When Ronald Reagan Stood for Change

Posted November 16, 2009 at 3:48pm

If you read enough political history and biographies, you’ll realize that while the cast of characters may change, the themes rarely do. Sure, every era has its own defining crises, but the underlying messages are fairly consistent. The promise of change, the professed belief in the American spirit, the promise to improve the life of the common man.

A new book about Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign for the presidency reveals how little has fundamentally evolved between then and the 2008 presidential race. People were galvanized by then-Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) rallying cries for change, but when you realize that the same message was being touted by Reagan (albeit in somewhat different wording) more than 20 years ago, it’s hard to avoid the fact that the message is more than a little tired.

That isn’t the point of “Rendezvous With Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America,— author Craig Shirley’s account of the campaign that began the Reagan era. It’s simply hard to ignore when Shirley references Detroit as “an economic basket case— in the summer of 1980 or describes Reagan and George H.W. Bush, his running mate, as a “team of rivals.— Consider how frequently the economic devastation of Detroit has been mentioned during the past year and the speculation about Obama forming his own team of rivals. Not only is there a fundamental problem with the economic system, but it would also seem that there is a desperate need for a new catchphrase.

Like so many others who look back to the Reagan era as the golden years of the GOP, Shirley blames the turmoil of today’s Republican Party on a disconnect from Reaganism. It’s an interesting argument, considering that Reagan’s policies that increased federal spending to beyond that of the Jimmy Carter years stand in stark opposition to the limited government and fiscal conservatism Republicans claim to advocate. Nonetheless, the conclusion is not surprising since the party, adrift and seemingly without direction, has been continually looking to the Gipper’s playbook for some kind of guidance about where it should go next.

Shirley’s book is well-researched and well-written, and it gives insight into Reagan’s journey to the Oval Office. The opening lines of the prologue are sure to bring tears to many a conservative’s eye, as Shirley sets the scene at the 1980 GOP convention in Detroit as Reagan accepts the party’s nomination for president.

Shirley also presents a thorough account of the campaign, using documents and letters that are still being declassified and processed for the Reagan presidential library. He said he was granted exclusive access to the materials because Nancy Reagan and others working with the library were pleased with the work he did on a previous book about Reagan. That book, “Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All,— laid the groundwork for the research he has done since. The access he had to otherwise unavailable documents has allowed him to present as broad a picture of the campaign as possible, including the disheartened attitude of Reagan supporters following his defeat for the GOP nomination in 1976 and the hurdles he cleared to secure the position four years later.

Shirley said he believed the story of the 1980 campaign needed to be told because of its significance to American history.

“There have been four truly, truly important elections: 1800, 1860, 1932 and 1980,— Shirley said. “There were no deep studies of the 1980 campaign. There was never one written from the perspective of the winner.—

Shirley lamented the current state of politics, which he described in an interview as “sanitized— by the use of focus groups and excessive polling.

He is unapologetic about the fact that he is clearly on Reagan’s side throughout the book. “It is favorable to Reagan, but it’s only because the facts are favorable to Reagan,— he said in an interview.

That is, of course, true in the sense that Reagan won the election and became president. Others would argue that the facts — including Reagan’s economic and foreign policies — are not so favorable to the Gipper’s legacy. But for those conservatives wondering what’s up next, this book will be a comforting read and a reminder that the party has been resurgent before.

However, a desperate and floundering GOP looking for its next great light is unlikely to find a Reagan-esque hero among its current crop of leaders, in Shirley’s opinion.

“Men like Reagan do not grow on trees,— he said.