From 1965 to 1975, Ronald Reagan was both a prominent conservative and a prominent Republican -- a position that, rather than being natural, carried with it the promise of conflict and suspense.
Ever since his phenomenally successful national television speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater in October 1964, Reagan had been the hero of a growing conservative movement, the one person who could best communicate conservative sentiments.
On the other hand, he was held in much lower regard by the Republican establishment. Although he was elected governor of California in 1966 and so was a major officeholder, the conventional wisdom in the party was that Goldwater's crushing defeat in 1964 proved that the Republicans needed to avoid ideologically passionate conservatism if they wanted to attract votes. That left Reagan out of the party's future.
The conservatives were committed, more than to the party, to a set of ideas and feelings centering on anticommunism and resentment of the federal government. So, it seemed to them, was Reagan. The Republicans were committed above all to winning elections. Reagan certainly wanted that too.
So for 10 years an elaborate minuet went on concerning Reagan's presidential ambitions, the conservative movement, and the Republican Party. Would the conservatives make peace with the party, or leave it? And if they left it, with whom would Reagan join up -- the ideologues, or the regulars? The choice was up to him.
The story of how he made up his mind is important today because Reagan is still perceived as more ideological than most presidents. Through the transition period and the early days of his administration there has been an ongoing argument over whether he is, or should be, primarily a conservative or primarily a Republican politician. That argument is certain to continue, and the story of how he made his choice between conservatives and Republicans in the late 1960s and early '70s helpsd put it in its proper context.
If you had to choose a date when the modern conservative movement began, it would be Friday, Sept. 9, 1960. On that day, 93 college students from all over the country gathered at the country estate of William F. Buckley Jr. in Sharon, Conn. After a weekend of conferences, they founded a new conservative organization called Young Americans for Freedom, and wrote a manifesto called the Sharon Statement.
"In this time of moral and political crisis," the statement began, "it is the responsibility of the youth of America to affirm certain eternal truths." It went on to outline, in the space of less than a typed page, a philosphy based on limited government, the "market economy," and a preference for "victory over, rather than coexistence with" the "menace" of internaational communism.
Significantly, the statement was written in the language of the postwar age, strident, hostile to government, fearful of communism, not a bit nostalgic for the past or for "tradition," as conservatives of the 1950s had been. Also, it had its roots in resentment of the first stirrings of the New Left, whose later success would be an important factor in providing the emotional fuel for the conservative movement.
Howard Phillips, then a student at Harvard and now head of an organization called the Conservative Caucus, was one of the people at the Sharon conference. As he remembers: "In the summer of 1960, I went to the National Student Congress in Minneapolis and Tom Hayden, the editor of the Michigan Daily, gave a speech praising Fidel Castro. I was repulsed by him. It was appalling that Marxists claimed to speak for all students. I started complaining, and I heard that other students who shared my concerns would be going to Sharon. So I went."
Two years later Tom Hayden had a conference of his own, at Port Huron, Mich., which produced a Port Huron Statement and an organization named Students for a Democratic Society. SDS and YAF were like mirror images, only SDS, for most of the 1960s, was seen as far more important and influential.
But YAF was the start of something that, eventually, would be bigger. It had roots in an older and quite obscure conservative student group, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and YAF in turn helped spawn dozens of groups that comprised a substantial conservative network outside the major political parties.
YAF was, for instance, the entry point into politics for Richard Viguerie, now the godfather of the New Right. Viguerie was working as a clerk for an oil company in Houston in 1962 when he saw a help-wanted ad for a political organizer in National Review, William F. Buckley's conservative magazine. He answered the ad, went to New York City, was interviewed by National Review's starchy publisher, William Rusher, and hired as YAF's executive secretary. One of his first acts in that job, in fact, was to persuade Ronald Reagan -- a friend of YAF from its beginning -- to write a fund-raising letter for the organization.
Goldwater's presidential campaign in 1964 was full of YAFers, and was masterminded by a close friend and political ally of Rusher's. F. Clifton White. So even as Goldwater was losing, a substantial group of conservative organizers and organizations was rising out of the ashes of his campaign.
But in the eyes of everyone except the conservative movement, the conservative movement was politically irrelevent. Goldwater not only had lost big, but also had done well only in his native Arizona and in the segregationist South; it appeared that the only real appeal of conservatism was to the least attractive sentiment in American life; racism.
Anyway, it seemed to be a liberal era. The Great Society was in full swing. Americans apparently wanted government to do more, not less. The Vietnam war, planned by liberal anti-communists, slowly was becoming unpopular, and as it did the conservatives -- not the liberals -- rallied to its defense.
