Reagan's Choice

Gerald Ford thanks Ronald Reagan on the closing night of the Republican National Convention in 1976.
Gerald Ford thanks Ronald Reagan on the closing night of the Republican National Convention in 1976. (By William Fitz-patrick -- Associated Press)

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By Lou Cannon
Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Gerald Ford went to his grave believing that Ronald Reagan's challenge for the Republican presidential nomination cost him the White House in 1976. In truth, Reagan sharpened Ford as a candidate, much as Hillary Clinton's campaign has sharpened Barack Obama in 2008. What damaged Ford in his effort to overtake Democrat Jimmy Carter was not what Reagan did to him in the spring of 1976 but what he failed to do in the fall. Similarly, the question now is what role Clinton will play after Obama has formally secured the nomination.

The roller-coaster nature of this year's marathon contest for the Democratic nomination has many echoes of the GOP race of 1976. While Ford had the advantage of incumbency, he was to the GOP's conservative wing an accidental president who held the office only because Richard Nixon had been forced to resign. These conservatives favored Reagan, who was expected to win the first primary, in New Hampshire. But Ford upset Reagan, as Obama upset Clinton in this year's Iowa caucuses, and he parlayed his victory into a string of primary wins. Ford's nomination seemed assured until Reagan climbed off the mat and won the North Carolina primary. That began a protracted struggle, as Clinton's comeback win in New Hampshire did in this year's Democratic race. Reagan won a slew of primaries in important states, as Clinton has, without ever quite catching Ford, who was nominated at the Republican National Convention in Kansas City by little more than a hundred votes.

By the time he became the nominee, Ford was a better candidate than he would have been without the Reagan challenge, much as Obama has benefited from Clinton's challenge. In 1976, Ford had never run for office beyond his Grand Rapids congressional district; while an estimable human being and an underrated president, he was a plodding campaigner and often a dreadful public speaker. His speechwriters once tried to improve his delivery by writing the words "WITH EMPHASIS" in the margin of his text. Ford, denouncing something or other as "nonsense," incorporated the notes into his speech and told a startled audience: "I say to you this is nonsense with emphasis!"

More significantly, Reagan's challenge forced Ford to dismiss an inept campaign manager and bring in such able political operatives as Stuart K. Spencer, the foremost Republican strategist, and James A. Baker, later a major player in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. They teamed with pollster Robert Teeter and Ford's chief of staff, Dick Cheney, to organize an effective campaign. Ford, his stump skills honed by Reagan, bested Carter in their first debate on domestic issues. In the second debate, Ford made a celebrated gaffe, claiming that Poland was not dominated by the Soviet Union, which broke his momentum. Even so, Ford rallied from a 19-point deficit at convention time to lose to Carter by less than 2 percentage points.

Afterward, Ford complained, correctly, that Reagan did not help him sufficiently in the fall. Reagan had endorsed the ticket, but only grudgingly. Ford, in his memoirs, described Reagan's performance in their only joint appearance as "lukewarm"; in fact, having attended this event in Beverly Hills, I think this overstated the temperature. During the general election battle, Ford asked Reagan to campaign for him in four Southern states; Reagan pleaded prior commitments. In one of those states, Mississippi, Carter won by fewer than 15,000 votes. It's possible that Reagan, who was popular there, might have made the difference. More involvement by Reagan would at a minimum have freed Ford from spending as much time as he did in Carter's home region and allowed him to campaign more in Ohio, which he lost by a little more than 11,000 votes. If Ford had carried Ohio and Mississippi, he would have been elected.

While many in Ford's inner circle remained bitter about the role Reagan played, Ford, with a characteristic generosity of spirit, forgave Reagan and worked tirelessly for his election in 1980. When I asked why he was doing so much, Ford said simply that Reagan would be a better president than Carter. He never deviated from this view, even though he and Carter subsequently became close friends.

Barack Obama will soon become the presumptive Democratic nominee, and there is little doubt that Hillary Clinton will endorse him. The big question is whether she will campaign hard for Obama among constituencies where she can help him. Put another way: Will she choose to be Ronald Reagan in 1976 or Gerald Ford in 1980?

The outcome of the election could depend on the answer.

Lou Cannon covered the 1976 presidential campaign for The Post. He has written several books on Ronald Reagan and, most recently, co-authored "Reagan's Disciple: George W. Bush's Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy" with his son Carl M. Cannon.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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