, Richard Viguerie and others mobilized for Reagan.
As the delegates gathered in the Kemper Arena on the Missouri River in the middle of scorching August heat, no one knew what the outcome would be.
Would Ford lose the nomination, following Chester A. Arthur in 1884, the last incumbent to be turned away by Republicans, or was Reagan destined to become the toughest challenger since Teddy Roosevelt took on William Howard Taft in 1912, beating him in a series of primaries but still losing the nomination?
Behind the scenes, Ford’s forces, led by the estimable Mr. Baker and Mr. Cheney, maneuvered, cajoled and enticed 150 uncommitted delegates into the Ford column. They had been working over these uncommitted delegates for weeks, phoning them, meeting with them, listening to their gripes. One such delegate from Long Island came out from a private meeting in the Oval Office with Ford with the promise of a sewer contract. Others were invited to sit on the deck of an aircraft carrier in New York harbor with Ford to watch the bicentennial fireworks. Mr. Baker and Mr. Cheney left no stone unturned.
This, combined with a last minute betrayal in the Mississippi delegation - which took 30 delegates out of the Reagan column and put them in the Ford column - helped deliver the nomination to Ford, who ended up winning 1,187 votes, only 57 more than needed to be chosen by the Republicans.
The leader of the Magnolia State Republicans, Clarke Reed, had promised the Reagan forces he would deliver 30 votes to Reagan in Kansas City at the right time, but after much courting and cajoling and near-bribery of the delegates by the Ford White House, Reed and other Mississippi delegates succumbed to the pressure. With that, Reagan’s challenge was finished.
Reagan also lost because of mistakes by his own campaign, such as not filing enough delegate slates in the critical Ohio primary and not more aggressively contesting the primaries in New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Better decision-making by Reagan’s team - led then by John Sears - might have delivered the nomination to the Gipper. In hindsight, they should have insisted on a primary in Mississippi rather than a state convention, which would have guaranteed the 30 delegates for Reagan.
Because of the rules of the era, had Team Reagan denied Ford the nomination on the first ballot, the Californian might have well won it on a second ballot. Reagan had hidden delegate strength in the North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia and other state delegations. Because of the rules, however, delegates in each states were required to vote for Ford on the first round, rather than vote their hearts, which were with Reagan. This is what kept Mr. Baker awake at night - the thought of missing on the first ballot and going to subsequent votes.
Meanwhile, Reagan’s campaign was pushing hard with the pre-convention selection of Sen. Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania as Reagan’s running mate. The Reagan camp was also pushing for addresses by both Ford and Reagan before the voting began and this, too, terrified the Ford men.
They knew that the “true believers” in the arena outnumbered the “squishes” and the vision of Reagan giving a rip-roaring stemwinder and sending the convention careening into his corner was also something they wanted to prevent.
Ironically, in the millions of votes cast in the contested primaries of 1976, Reagan had defeated Ford 50.7 percent to 49.3 percent. At the GOP convention, where power politics trumped conservative principles, Ford won by the narrowest of margins, and then went on to lose in the general election by the narrowest of margins. Ford staged one of the greatest near-comebacks in American history.
The Republican Party’s nomination in 1976 did not ultimately turn on any great ideas or issues. Reagan already had the conservatives and Ford had the moderates. Instead, the outcome was determined by the seating of uncommitted delegates at White House state dinners, private meetings in the Oval Office and other goodies and accoutrements of high office, which Ford gave away to get the prize he so desperately wanted and fought for.
In the end, though, each man got what he most wanted at the time: Carter, the nomination and the presidency, Ford, the nomination and a chance to fight for the office in his own right, and Reagan, a cause and ultimately, a party and country to lead.
Craig Shirley has written two books about Ronald Reagan and is author of the new best-seller “December 1941” (Thomas Nelson, 2011). He is writing a political biography of Newt Gingrich and is president of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs.
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