Reagan-Ford

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Good morning, it’s Monday, Aug. 19, 2019.

Bill Clinton turns 73 today. That’s right, the “Comeback Kid” is no kid anymore. Neither is George W. Bush, also born in the summer of 1946. Nor Donald Trump, who arrived in mid-June that year.

All three of these U.S. presidents were in the first crop of the Baby Boom generation. Hillary Clinton, who turns 72 in October, was a little more than a year behind them. These four were born in New York City; New Haven, Conn.; Hope, Ark., and Chicago, Ill., and whatever hopes and dreams their families had for them as they entered the world, they will be forever linked.

History is interesting that way. Forty-three years ago today, another political quartet took the stage at the Republican National Convention in Kansas City. President Gerald R. Ford stood at the podium flanked by his vice president (Nelson Rockefeller), his vice presidential nominee, (Bob Dole), and the man who tried to wrest the GOP nomination from him (Ronald Reagan).

Graciously introducing Reagan as his “good friend,” which wasn’t a completely candid testimonial, Ford then did something remarkable: He turned the lectern over to this rival not knowing what Reagan might say.

The delegates were jazzed. They’d been engaged in hand-to-hand combat at that convention, not only for the presidential nomination and No. 2 slot, but for the very direction of the Republican Party. In the previous few days, they’d been swept up in the drama of a possible Ford-Reagan “Dream Ticket.” But that wasn’t to be, and now four members of the Greatest Generation stood before them in Kemper Arena trying to focus on the general election ahead.

“We Republicans have had some tough competition — we not only preach the virtues of competition, we practice them,” Ford said. “Let me say this from the bottom of my heart: After the scrimmages of the past few months, it really feels good to have Ron Reagan on the same side of the line.”

With that, the unelected president brought Ronald and Nancy Reagan on stage. What happened next was even more remarkable.

As he took the microphone on Aug. 19, 1976, Ronald Wilson Reagan had no written speech, no notes, no teleprompter. But the 65-year-old former play-by-play radio broadcaster, Hollywood leading man, and two-term California governor had something he wanted to impart.

He got into it by telling the mesmerized delegates and a watching nation that he’d been asked to pen a letter for a time capsule to be opened 100 years in the future on the occasion of the nation’s tricentennial. He said that he contemplated what to write while riding down the California coast in a car, gazing at the blue Pacific Ocean on one side and the rising Santa Ynez Mountains on the other. “I couldn’t help but wonder,” Reagan said, “if it was going to be that beautiful a hundred years from now as it was on that summer day.”

While contemplating the challenges mankind would face in the ensuing century, Reagan focused on the dual threats facing the human race — but it wasn’t climate change or racism, the issues that preoccupy the current crop of presidential contenders. Reagan had two other perils on his mind: tyranny and the frightful weapons of war mankind had built with mayhem in mind.

“We live in a world in which the great powers have poised and aimed at each other horrible missiles of destruction, nuclear weapons that can in a matter of minutes arrive at each other’s country and destroy, virtually, the civilized world we live in,” Reagan began.

“Suddenly it dawned on me,” he said. “Those who would read this letter a hundred years from now will know whether those missiles were fired. They will know whether we met our challenge. Whether they have the freedoms that we have known up until now will depend on what we do here.”

In a speech you can watch today, Reagan continued: “Will they look back with appreciation and say, ‘Thank God for those people in 1976 who headed off that loss of freedom, who kept us now 100 years later free, who kept our world from nuclear destruction’? If we failed, they probably won’t get to read the letter at all because it spoke of individual freedom, and they won’t be allowed to talk of that or read of it.”

Four years later, in Detroit, the Republican Party would again go through the exercise of weighing a possible Dream Ticket, this time with Reagan as the leading man. (These fascinating historical chapters are captured most thoroughly by Craig Shirley in his book about the 1976 election and its sequel about the 1980 presidential campaign.)

But when you are living through these events, you cannot know how they are going to turn out. Although Jerry Ford described Reagan as his “good friend” in 1976, those two men were mainly rivals in life. Yet over time, that description would accurately apply to the man who beat Ford in the 1976 general election and, in turn, was defeated by Reagan in 1980. Yes, Jerry Ford and Jimmy Carter would evolve into true friends, just as George W. Bush and Bill Clinton have become, in Dubya’s puckish telling, “brothers from another mother.”

In addition, Ford’s voice remained with us longer than Reagan’s, which was stilled first by the fog of Alzheimer’s and then by death in 2004. I interviewed Ford the summer after Reagan left this mortal vale, and I mentioned as we discussed conventions past that a Reagan-Ford ticket would have been formidable.

“Some people told us that a ticket with he and I on it would have been unbeatable,” Ford replied. “That’s probably right, but it was unbeatable the way it was. Any ticket with Reagan on it was pretty unbeatable.”

So far, the current Democratic presidential field hasn’t taken shape in a way that reminds us of 1976, but things won’t remain the way they are now. Someone will emerge — and others will seize the stage before their time — meaning that we won’t really know what we’re seeing until later. As Gerald Ford’s gracious comment to me suggests, new insights will come later, even to those fighting in the arena.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)
ccannon@realclearpolitics.com

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