Sunday, December 18, 2005


By Andrew E. Busch

University of Kansas, $35, cloth, 200 pages, illus.


A new book by Andrew E. Busch, “The Presidential Election of 1980 and the Rise of the Right” is definitely the best of its kind in what is becoming a crowded field. Mr. Busch (note the spelling difference with that of the presidential family) is excellent in dealing with political history, and at providing political journalism at its best.

It seems likely that no one will come away from this sturdy mix of the past, present and future without exclaiming at least once “Gee, I’d forgotten that” or “Now I remember who that guy was running against him in the primaries.” Mr. Busch really has come up with a landmark in the American political process. To do so, he drew in all the elements of that sour, bubbling, confused, but ultimately iconic affair.

The book begins with brief comments on Wilson’s 1912 victory; FDR’s big win in 1932; and Lyndon Johnson’s landslide in 1964. All three were Democrats, and all were intense liberals. None of them could have foreseen that a man such as Ronald Reagan would emerge successfully from a vigorous campaign, strongly committed to reducing the size of government and reducing taxes, easing federal regulations, all accompanied with steep increases in defense spending and a more positive posture against the nation’s Cold War rival, the Soviet Union.

In short, each of these earlier presidents would have figured that victory by a real Ronald Reagan would have been totally implausible. But in this book by Andrew E. Busch, all is plausible. Reagan runs against President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, and wins. For many Americans, what Reagan did was inherit a disaster, turning it into a revival.

All told, it was a victory that many commentators likened to an electoral revolution. Reagan never hesitated to come face to face with the nation’s problems, whether they be recessions of the 1960s and ‘70s, or 11-percent inflation when the nation was still paying the prices of the Great Society and the Vietnam War.

As people listened carefully to this newcomer with his deep commitment to America, they developed confidence in him. In the primaries he warded off the candidacies of other Republicans — John Anderson of Illinois, John Connally, Howard Baker, George Bush and the lesser ones. Only Anderson remained in the race, draining votes from both Mr. Carter and Reagan.

On the Democratic side, Mr. Carter was renominated but only because he kept Sen. Kennedy out of certain states, and there was no way he could keep Reagan out of those same states. Said Mr. Carter of Mr. Kennedy, “If he runs, I’ll whip his ass.” Said Mr. Kennedy of Mr. Carter, “He just doesn’t know how to do it.”

The campaign triggered Americans everywhere into talking about Mr. Carter’s “weakening performances, including doing nothing to achieve the release of American diplomatic hostages held in Iran.” Mr. Carter was diminishing defense spending at the same time the Soviets were building an estimated 13,500 tanks, 6,300 aircraft, 900 ballistic missiles and 1200 intercontinental missiles.

The greatest display of Jimmy Carter’s weakness came when he retreated to Camp David for 12 days and there wrote an incredible, almost embarrassing, speech that practically accused (and insulted) the American people individually of losing their faith in America. Mr. Carter assumed no blame for the nation’s problems. Four years earlier he had defeated Gerald Ford by a greater margin than Roosevelt had defeated Hoover. Now Mr. Carter was in Hoover’s seat.

In a speech in Chicago, Mr. Carter charged openly that Reagan would divide “black from white, “Jews from Christians, North from South, rural from urban. He tarred Reagan, “A nincompoop, a racist, a bigot and a warmonger.” It was perhaps the most shameless attack of one candidate against another in American history.

Even Mr. Carter’s own supporters criticized him for his self-serving demagoguery. Ronald Reagan simply replied that Mr. Carter was reaching the point of hysteria and that he owed the nation an apology.

Mr. Carter had no response except that he would “try” to stop the name-calling. He then demanded a debate with Reagan, to which Reagan replied, “Well, if I want to fill his shoes, I ought to be willing to stand up beside him and debate him.” The debate reduced Mr. Carter’s campaign to ashes. The future was being written by the phenomenon of new church schools, by Catholics and union workers who shifted to Ronald Reagan and by people at every level who knew the rise of the right was giving new energy and new ideas through those who composed its efforts.

Reagan came out of the 1980 election wearing almost the longest political coattails in American history. Liberals like Frank Church, George McGovern, Birch Bayh and others were sent home, and Republicans gained control of the Senate for the first time in 26 years. In the House they won 33 new seats and control.

On the day after the election, the nation awakened to the promise of a totally new government, and for the first time in many years the nation was rich with new confidence. “The Presidential Election of 1980” is an exciting new review of America’s march into the new age of Ronald Reagan.

Ambassador Robert M. Smalley (Ret.) was appointed by President Ronald Reagan.

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