Two days after the Iowa caucuses, the press is waiting for Ronald Reagan in the Aloha Lounge at O’Hare airport, a room decorated with orange, yellow, and pink pineapples and volcanoes. Advance men have hung a red, white, and blue “Reagan 80” banner from the wall, and there are a number of good-looking men in three-piece suits with wires running out of their ears and bulges on their hips.
Reagan appears in a dark blue checked suit, a blue necktie, and shoes like mirrors. Whenever he speaks at press conferences, he places both hands on the lectern, and occasionally cocks his right foot and points a toe on the floor. This afternoon, he seems . . . bleak is too strong a word; subdued will do.
The press wants his thoughts on two battles, Afghanistan and Iowa. The invasion of Afghanistan, he says, represents “a new arrogance on the part of the Soviets. . . . It is time the U.S. takes a position. I’ve recommended bases in Oman and Somalia. I’ve recommended arms, possibly an American presence, in Pakistan. It’s time to have a plan.”
But the press is more interested in Des Moines than Herat. Reagan fields the questions, by turns gracious to enemies, protective of underlings, defensive of himself. “I’m quite sure George Bush succeeded in the strategy he aimed at. We knew he had a great organization” (all the bitter words Reagan has ever said about fellow Republicans could probably be inscribed on one of his three-by-five cards; over the next three days, Bush will be “George,” or, at moments of exceptional stress, “George Bush”). No, Reagan has not lost faith in his planners. “If I did that, I’d lose faith in myself. We’ve been campaigning harder, working harder than some of you have been suggesting in your stories. These trips have been organizational — getting in to stimulate the local organizations. It gets pretty hairy.”
Is Bush now the front-runner? “Why don’t we wait and see the polls?” Do you regret not going into the Puerto Rican primary? “No.” How do you expect to do in the Arkansas caucuses? “I don’t know. I did pretty well in Arkansas in 1976, but they’ve gone back to guys in a room sitting down and picking” (he evidently suspects he might do badly).
An aide announces the press’s thanks, and Reagan is off, through O’Hare in a brisk wedge of secret service men (heads turn, who’s that? must be somebody famous), into a motorcade. The cars pull out from the black glass buildings, beneath the planes dropping in like bats, into a slate and orange colored sunset. Flat buildings, flatland-corporate headquarters, suburban ranch houses, ghosts of barns. State police cars with gumball machines flashing block every intersection as the motorcade passes. In 45 minutes, the cars come to the Pheasant Run Inn in St. Charles, Illinois — “The midwest’s finest resort hotel.”
Reagan is addressing a $50-a-plate fundraiser for Representative Tom Corcoran of Illinois’ 15th District. He sits at a head table with Mr. and Mrs. Corcoran, the chief operating officer of Aurora Industries, and eleven Republican county chairman. While the waitresses pass around a Grand Old Party dessert — ice cream with strawberry sauce and American flag pins — the dinner chairman introduces Corcoran, Corcoran introduces Reagan (citing his “ability to articulate Republican principles of government”). Reagan returns the compliments, gives some GOP rah-rah, then goes into a full-length speech.
Critics complain of Reagan’s one-liners and, relatedly, of his giving simplistic answers. The second charge is mostly spite; what the people who make it usually mean to say is that they don’t like Reagan’s particular answers, or the definiteness of any answer at all: a clock chime like “We must not negotiate from fear, but we must not fear to negotiate” soothes a certain type of mind in a way that a thumb-nail program — “We bought it, we built it, and we’re going to keep it” — can’t. As for one-liners, Reagan is avoiding them tonight. If anything, the speech is pedagogic. He explains bracket creep. He asserts that the energy crisis is caused by government, not waste, and cites the 1978 fuel shortage in California caused by a reliance on the 1972 allocation system. He plugs the Kemp-Roth tax cut, and notes the salubrious effects of the tax cuts of Andrew Mellon (Jack Kemp clearly brought along a couple of copies of Jude Wanniski’s The Way the World Works when he signed up with Reagan). He pins teenage unemployment to the minimum wage. He gives a post-mortem on Proposition 13: 100,000 fewer public employees, but 532,000 more private sector jobs. He lists his accomplishments in California: volunteer task forces formed, 16,000 recommendations implemented. $5.7 billion returned to taxpayers, bond rating up to Triple A.
