Tuesday, June 08, 2004
Reagan in 1976
Ronald Reagan was the first man for whom I ever voted. It was in 1980 in October. I was in my second year at the University of Chicago. I remember writing in his name as an absentee voter. I'm fairly certain that it was a punch card. No one cared about hanging chads in those days, as voters were supposed to be adults. But we cared about Reagan. We in the Republican Party in general, and the Conservative movement in particular, were certain that this man would deliver us from evil.
I had supported Gerald Ford in the 1976 nomination fight. Ford was a stout guy, he was President, and he meant well. But he had no vision. That he lost to a self-righteous liberal from Georgia was an illustration of Ford's weaknesses as a candidate, especially in the aftermath of Watergate and the Nixon pardon. My support of Ford was heartfelt, but it was a mistake. Ford was never the kind of individual who would confront the Soviet Empire, then in the middle of a series of conquests in the mid-1970's. But I supported him because, even as a high-schooler, I understood that Ford was the President, he was a Republican, and we were loyal types. Reagan had other plans, however. He was loyal to a higher set of ideals and visions. I didn't see then what I so clearly see today.
So the 1976 election came and Jimmy Carter won. I remember waking up in the early Wednesday morning following a razor-close election and listening with some dismay to the radio announcer state that Jimmy Carter had been elected 39th President of the United States. It was a happy night to be a Democrat, I suppose. But what the election returns hid was the nascent strength of the Republican Party. Ford had been thirty points behind Carter. Ford couldn't campaign his way out of a paper bag. I like to say that Gerald Ford, although a good man, couldn't get elected towel boy in a whorehouse. Yet this weak candidate took the entire West and some Midwestern and Northeastern states. Carter would be the last Democrat to sweep the Old Confederacy. All the Conservative movement needed was a man with a vision and a cause.
The four years of the Carter Administration were awful to behold. Inflation reached double digits, unemployment approached ten percent, gas prices went through the roof in aftermath of the fall of the Shah, interest rates went up to above 10 percent. Internationally, the Soviets consolidated their gains in Africa and Southeast Asia. They acquired a client regime in Nicaragua, bordering on Panama and the Canal. When the regime of Babrak Karmal was in trouble in Afghanistan, that country was invaded by a Guards Airborne division and several Mechanized Rifle divisions. The Soviet advance was complemented by the arrival of Islamic Fascism as a force in the greater Middle East when the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized power in Iran.
I knew that the old order was passing during the late summer of 1980. Two of my friends from high school, Eric and Jessica, and I went to Holiday Park in Fort Lauderdale to see a stump speech by then-Governor Reagan. It's the only time I've ever seen the Gipper in my life. He was introduced by Bill Glynn, a local political boss who had made good in Broward politics and had some connections in the Florida Republican Party. Then Reagan took the stage and electrified the crowd with his simple prose and his direct, endearing manner. He won the crowd with the following old saw:
"A Recession is when the fellow next door loses his job.
A Depression is when you lose your job.
A Recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his!"
The crowd erupted. Reagan was still a couple of points behind President Carter, but I could see the handwriting on the wall. And so he won in a landslide.
Ronald Reagan came to power in this atmosphere. Official Washington was demoralized. The liberal elites in government and the media had lost their nerve and their will to resist the Sixties Stalinism of the Brezhnev junta. Reagan understood that the Soviet Empire was built on a mountain of lies, however, and he began a march to reverse the tide of history. Prior to his ascent, American conservatism had been a pessimistic doctrine. For example, Whittaker Chambers left the Communist Party in 1937 when he became convinced of the evil of that cause. He wrote in his autobiographical study of the Hiss-Chambers spy case, Witness, that he (Chambers) was leaving the winning side for the losing side. Reagan would have none of that. Reagan understood that the American people were optimists and needed a President like Roosevelt, who would assure them that they had not lost their magic as a people.
It would be a near run thing, but there was a harbinger of his coming. In the late 1970's, Great Britain was beset by Industrial Actions, self-interested union bosses, and a Labour Party that had run out of ideas with the passing of Harold Wilson. Britain was so beset by destructive tendencies that many commentators remarked that Britain was headed to Third World status. However, a grocer's daughter who had spent her first years in Parliament standing for Finchley on the back benches seized the reins of the Tory Party and drove Labour from power in 1979. Her name was Margaret Thatcher. She was the "John the Baptist" of the Reagan Revolution, not Barry Goldwater. When she took power in the UK, the entire West found a new hope. Pravda, commenting on the Tory Party's anti-Soviet campaign manifesto, derided her as the "Iron Lady", recalling the instrument of torture used in Medieval times.
The moniker stuck. And I suspect that a former governor in California, then planning his 1980 campaign, greeted the nickname with some amusement. The Soviets were afraid, and Ronald Reagan could sense that fear. The West was about to rise and take its stand.