“For conservatives, it was their Camelot.” Those words appear as the epigraph to Craig Shirley’s new book, Reagan Rising: The Decisive Years, 1976-1980. This is the fourth book of Reagan biography from Shirley, a longtime conservative political operative and p.r. maven who has reinvented himself, in the last decade, as a popular but also scholarly author.
In his new volume, Shirley chronicles the years 1976 to 1980, when Reagan, having lost his bid to grab the Republican presidential nomination away from Gerald Ford, was pondering his next political move—if there was to be one.
Without a doubt, Reagan had already done much and could have rested on his laurels, if he had wanted to. After a solid career, stretching over a quarter-century, in movies and television, he had been elected governor of California in 1966, and re-elected four years later. So by any reckoning, Reagan had lived a good life. And thus in August 1976, after narrowly losing the GOP nomination, Reagan, at age 65, had every right to think about a tranquil retirement.
Yet as one top aide, Mike Deaver, recalled to Shirley, that wasn’t the real Reagan. The Gipper, Deaver said with admiration, was “the most competitive son of a bitch who ever lived.”
Thus it was that in Kansas City, on his way home to California, Reagan told a crowd, “We lost, but the cause—the cause goes on.” And then he added some lines from an old Scottish ballad, “I’ll lay me down and bleed awhile; although I am wounded, I am not slain. I shall rise and fight again.” Perhaps one can conclude that even if Reagan’s head hadn’t yet fully committed to another run for the White House at that moment, his heart already had.
It’s those next four years that are the subject of Reagan Rising; Shirley had covered the 1980 Reagan campaign in an earlier work, Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America. And as in all his books, Shirley proves himself, yet again, to be a master of both the telling detail and the bigger picture.
Indeed, along the way, we learn much about America in the late 70s—lessons that echo even to this day, as Americans once again see populist insurgency pitted against establishment power.
For instance, while it’s well known that Reagan and Ford were not fond of each other, the depth and duration of their rivalry has been misted over by time. So for the sake of the historical record, it’s nice to have Shirley recalling this exchange from back then. Ford: “Reagan and I both played football. I played for Michigan and he played for Warner Brothers.” Reagan: “Well, at least when I played football, I played with my helmet on.”
Indeed, that rivalry persisted well past 1976, when Ford was, of course, unseated by Jimmy Carter. In the popular memory, Ford accepted his defeat and went off to Palm Springs to play golf—although, in fact, the 38th president was serious, at least for a time, about running again in 1980. He was, after all, two years younger than Reagan; as they say, the only cure for “Potomac Fever” is formaldehyde.
In the meantime, the two men—the ex-president and the wannabe president—jockeyed for position within the Republican Party. It was not until December 1978 that Reagan surpassed Ford in GOP presidential polls. Thus did Ford’s star finally fade; he was soon eclipsed by younger figures in the Party, such as John Connally and George H.W. Bush. Meanwhile, Reagan’s star shone brightest of all, even if many regarded him, wrongly, as “too old.”
At the same time, the Republican Party itself was changing. Most consequentially, the late 70s were the era when “supply-side economics” came into vogue, thanks to the tireless efforts of an activist intellectual, Arthur Laffer, and a tireless political promoter, Rep. Jack Kemp.
And perhaps just as important politically, the late 70s also saw the rise of the “Religious Right,” then spearheaded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Many religious Americans, the bulk of them Southern Baptists, had been energized by the “born again” campaign of candidate Carter. And yet those folks were soon disillusioned by President Carter, and so they swelled the ranks instead of Reagan Republicanism. (In 2016, Jerry Falwell, Jr., proved to be a kingmaker for another Republican presidential hopeful, Donald Trump.)
During those same years, a key political figure was Bill Brock, chairman of the Republican National Committee. While hardly a Reagan enthusiast, Brock nevertheless made room for the new conservative forces, even as he sought to modernize the Party apparatus through such new tactics as computerized direct mail.
Notably also, Brock brought in a talented young operative, Charlie Black. A tall, droll, North Carolinian, Black had cut his political teeth on Sen. Jesse Helms’ campaigns, and would later go on to prominence in Reagan’s campaigns, as well as other subsequent presidential campaigns—and ready, as always, with a pithy quote.
Indeed, other important names from that era fill up Shirley’s pages, including Jeff Bell, Terry Dolan, Frank Donatelli, Peter Hannaford, David Keene, Lyn Nofziger, Karl Rove, John Sears, Roger Stone, and Pete Teeley. Shirley wreaths each of these figures with useful context, even if he sometimes indulges, too, in some personal score-settling.
Some might ask: Why should the reader care about the ins and outs, and ups and downs, of Republican politicos from four decades ago? And the answer, of course, is that they are all interesting, because they all had some role to play—pro or con—in the rise of Reagan.
And that rise, as Shirley makes clear, was no sure thing: At a dozen points along the way, Reagan’s candidacy could have been waylaid; it certainly helped Reagan that he had such a steely wife, who doubled as his top political adviser.
Indeed, it is from exactly this sort of granular history that we learn about one man’s path to the presidency. So the merely curious will find their curiosity satisfied, while the intensely ambitious will find lessons that might guide them in the future.
So now here we can pause to note that this book is actually two books in one. Yes, there’s all that GOP history, replete with quotes, dates, and even, on occasion, dollar figures for rents and salaries. And yet within the same trim 329 pages, the reader also gets a bonus book: a terse yet merciless history of the Carter administration.