And, as always, he ends with questions from the floor. Iran: “There isn’t anything the Administration has done that they couldn’t have done in the first 24 hours.” Windfall profits tax: “It’s not a windfall profits tax, it’s an excise.” He explains — the first explanation of the evening that was not utterly lucid — that domestic oil regulations subsidize OPEC imports; charges that the oil industry has been virtually nationalized. ERA: (posed by the sweet-voiced female editor of the St. Charles high school paper). He opposes ERA, but rattles off a list of statutes passed during his term as governor removing legal burdens on women in rape cases, in the management of savings accounts, in various other economic matters. He doesn’t have his card on this subject, he confesses disarmingly, and apologizes for the list’s incompleteness. “Thank you,” the editor chirps, “and I want to say, women are doing just fine without ERA.” A blunder: it’s bad form to tip your hand so obviously when asking a friendly question. But Reagan smiles and retrieves it all: “Well, I could have saved all that talk.” He makes a last pitch for Corcoran, then adds, almost as an afterthought, “I’ll be honest — I’d like to be his neighbor in Washington.” There is a brief standing ovation, and most of the audience crowd around to shake his hand. In the hall, Illinoians position themselves shyly to get a look at him.
Back to the cars, back to O’Hare.
The Hyatt Regency O’Hare gives a credible impersonation of a palace in a desert. Breakfast costs a fortune, a pianist supplies the muzak, and the ivy trailing neatly over the balconies on the interior courtyard gives it the appearance of a crew-cut hanging garden. If you have to spend the night at an airport, and you have $80, there’s no place else to go.
Reagan comes down the main escalator next morning at 8:15. The TV cameramen come down before him to set up ambush in the lobby and test their lights by flashing them into the eyes of innocent businessmen. Overnight the weather has gone from foul to vile, and Reagan’s chartered 727 lakes off late.
The sun comes out somewhere over Kentucky, and by the time Reagan lands in Florence, South Carolina, it’s up to 45 degrees. South Carolina has the first Southern primary this year; Senator Thurmond and Governor Edwards have come out for Connally, and Reagan is showing the flag. The local advance people seem harried. A young lady hassles with a reporter in the Florence airport. “What’s your name?” “Rowland Evans.” “Where you from?” “Never mind.”
Reagan begins this press conference with a statement:
Having reviewed Mr. Carter’s State of the Union address last evening, I must today speak out strongly on the crisis in Iran and Afghanistan. Mr. Carter terms the Afghan crisis ‘the most serious threat to world peace since the Second World War,’ yet he is willing to accept the Soviet presence in Afghanistan with a vague threat that if further aggression transpires in the Persian Gulf we may do something. I wonder how the Pakistanis feel about American resolve when they have, in effect, been excluded from the protection of even this vague threat of American action. And how seriously will the Soviet Union treat Mr. Carter’s threat . . . when it is accompanied by his voluntary pledge to observe unilaterally SALT I and SALT II. . . .
It is time for him to make our resolve clear in terms that are specific.
He reads it shakily, pausing in mid-sentence and hobbling words (he has never been able to talk from a manuscript; in 1937, he almost washed out of his first movie at the preliminary script reading, and all his major speeches are delivered from note cards). The baritone voice also sounds about half an octave lower — perhaps a touch of sore throat coming on.
The press wades in and Reagan perks up. What specific things would you do? He has already made suggestions, he answers — bases in Oman and Somalia, and an American “presence” in Pakistan. What about draft registration? Reagan cites his long opposition to a peace time draft, and calls registration a “meaningless gesture. It doesn’t make us more able to respond.” America needs instead a “strong active military reserve,” built up by “promotion, incentive, and appeal to patriotism.” Which does Reagan think Carter is — deceitful or a fool? “I wish I could say he was a fool.”
