Reagan's Revolution
The Untold Story of the Campaign
That Started It All
[the 1976 nomination campaign]

by Craig Shirley

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Nelson Current: Nashville, 2005
417 pages

March 2010

A campaign history & analysis

To appreciate properly what Craig Shirley is doing in Reagan's Revolution, we must be clear on what not to expect that might seem reasonable. This book is not a biography of Ronald Reagan the man, nor of his political life before or during his Presidency of the United States — which did come later, 1981-1989. The book is not an analysis of his views on America, the Constitution, domestic and foreign policy, and so on, except incidentally.

Reagan's Revolution is the history and analysis of a political campaign; and in fact, only half the campaign that Reagan and his supporters hoped they were engaged in: the first half, the run for the Republican nomination for President in 1976 against appointed incumbent President Gerald Ford. The second half of a Presidential campaign, had Reagan gotten his party's nomination, would have been against the Democratic Party nominee and eventual winner, Governor Jimmy Carter.

Craig Shirley carefully sketches just enough background of the American political scene in 1976. Watergate and the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon hadn't been long before; while the Ford Administration seemed to foreshadow the American decline and "malaise" of the Carter Administration that would succeed it. The campaign staffs are brought to life as personalities, as are some key delegates and other political figures. This is balanced. focused, and well done. It's an interesting story, and as we get caught up on the onrushing events, a suspenseful one.

Gerald Ford's vast advantage of incumbency in office, especially of an incumbent President — even one never elected as President or Vice President — yielded great psychological value and organizational inertia, such as control of the Republican National Committee and many or most of the state Republican organizations. By President Ford's stalling a key bureaucracy, the Federal Election Commission, contributions flowing into the Reagan campaign were slowed to the point that Reagan's campaign managers could mount little or no effort in the primaries of several key states. And there were miscellaneous sweeteners, not just home-district projects for pro-Ford convention delegates, but even such niceties as President Ford's ability to offer delegates a State dinner with Queen Elizabeth.

Of course, Ford's affinity for blunders kept dogging him:

Ford arrived in Irvington, Texas, stressing the need for tougher sentencing on convicted drug dealers. His campaign reasoned that he had not talked enough about "law and order" issues. Ford was off stride and the "Bozo the President" suspicions began to creep back into the race when he was photographed at a Texas event eating a tamale without first removing the corn husk.

The real triumph in the 1976 campaign for the Republican Party nomination turned out to be Ronald Reagan's. In the course of this campaign, he learned more clearly than ever before what needed to be done to reach the Presidency, and how to organize it in detail. Similarly, his staff began learning that the way to win elections was to let Reagan be Reagan, to let his passionate clarity be presented. The capstone was Reagan's speech at the convention in Kansas City, after losing the nomination, but showing a vision that many delegates, and many Americans, had not had the chance to share before. All this is narratated very well in Reagan's Revolution.

When Ronald Reagan contended again in 1980, he was ready and so was the country ready for him: Craig Shirley tells the story of that successful campaign in the sequel, Rendezvous with Destiny.


© 2010 Robert Wilfred Franson

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R. W. Franson's reviews of
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by Ronald Reagan
  — and —
Rendezvous with Destiny
[Reagan and the 1980 Presidential campaigns]
by Craig Shirley

The official book site for
Reagan's Revolution

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