A New Reagan Emerges: Hot Tempered, Headstrong; the '76 Campaign Was Epochal for GOP

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 22, 2005 | Go to article overview

A New Reagan Emerges: Hot Tempered, Headstrong; the '76 Campaign Was Epochal for GOP


Byline: Donald Lambro, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …

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