But Reagan has not come to talk in airports. There’s a crowd at Francis Marion College, and they’ve been waiting an hour and a half. The auditorium of the science building seats two or three hundred, and people are lining the walls. Many of the faces in the audience belongs to students, and they’re clean and shiny as milk (Southern girls may not be any prettier than their sisters elsewhere, but they work a lot harder at it). The arrival of the press creates a stir-is Reagan far behind? Suddenly, the clarinetist, drummer, and pianist cut short the light swing and polkas with which they’ve been nibbling at the boredom and start “California, Here I Come.” The crowd stops gossiping and springs up, some stand on their chairs, yelling, clapping, flapping hand-made signs. Reagan smiles, and waves relaxedly. A young man in a premature three-piece suit presents him with a Francis Marion jacket. Bobby Richardson, “pride of the Yankees, noted Christian layman,” and co-chairman of the Reagan for President Committee in South Carolina, waves from a chair on the stage. Patrick Brian, state commissioner of agriculture — there to offset Edwards and Thurmond — introduces Reagan as “a great American, a man of high moral character, and a great friend of mine.”
Reagan apologizes for the rasp in his voice, blames it on the L.A. smog, and goes into his speech. He still gives two-minute treatises on the oil industry and inflation, but there are more applause lines this afternoon, and questions come sooner. He laughingly concedes that, yes, “George” did well in Iowa. He calls for getting rid of inheritance taxes that strike against “the small business, the family farm” (applause). He supports balanced budgets as well as Kemp-Roth — “balancing the budget is like protecting your virtue — you have to say No” (applause, students included). He works the questions so that he can slip chunks of his speech into the answers, concludes by observing that the real immorality of the Vietnam War was “sending 50,000 American boys to die in a war we didn’t have the courage to win” (tremendous applause), spoils the effect by talking past the line, but it was still a good job, his best so far.
At VFW Post 3181, off the main road in the pine trees, the cars are backed up to the highway. This is a rally of Reagan workers, over a hundred of them, milling in an all-purpose room — rowdy men, some young people, some ladies, middle aged and up, four blacks, two of them aged (what electoral storms they have weathered!). Reagan makes a semi-circle through them, clambers up on a small stage, receives a toy bear from the student body president of a local college, and starts again. He warms up with a bit of history: during the Greco-Turkish war after World War I, the USS Arizona docked in embattled Constantinople, where, every morning, a sailor with a flag, a Marine with a mailbag, and a Marine with a rifle would march to the American legation and back, untouched, unmolested: “we can have that kind of America again,” he assures them. Carter, says a man in a plaid work jacket and a green shirt, has been talking a lot about poor people; what do you say? “We Republicans have to show people we’re not the party of big business and the country-club set. We’re the party of main street, the small town, the city neighborhood; the shopkeeper, the farmer, the cop on the beat, the blue-collar and the white-collar worker. Now, a word we hear a lot is compassion. If someone is genuinely helpless of course we should be compassionate, and Americans are the most compassionate people on earth. But what about the man who gets up every morning, gets his kids off to school, goes to work, pays his bills, supports his church and charity, and pays his taxes? We have some compassion for them.” Question about I-ran. “The policies of the Administration,” says Reagan, “made Iran possible.” Cheers of A-men. The entourage wants to leave: the candidate wants to take two more questions. SALT II? “Ship that thing back to the Soviets in Moscow.” Do you believe in God (asked by the younger of the black men)? “If I didn’t think I could turn to God for help, I wouldn’t be running for this office.” Reagan workers stand at the door as the crowd leaves, holding buckets for contributions.