The future of the Republican Party was widely thought to lie to the hands of a series of much-touted, never-nominated moderates; Nelson Rockefeller, George Romney, John Lindsay. The new governor of California, Reagan, was not thought to represent the direction in which the party needed to move in the wake of the Goldwater debacle.
In reaction to these notions, the conservative movement produced its great idea and central fixation of the late 1960s and early 1970s: the idea of a conservative majority. The high priest of the "conservative majority" theorists was Kevin P. Phillips, a young lawyer in the Nixon administration who in 1969 wrote a book called "The Emerging Republican Majority."
"Technology and economic growth," he wrote, "have raised the old working class constituency to a new affluence, enlarging the old middle class into middle America."
Middle America, according to Phillips, felt its own values -- hard work, family and partriotism -- were insufficently honored by the Democratic Party. It was starting to move to the Sun Belt, and to feel hostile toward the East Coast. It was resentful of the counterculture and the antiwar movement. It no longer saw the country as divided into haves (Republicans) and have-not (themselves).
Why did Middle America feel disposessed? Because, according to the theory, of another growing group in American society, the "liberal establishment," or "new class."
As Kevin Phillips explained: "It is Scarsdale, Park Avenue, Wall Street, the Episcopal Church, the major metropolitan newspapers, television networks, the best suburbs and universities, the Beautiful People." They had disproportionate power; they did essentially unproductive work; they were out of tune with the rest of the country; and they ceaselessly propagandized for the McGoverns and Rockefellers and Lindsays of the world, men out of touch with the people. That was the theory.
The theory's very existence showed how much American conservatism was changing. Ten years earlier, conservative thinkers tended to fear the rule of the majority and to defend elitism. Now a new generation of conservatives from the different background presented conservatism as the gospel of the masses resentful of the elite.
The relative success of George Wallace in 1968 at appealing to a constituency beyond southern racists was seen as a proof of the existence of a conservative Middle America. So was the victory of the Nixon-Agnew ticket, which appealed to some of the same sentiments in a less gloves-off way. So was the great hard-hat demonstration in the support of the Vietnam war in 1970. So was the crushing defeat of George McGovern in 1972. In conservative circles, the idea of a conservative majority became such iniversal dogma that when Goldwater rewrote his "The Conscience of a Conservative" in 1970, he called it "The Conscience of a Majority."
Pretty soon, not only the conservatives but also every political group was scrambling to claim the new majority as its own. Spiro Agnew, with his speeches about the "silent majority" and his attacks on the media, was the Nixon administration's main pitchman to them. Conservative Democrats such as Sen. Henry Jackson and Ben Wattenberg started the Coalition for a Democratic Majority to keep them in their traditional party, while at the same time turning the party rightward. Jack Newfield and Jeff Greenfield wrote "The Populist Manifesto" to show that the new majority really belonged to the political left.
And within the conservative movement, along with the certainty that the new majority was out there and rady to vote conservative, there was also a certainty that only one man could truly lead it: Ronald Reagan.
Reagan ran for president for the first time in 1968. "Ran" is not quite fair; he entered no primaries, hesitated for months, and didn't announce his candidacy until he arrived in Miami Beach for the Republican convention. By that time, Nixon's years of assiduous courting of party professionals had paid off well enough to make him practically invincible.
Nixon had taken particular care to strengthen his right flank.Early on, he had locked up the endorsements of Strom Thurmond, the most important Republican in the region where Goldwater had run strongest, and of Goldwater himself. Even Paul Laxalt, Reagan's friend, had to say no when Reagan asked him to place his name in nomination; Nixon had done a big favor for Laxalt back in 1964, flying all the way from New York to Nevada on a day's notice to speak in Laxalt's unsuccessful Senate campaign against Howard Cannon, and in return Laxalt promised Nixon his support. At the convention, Nixon stopped whatever leakage to Reagan there was by assuring conservatives privately that he would appoint a conservative running mate.
The mastermind of Reagan's campaign, such as it was, was Clifton White, Goldwater's mastermind in 1964. William Rusher, the publisher of National Review, had his hand in, too. Rusher had gone out to California to meet Reagan shortly after Reagan was elected governor, and he began to dine with the governor regularly when business took him to California. Reagan was a longtime National Review subscriber and YAF supporter, and Rusher came away from their meetings convinced that Reagan was dedicated above all to furthering the conservative movement.
It would be years before he fully realized it, but that last assumption of Rusher's was dead wrong.
Reagan didn't run for president in 1972, in part because Nixon carefully kept fences mended with him, treating him with the respect due the governor of the largest state. "Nixon talked to Reagan," says John P. Sears, later Reagan's campaign manager. "Nixon gave him foreign trips."