And here, too, the events of the late 70s have a way of echoing, loudly, today in the 10s. Back then, it was the Democrats who were in charge—controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress—but having difficulty with governance. Today, it’s the Republicans in charge, and yet they, too, are having difficulty. So maybe attention should be paid, comparing then to now:
Back in 1976, Carter had campaigned as an outsider who would shake things up in Washington, D.C.—maybe even drain the swamp. Yes, Carter had served a single term as governor of Georgia, and before that, he had been in the state legislature for four years, and yet for the most part, in ’76, he pitched himself as “Citizen Jimmy”—a plain-spoken, yet hard-nosed businessman, determined to bring such private-sector reforms as “zero-based budgeting” to the wastrels in D.C.
Indeed, Carter routinely inveighed against the “bloated” federal bureaucracy and promised, if elected, to reorganize it and make it more efficient. One of his reliable cheer-lines that year: “We should have a government as good as its people.”
That was, indeed, a powerful message forty years ago. Back then, Americans were embittered not only about Watergate, Vietnam, and inflation, but also about the government in general. By contrast, the incumbent, Jerry Ford, who had held federal office continuously since 1948, seemed oblivious, if not downright clueless, about popular discontent. During the election campaign, Shirley records, his administration pledged that “there would be no revolutionary changes, no wrenching of government.” In other words, in the 1976 election, Carter had the populist “change” vote to himself.
Yes, it’s true: Once upon a time, the Republicans were, in fact, the party of stand-pat complacency. To be sure, Reagan ran as a “change agent,” and so did Trump. But the transition in GOP thinking, from passivity to activism, was a long time coming.
Still, with Shirley as our guide, we might pause over the Carter presidency, to see how, in the wrong hands, the idea of “change” can become a bad trip to a dead end.
One price of Carter’s lofty campaign rhetoric was that expectations for his presidency were similarly lofty. Moreover at the same time, his outsider stance had antagonized the barons of Washington, most of them fellow Democrats.
Furthermore, Carter’s White House team was little help to him; they were mostly naive aides and friends he had brought with him from Georgia, plus a few D.C. lifers who were more loyal to their Beltway godfathers than to Carter. (Thus we see a trap into which outsiders-turned-president can fall: staffers loyal to the chief might not know the ropes, while those who do know the ropes might not be loyal—it’s not easy to be president.)
During that era, back in the 70s, Pat Caddell, Carter’s irascible but ingenious pollster and strategist, had his own big vision: moving the Democrats away from rote liberalism, thereby stealing away Republican issues—and voters. Yes, even then, Caddell was dreaming of a populist rebellion against ossified politics.
As Caddell wrote to Carter in early 1977, “We have the opportunity to co-opt many of their issue positions and take away large chunks of their presidential coalition by the right actions in government.” Yet at the same time, Caddell urged caution, lest Carter’s centrism “cause rumblings from the left of the Democratic Party.”
As a matter of policy, Carter seemed to understand the value of this centrist strategy, which was keeping with his own personal beliefs—even if his beliefs also included a rather cold economic moralism, of the sort that we had last seen in a long-ago Republican president, Herbert Hoover.
In any case, as a matter of politics, Carter lacked the skills to implement any sort of strategy. As Shirley puts it, “Shortly into his administration . . . he would begin to walk into the buzz saw of entrenched interests in Washington.”
For his part, Shirley makes it plain that he himself is on the side of the would-be swamp-drainers. No, this book is not at all kind to D.C. culture; it is full of references to “jaded courtiers” snaking their way through a “corrupt Rome”—or an equally corrupt Georgetown. As the author observes, the key to gaining the status of D.C. Insider was “to be, above all else, a cynic about everything and everybody who was not part of the club, and cynical about fellow members, provided their backs were turned.”
Thus it’s not surprising that Carter’s loudly professed piety played poorly in Powertown. As Carter’s vice president, Walter Mondale, himself a consummate D.C. insider, told Shirley—in one of the many personal interviews that enhance the book—Carter “knew of the Democratic Party and all its groups . . . [and] considered a lot of it to be an albatross around his neck.”
For their part, old-school Democrats regarded Carter & Co. with equal, and increasing, disdain. As then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill wrote in his memoir, the Carterites “didn’t know much about Washington, but that didn’t prevent them from being arrogant . . . Congressional Democrats often had the feeling that the White House was actually working against us.”
In the oft-cited formulation of Yale political scientist Stephen Skowronek, the Carter presidency was suffering from “disjunction.” That is, a crack-up, pitting new vs. old, outsider vs. insider. Yes, Carter was president, but for many Democrats, Sen. Teddy Kennedy was the torchbearer for the true faith. (So now, today, we can all ask ourselves: Are their parallels to today? We must stipulate that Carter and Trump are utterly dissimilar personalities, and their respective parties, too, are different. And yet even so, could it be the case that today’s GOP also shows ominous social and ideological fault lines?)
In 1980, the Democratic disjunction did, indeed, turn into a disaster: Not only did the Democrats, led by a politically wounded Carter, lose the White House in a landslide, but they also lost control of the Senate, and nearly three-dozen seats in the House.
The big victor that year, of course, was Shirley’s hero, Ronald Reagan. In 1980, while Carter was preaching grim jeremiads of doom and gloom, Reagan was “talk[ing] about lifting the American economy, lifting up the American people.” That’s always the winning message, although, as we know, Reagan was himself a superb messenger. And as Shirley has detailed, he was backed up a strong political team, alert to the power of the strong ideological currents of the era.
Is there more to be said about Reagan, especially his two-term presidency? Sure there is. And let’s hope that Shirley tells it.