No buckets will be needed to collect contributions at the next stop, only envelopes. The 727 sails from Florence to Miami for a $250-a-person party in the Tropic Room at the Intercontinental Hotel. It’s freezing in Miami, maybe 65 degrees, and a number of the bare female arms and shoulders take refuge under furs. Some of their contributions this evening will undoubtedly go to defray the cost of the violinist and the accordionist, the carvers in chefs’ hats at the side tables, and the ice sculpture of an angelfish. The press find themselves cordoned off from this magnificence behind a velveteen rope, but some kindly bare arm passes in a tray of sandwiches which the reporters surround like goldfish diving after breadballs.
Reagan acknowledges the cost of the affair — “If we don’t win, that’s gonna be a regular price for a drink” — and goes immediately into questions. Tell us you are saying the same things you said in 1964, a woman asks him. “It wasn’t exactly a question.” Reagan observes. Are you moderating your views, someone else pursues. “The hell I am.” What about Social Security? The system is now several trillion dollars out of actuarial balance, he says; he would appoint a task force to suggest reforms. A Cuban wants to know about Cuban freedom. We have to “get back to the Monroe Doctrine that there are no foreign colonies in this hemisphere.” Age? Phil Crane, Reagan notes, has been saying he is Reagan, only 20 years younger: “That’s too bad,” Reagan adds, “because 20 years ago I was a New Deal Democrat.” (Reagan, be it noted, refers to Crane only as “another candidate.” Let no Republican’s name be coupled, even in jest, with “New Deal,” though the heavens fall.)
Hands clap, furs leave, and outside the silver moon slides to the zenith.
Reagan slightly misled his Miami audience. Twenty years ago his conversion was already complete.
Ronald Wilson Reagan was born February 6, 1911, the second of two sons, in Tampico, Illinois. He remembers (as people born in a thousand other such towns remember) a park, a Civil War cannon, stacked cannonballs. Before he was nine, the family had moved to Chicago, to Galesburg, to Monmouth, back to Tampico, and finally to Dixon. The Rock River runs through the middle of Dixon, and when Reagan turned 15 he began spending his summers there as a lifeguard at Lowell Park. He recalls saving over 70 people, though the only gratuity he ever earned was $10 for retrieving an upper plate.
John Edward (Jack) Reagan, Ronald’s father, made a slender income from shoes — clerking them, selling them. He was an Irish Catholic and a confirmed Democrat, Northern style: he forbade his sons to see Birth of a Nation because it was sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan. He was also an alcoholic. Nelle Reagan (nee Wilson) bore with her husband’s periodic benders, acquiesced in his politics, and devoutly attended the Christian Church. Neither of the Reagans had gone beyond grade school, but they enjoyed books, and Nelle led the dramatic readings in the local ladies’ societies.
In 1928, Reagan entered Eureka College, a small, Christian, coed school 20 miles south of Dixon. Eureka gave him a scholarship for half his tuition, and a job washing dishes in the girls’ dormitory to cover his board. Reagan gave Eureka three years, starting at right guard on the football team. He also lettered in swimming and track, and joined the dramatic society. In his junior year, Eureka entered the Eva La Gallienne Competition for one-act plays sponsored by Northwestern University. Eureka’s production of Aria da Capo took a second, and Reagan was one of six actors singled out for a good performance.
He didn’t act again for five years after leaving Eureka. “Broadway and Hollywood,” he has said, “were as inaccessible as outer space,” and he went to Davenport, Iowa instead, broadcasting the games of the Chicago Cubs for Station WHO. His break came in 1937, when he went with the Cubs to spring training on Catalina Island. A former colleague at WHO, living in California, recommended a screen test with Warner Brothers (provided he took off his glasses — Reagan has been badly nearsighted all his life). Warner took him, at $200 a week.
There followed 51 movies, some still leading a flickering TV afterlife in the small hours of the morning. His best-known role was George Gipp (whence “Gipper,” as in Let’s win this one for the), but his best was Drake McHugh. a small-town playboy in King’s Row whose legs were amputated by a vengeful doctor. Reagan had to wake up, discover his mutilated body, and cry, “Where’s the rest of me?” For the rest, he played engaging characters who sometimes did, sometimes didn’t, get the girl. (“Reagan for governor?” Jack Warner is supposed to have asked in 1966. “No. Jimmy Stewart for governor, Ronnie for best friend.”)
