Rendezvous with Destiny
Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America
[the 1980 Presidential campaigns]

by Craig Shirley

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

ISI Books: Wilmington, Delaware, 2009
740 pages

February 2012

A campaign history & analysis

Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America is Craig Shirley's sequel to his Reagan's Revolution on the 1976 campaign for the Republican Presidential nomination — which Reagan narrowly lost to the unelected incumbent of his own party, Gerald Ford. That history should be read before this one; and in fact, I recommend reading my review of it if you haven't done so.

As with the earlier book, Rendezvous with Destiny 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 about as a result of this campaign, during 1981-1989. It isn't an analysis of his views on America, the Constitution, domestic and foreign policy, and so on, except incidentally. The main difference from the earlier book is a widening to include the Democratic primary campaign (Jimmy Carter, Edward Kennedy) as well as Republican (Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Gerald Ford, John Anderson), and then the final campaigning toward the showdown at the General Election in November 1980.

One disadvantage is that both Reagan the man, and his views, receive proportionately less coverage. We saw those on the campaign trail in Reagan's Revolution, and can follow some further self-education and explanatory skills in Reagan, In His Own Hand, his series of short radio talks between the elections. This is some loss of focused personalization for Craig Shirley's 1980 history, but if we're familiar with these others, we have some idea of Reagan in the years immediately preceding his Presidency.

For 1980 Shirley is able to provide wider coverage and detail across the board than he does for 1976, in a book half again as long. This is a reasonably complex and hard-fought campaign. There is a good deal about Carter's and Kennedy's 1980 efforts that I hadn't known, and Reagan's own campaign was anything but smooth. Early in 1980,

The campaign was out of money, out of morale, and out of steam because Reagan had been counseled to go against his own instincts by people who professed to know more about the American people and politics than he did. Reagan — who had crisscrossed the length and breadth of America for more than thirty years, who had spoken to millions and had met tens of thousands, who treated even the most common dirt farmer as if he were royalty — was listening to people whose view of America rarely extended beyond a barstool in Washington, D.C.

There were major problems of the campaign manager's making which led to primary losses, to much disaffection, dismissals, and eventual upheaval, before everything began to sail fairly smoothly. You will find many names that you hadn't known and likely won't remember, but there also are glimpses of younger politicians and aides who earned fame or notoriety later. Part of the strength of Rendezvous with Destiny as a history rather than a simple chronicle is Shirley's cameos of campaign workers of various types, naturally of the candidates themselves during a challenging and tiring year, and how all these folks worked together or failed to do so. All against the background of domestic malaise and foreign-policy blunders.

We also spend time behind the scenes at the contentious Democratic and Republican conventions in the summer of 1980. Of particular interest is how limited were the choices that the nominee Reagan felt he had before him for running mate. In adhering to an accepted tactic and comfortable byword — "balance the ticket" — Reagan chose his opponent Bush, the self-entitled candidate, the Establishment's voice; putting the nation on a fateful track which would elect Bush 1988, thus Clinton 1992 (via Perot) and 1996, thus son Bush 2000 and 2004, and so on.

Reagan and Bush met back up in Los Angeles toward the end of July with some staff to review their strategy for the summer and fall effort. But before battling with the Democrats, the two former combatants had to referee the battles between their respective staffs. Lyn Nofziger, now firmly ensconced as the campaign's spokesman and chief punster, said of merging the two campaigns, "It's a hell of a mesh, I'll tell you."

Right; but he had only a glimmer, as we now can see.

Some comparisons: Shirley's books provide more nitty-gritty detail than Theodore H. White's bestseller The Making of the President 1960 and its sequels for 1964, 1968, and 1972. More importantly, I think Shirley is less in awe of the respectable official process and able to show us more of the nuts and bolts. Out in left field we have the breezy intensity of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, more swept away by the wild impressionistic process than illustrative of the candidates, planners, and workers actually running their campaigns.

Shirley doesn't neglect values, issues, and personalities that are the real substance of any proper campaign. But it's not all work here. There is more suspense than you might expect, and Shirley provides the pleasant and amusing lines of the spectrum as well as the serious and practical:

At the end of Reagan's remarks in Neshoba [Mississippi], he was unexpectedly given a rocking chair, and [some campaign advance men] cringed, sensitive to the age issue. But Reagan didn't miss a beat. He sat in the rocker and pulled Nancy down onto his lap. The crowd, as well as the media, ate it up. What could have been a disaster turned into a charming photo of the two, which appeared in newspapers throughout the South.

For those of us who aren't entirely wearied of political maneuvering, but want to see how we got where we are, to examine recent history with some perspective, and to learn how a major portion of the American political process really works behind the scenes, Craig Shirley's Rendezvous with Destiny is useful history: detailed, balanced, and thoughtful.


© 2012 Robert Wilfred Franson

R. W. Franson's reviews of
Reagan's Revolution
[the 1976 nomination campaign]
by Craig Shirley
  — & —
Reagan, In His Own Hand
by Ronald Reagan

Craig Shirley's webpage for
Rendezvous with Destiny

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