What hasn’t been said or written about the great man, Ronald Wilson Reagan? Biographies, documentaries, columns – the nation’s 40th president has become an iconic figure, no small feat in an era of ideological midgets. If most everyone else is status quo and mediocre, how does one separate from the pack?
Through simple conviction and consistency.
When Reagan transitioned from Democrat to Republican, he set a course no one could have envisioned. His detractors love to play up the “Bonzo” angle or criticize him for doodling during cabinet meetings. It’s important to remember, however, that his critics have lampooned him from the safe confines of the United States, a nation he brought back from the brink of Jimmy Carter’s malaise (I would like to see, just once, a powerful intellect like Sean Penn roast Fidel Castro in print, from a hotel room in Havana).
So it is that Craig Shirley has written a masterful look at a seminal moment for Reagan and the country he loved so much. “Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America,” comes on the heels of Shirley’s brilliant look at the 1976 campaign, “Reagan’s Revolution.”
I would be remiss if I did not mention the contribution of Shirley’s research assistant, Borko Komnenovic; readers can always discern when an author like Shirley parks his ego at the door and shares credit with those who assisted.
“Rendezvous” is one of those beach-vacation reads; it is absolutely superb.
The author provides intriguing detail into Reagan’s 1980 run against incumbent Jimmy Carter. Media figures in those days were no different than today, except perhaps their egos were larger. They were reporting a race “too close to call” until Reagan vaporized the vapid Carter.
In fact, election night proved that the media were wrong yet again: The Gipper had run against Wrong Way Roy Riegels, and had emerged as a political force not seen in decades.
With a book this size, lovers of history will know beforehand that rich detail is provided, and that is but one outstanding feature of “Rendezvous.”
When Reagan lost the Iowa primary to George H.W. Bush, the media jackals came out in full force. Reagan’s campaign manager, John Sears, had “muzzled” Reagan early on. Political observers were watching with delight to see if the Old Man would step aside.
That’s when the Gipper had a testy exchange with Sears and changed the course of the campaign.
As Sears explained to his boss that he couldn’t come out forcefully with an antiabortion message, Reagan shot back: “Damn it … I am running for president of the United States! You’re not! Got it?”
Yes, he did, and the campaign turned around after that, so that by the time the inherently nasty Carter faced off against him in the fall, Reagan was looking pretty good to the American people.
The down-and-dirty world of vice-presidential choices is always the favorite world of the political knuckle-breakers, and longtime observers of politics are treated to some good stuff in “Rendezvous.”
Shirley explores the selection process going on under Reagan in the lead-up to November. In 1980, there were significant conservative voices who were damning Sen. Howard Baker, including Richard Viguerie and Human Events. Many were openly lobbying for Jack Kemp.
It seemed illogical to many that Mr. Voodoo Economics himself, George Bush, would be in the running. Yet that’s exactly what happened. Shirley’s treatment of this section of the book is fascinating and illuminating.
For those readers still smarting over the America that the hapless Carter had crafted in just four short years, there is a delicious treatment of the incumbent’s frantic last days of campaigning that fateful fall.
In fact, after the last debate – as Shirley points out in riveting detail – in which liberal newspapers came out for Carter, it was apparent who the real winner was going to be. And it wasn’t going to be the elitist from Plains and his sycophantic hirelings.
Shirley recounts that as the debate hall emptied that night, Carter handlers Jody Powell and Hamilton Jordan were back-slapping each other. ABC’s Sam Donaldson saw this hollow display of enthusiasm and shouted at them, “Your man blew it!”
Indeed, Carter next flew to Pittsburgh, and one newspaper described the exercise as the beginning of a “six-day political death march.”
All in all, Craig Shirley has put together a treasure of historical importance into the campaign that rescued America from the brink. His inclusion of Reagan’s ideology, the strategies, the players and, finally, the victory make for an incredible look at a watershed moment in American history.