More important, Hollywood gave Reagan his first push toward conservatism. Reagan had inherited his father’s Democratic loyalties, and added an idealistic, liberal overlay of his own: after World War II, he joined the ADA, the United World Federalists. and the American Veterans Committee. He was also, however, elected president of the Screen Actors Guild, from which position he observed Communist tactics firsthand.
From 1945 to 1947, Hollywood suffered a crippling series of strikes. The question at issue was ostensibly jurisdictional: should stagehands be organized by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), or by a variety of craft unions? In fact, the craft unions were being egged on by Communist organizers. “The Communist Party in Hollywood,” concluded a committee of the California Senate in 1959, “wanted control over everything on wheels. . . . They moved Communist units into those unions having jurisdiction over carpenters, painters, musicians, grips, and electricians. To control those trade unions was to control the motion picture industry.” The AFL soon disavowed the craft unionists, but their strikes persisted. Cars were trashed, strikers rioted in front of Warner, IATSE members were mugged, their houses bombed. Wages totaling about $28 million went down the drain. Some of the ugliness washed over Reagan, who, as president of the actors’ union, had been trying to mediate. While filming Night unto Night, he got a call on the set threatening that he would be “fixed” so that he would never act again. The police issued him a .32 Smith & Wesson, and put a guard on his house.
Reagan’s conversion continued, more subtly, during his next career. In 1954, with decent movie offers becoming increasingly scarce, he accepted an offer to host a television anthology sponsored by General Electric. The deal also included speaking tours to GE plants as part of the company’s employee- and community-relations program. Reagan began by talking mostly about Hollywood, but the GE audiences wanted to hear more, and he found himself developing opinions on other subjects.
The final influence on Reagan’s ideas was his wife Nancy. Reagan met Nancy Davis in 1951 on Guild business, and married her a year later. Nancy had gone to Girls Latin School in Chicago, and to Smith, and had been introduced to conservative opinions by her father. Her political instincts still come in handy: some reporters claim she recommended the TV blitz that won the North Carolina primary for Reagan in 1976.
In the Sixties, Reagan began putting his ideas to work politically. He campaigned for Richard Nixon in 1960, and switched his registration from Democrat to Republican two years later. He taped a television appeal for Barry Goldwater in 1964 which nearly failed to run. Reagan had to call Goldwater at the last minute and assure him that it was not extreme; and the Goldwater campaign grossed $600,000 in contributions.
The rest of Reagan’s political career can be found in Teddy White. Reagan challenged Pat Brown for the governorship of California in 1966. Brown, in a famous enthymeme, noted that both Reagan and John Wilkes Booth had been actors; Reagan buried him by nearly a million votes, and proceeded, contrary to certain fears (and hopes) neither to destroy the state university system, nor to sell the streets. Reagan raised taxes to balance the state budget, but returned several billion dollars in rebates, and left Pat’s son, Jerry, with the surplus which now takes up the slack of Proposition 1, a proposal to limit the percentage of income the state may take in taxes, now being pushed on the national level by the Tax Limitation Committee. Reagan entered the 1968 presidential contest too late to do anything more than exert a rightward pressure on Nixon. He supported the President loyally in 1972, and bolted against his successor in 1976.
Since his whisker-thin loss in that campaign, Reagan has moved with the deliberation of a battleship. Citizens for Reagan became Citizens for the Republic; the money left over from the presidential bid went into hundreds of Republican coffers in 1978. Reagan wrote a column, taped a radio show, and earned several hundred thousand dollars from speaking engagements. Reagan’s 1980 game plan, as it developed, was grand and simple: to woo the Party’s “moderates”; to generate a force majeur; to become the heir apparent. Critics would be ignored; challengers would simply wear themselves out. The strategy worked like the clockwork it resembled: IOUs accumulated; Reagan led in every conceivable poll; brushfires in California (an attempt to break the state’s unit rule) and Florida (an early straw poll organized by the Crane camp) were extinguished. Until Iowa . . .