But the conservative movement's members quickly deserted the Nixon administration. Such men as Kevin Phillips, Howard Phillips, Martin Anderson, Richard Whalen, and William Gavin all left before Watergate began to explode. In the summer of 1971, William F. Buckley assembled a group of a dozen prominent conservatives, jokingly called the Manhattan 12, which issued a statement of "suspension of support" for Nixon. Rusher helped persuade an old friend of the movement, Rep. John Ashbrook of Ohio, to mount a remarkably unsuccessfully challenge to Nixon from within the party.
By the middle of Nixon's second term, several of his policies -- the failed family assistance plan, detente, the opening of relations with China, wage-price controls -- had hopelessly disillusioned the conservative movement. The only argument for Nixon within the movement was that Agnew was a true conservative, and could be nominated and elected president, in 1976. Then Agnew fell. Then Nixon fell. Then Democrats registered huge gains in the 1974 elections.
By the end of 1974, respectable political opinion placed conservatism about where it had been at the end of 1964 -- far out on the fringes of American politics. And for its part, the conservative movement was ready, finally, to give up on the Republican Party and woo the new majority on its own -- with Reagan, of course, bearing the standard.
Early in 1975, William Rusher began to fly out to Los Angeles regularly to meet with Reagan, who had just retired from the California governorship, and a group of his advisers: Michael Deaver, Peter Hannaford, Edwin Meese III. The group met at a Marriott Hotel at the Los Angeles airport, and so called itself the "M Group." Its purpose was to explore the possibility of a Reagan presidental candidacy in 1976.
Through all of the meetings, Rusher's goal was to persuade Reagan to run as a third-party candidate, with Clifton White as his campaign manager. But Reagan always seemed hesitant. He told Rusher he thought White had built up too many enmities over the years. Hiring him would be too costly, politically.
Rusher then sent Reagan a manuscript copy of a political manifesto he had written, called "The Making of the New Majority Party," thinking that Reagan would be convinced by it. Indeed, Reagan did talk to him about the manuscript, but his comments, curiously, all dealt with what seemed to Rusher a small and inconsequential section about the 1968 Republican convention.
Hadn't Rusher, Reagan wanted to know, really overstated Reagan's eagerness to run for president back then? Hadn't he exaggerated the seriousness with which he had campaigned? Hadn't it really been just a favorite-son effort? Couldn't Rusher tone down that part a little?" The part about the need for a third party Reagan didn't mention at all.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, another group of movement conservatives -- including Kevin Phillips, Howard Phillips, and Richard Viguerie -- had the same idea. In the summer of 1975 they rented a suite in the Madison Hotel and invited Reagan in for a long talk.
They made a detailed pitch to him: as an independent, he could realistically expect 30 to 35 percent o f the vote and thus possibly win the election. Even if he lost, the combination of his own immense rapport with the voters and a conservative ideology would attract so much notice that a permanent realignment of the party system would surely take place. Conservatism would be politically viable, in place for 1980. Reagan would have advanced the cause immeasurably.
Reagan said no, right then and there. He didn't even need to think about it. He was a Republican first, a conservative thereafter.
At the end of that summer, Reagan authorized John Sears to set up a committee to explore the possibility of his candidacy for the presidency as a Republican. The movement conservatives were amazed that Sears, a man of suspect ideology and minimal prior connection to Reagan, had, as one of them puts it now, "walked away with the franchise."
Among some of Reagan's own aides, there was a slightly devilish theory as to why he had really decided to run. Back in January 1975, President Ford offered Reagan the job of secretary of transportation, to replace the little-remembered Claude Brinegar. Rather than making the offer personally, Ford dispatched his chief of staff, Donald Rumsfeld, to talk to Reagan.
Sources close to Ford confirm that the offer was made, and made because Ford was starting to worry about Reagan as an opponent and so wanted to bring him into the fold. Reagan said no.
"He took it as an insult," says one Reagan adviser."What bothered him was, somebody should have talked to him sooner," says another. "He was a significant man of the party. And the president didn't even ask him personally."
Whether that insult was what made Reagan break ranks with a Republican president and run against him, the fact remains that in the end he broke with Gerald Ford, not the Republican Party.
"I think he recognized that third party was not a feasible way to seek the presidency," says Sears. "It was a feasible way to discuss issues. But not to be president."
Now that Reagan is president, nobody trying to understand him should ever forget how he got there: by being a politican. A politican more wedded to the conservative sentiment than most, but still a politican above all, and thus a man who will always try to do what he thinks is right within the limits of what he thinks will work politically. Ronald Reagan never will willingly go down in flames for the cause.