A correspondent lured campaign strategist John Sears from his crossword puzzle between South Carolina and Miami long enough to ask him what happened. Sear’s explanation sounded ingenious. We had expected, he said, a large caucus vote — say, 50,000 people. Instead, we got twice that number — a small primary vote. The two, Sears went on, are qualitatively different. If you expect a primary-type turnout, you invest in certain things which caucuses do not warrant — direct mail, television spots. Bush invested; Reagan didn’t. Therefore, Bush won.
Will the strategy change? No, Reagan had answered back in the Aloha Lounge; there is no need, Sears added now. There are still 35 primaries to go. They will use in New Hampshire all the days they had kept open in the schedule; but “it doesn’t seem to be a matter of doing more than that.”
Conservatives have spent many man-hours debating whether John Sears is a demon. It seems to be a futile exercise. Reagan retains him because he agrees with him. The campaign will go on, largely as it has been going — largely, though not exactly: for now it will be urgent. Losing Iowa, instead of winning by a few percentage points, may be one of the best things that happened to the Reagan campaign so far.
Reagan leaves Miami the morning after the fund-raiser and lands in a drizzly New Orleans. He is addressing the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in the starched and frosted Fairmont hotel. This is the big event of the trip; Connally has rented a riverboat for the weekend, and Crane will also be present later. Reagan has a new speech for the occasion, concentrating heavily on foreign policy.
His reaction to applause is unusual: the words that come to mind are “gosh” and “shucks.” He grins, raises his eyebrows almost in surprise. His wave suggests thanks and embarrassment; he nods deferentially. He ends with the trope he used in 1976, the challenge that America be as a “shining city on a hill,” “city on a hill” courtesy of John Winthrop, “shining” courtesy of Ronald Reagan.
He gives the speech again that night, in Stem Hall in St. Paul Minnesota. There are storm warnings in Minnesota: Connally finished only 11 percentage points back in a straw poll of the state central committee, and Bush claims rashly that he will get a majority of the delegates (he will clean up in the Twin Cities, where his strength is concentrated). So while Reagan reads the entrails at the Minnesota Club, the rally falls behind schedule, and Rick Teske, the warm-up speaker, labors earnestly to fill the gap. “A political speech with jokes and homilies wouldn’t seem quite right” in this time of crisis, he says, so he cites Milton Friedman, the ancient Greeks, and poor Santayana on history instead. The audience, for its part, applauds only for Reagan. The weather bureau is predicting a high of zero, and these people are wearing scarves, tweeds, wool shirts, fur and felt hats (as well as plastic boaters with Reagan bumper-stickers pasted on them). It’s a rural-looking crowd: some have come from Wisconsin, and Mr. and Mrs. Buddy Jensen have driven one hundred miles from upstate. Three clarinets, eight brass, and two laconic men behind a bass and snare drum await Reagan’s entrance. Teske finishes, and they play “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” two, four, six times. The crowd looks puzzled. Finally, he comes; the band gives it another shot, balloons fall and float up again to the ceiling, people wave their boaters.
It has been Reagan’s strength, more important even than his industriousness in the service of fellow Republicans, that he can deliver a speech as convincingly to a crowd like this as he did to the crowd in New Orleans. Reagan believes his “party of main street” talk, and proves he believes it by acting on it. Republicans, a minority party for 30 years, desperately need that kind of an infusion. Nevertheless, if Reagan does badly in New Hampshire, and loses South Carolina and Florida, all that and $700 will get you an ounce of gold.
He finishes with the Winthrop-Reagan collaboration; the band plays “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and the campaign boards the plane for Los Angeles.
— Richard Brookhiser is a National Review senior editor.