Thirty years ago today, on February 23, 1980, Ronald Reagan rescued his political career. Reagan had entered the 1980 presidential race as the front-runner for the Republican nomination, but on January 21 George H. W. Bush shocked the political world by taking out Reagan in the Iowa caucuses. As Craig Shirley relates in this excerpt from his critically acclaimed book Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America (ISI Books), the sixty-nine-year-old Reagan rescued his campaign in dramatic fashion—in, of all places, a high school gym. Here is the inside story of how close Reagan’s campaign came to collapsing, and how the candidate turned things around.
The thirty-five days between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary during the 1980 presidential campaign were the most important time in Ronald Reagan’s political life. And the pivotal moment in this, his third try for the Republican nomination, occurred in a high school gymnasium just three days before the New Hampshire vote.
Long the front-runner for the Republican nomination, Reagan suffered a stunning upset in Iowa at the hands of George H. W. Bush on January 21. Worse for Reagan, his campaign’s internal polling showed the former California governor falling 21 points behind Bush in New Hampshire. If Reagan lost to Bush in New Hampshire, his campaign would be over. Forever. There was no tomorrow. This was it for the Gipper.
The Reagan campaign had dug itself into this hole. Campaign manager John Sears and his aides Jim Lake and Charlie Black had felt that Reagan could not be stopped. Revealingly, Black said of Iowa, “Hell, I didn’t know it was gonna be a primary.” Sears’s strategy had been to rein in his candidate, keeping Reagan off the campaign trail and avoiding debates with the other candidates.
Reagan finally put his foot down. He hated losing, and he impatiently told Sears that he would “campaign the way I like to campaign.” That meant going to every corner of New Hampshire, speaking his mind on issues—and debating. He abruptly announced that he would attend all debates in New Hampshire, the very “cattle shows” he had derided.
Meanwhile, Bush campaign strategists were rethinking the need to appear with all the other Republican candidates. Bush wanted Reagan in a one-on-one showdown. Giving attention to the other candidates would drain away anti-Reagan votes.
The Nashua Telegraph stepped forward to sponsor a one-on-one debate. When the Federal Election Commission ruled that the newspaper couldn’t sponsor a debate that excluded some GOP candidates, the desperate Reagan campaign agreed to foot the entire bill. The debate was on. It would be held in the Nashua High School gymnasium on Saturday, February 23—three days before the primary.
Irate at being excluded, the other Republican candidates fired off telegrams to Reagan, citing “fairness.” This weighed on the Gipper, but just one day before the Nashua showdown, Reagan’s New Hampshire campaign director, Gerald Carmen, confirmed that it would be a direct confrontation with Bush alone.
The Nashua Telegraph, Bush, Bush’s men, Reagan, Carmen, Reagan’s men—all had been boxed into the one-on-one debate format. All, that is, except for John Sears. ABC’s Barbara Walters had already reported that Sears “may well be fired,” but the canny political operative would give Ronald Reagan a final gift, one that would help open the front door to the White House for the Gipper.
Sears’s plan was to have Reagan relent at the last minute and invite the other candidates to participate. That would allow Reagan to appear magnanimous, and the maneuver would embarrass Bush into allowing the other Republicans—Senators Bob Dole and Howard Baker, Congressmen Phil Crane and John Anderson, and former Texas governor John Connally—onto the stage. Or perhaps it would create such chaos as to prevent Bush from winning the debate. Years later Charlie Black told me, “We knew he would choke.” Sears was blunter: “Our job was to show that Bush was not capable of being president.”
On the morning of the debate, Jim Lake got Reagan’s approval on the change in plans. Around noon, Sears called the other candidates. The only one who could not make it in time was Connally. He saw right through Sears’s ploy to use him and the others as props, but he liked the idea of sticking it to Bush. Connally laughed and said, “Brilliant strategy, but I ain’t coming. F— him over once for me.”
At 2 p.m., Sears publicly announced that Reagan wanted to open up the debate to the other candidates. Bush took the bait. He immediately refused to include the others, saying that he’d been invited by the Telegraph to participate in a two-man debate and that he “played by the rules.”
A half hour earlier, Jim Lake had called Telegraph executive editor Jon Breen to notify him that Reagan, claiming enormous pressure from the other candidates, had decided to include them. Breen became angry when he found out that the other candidates had already been invited to his debate and he hadn’t even been consulted. Livid at the last-minute switch, Breen and his Telegraph colleagues decided that it was their debate and they would stick with the one-on-one format.
That evening, about 2,400 people squeezed into the hot and stuffy Nashua High School gymnasium. Tensions mounted as time passed and . . . nothing happened. The debate was scheduled to begin at 7:30, but at 8:15 there were still no candidates to be found. An advance man kept asking Reagan aide Paul Russo how many chairs should he put on the stage, two or six? Russo could not give him an answer.
When Reagan arrived, he told Sears sternly, “I want to talk to George Bush.” Paul Laxalt, Reagan’s national campaign chairman, persuaded the candidate to send Senator Gordon Humphrey and Black as emissaries. Humphrey told Bush campaign manager Jim Baker, “I have a message for Mr. Bush that the one-on-one debate is not gonna happen,” and that Bush had to let the others be included. Baker stepped away to consult with Bush; he came back a moment later to say the answer was still no. Black pressed, but Baker, exercised, told him, “God damn it, you guys are not going to f— this up! This is going to be a two-man debate and you are not going to do anything to change it!”
When this was reported back to Reagan, who was now standing with the other four candidates, he stormed, “Dammit, this is unbelievable! I’m going to get you all in there!”
When Bush came out of his holding room and headed to the stage, Humphrey pleaded one last time to include the others in the name of “party unity.” Bush spat back at Humphrey, whom he loathed, “No f—ing way! I’ve worked all my life for this and I’m not giving it up. . . . I’ve done more for party unity than you’ll ever know!”
Bush’s position was now etched in granite: No other candidates.
Reagan huddled with the other candidates backstage and decided to walk out of the whole mess, in unity with them. Nancy Reagan, Black, and Humphrey vociferously protested. Humphrey told Reagan he would lose the primary if he ran away and let Bush have the stage to himself. Humphrey later told his aide Morton Blackwell that he was so intent on making his point, he discovered to his horror that he was poking Reagan in the chest.
Mrs. Reagan suddenly said, “I know what you are going to do; you are all going to go in there together.” Reagan saw the wisdom in his wife’s suggestion; he realized that if he walked out he would be seen as running away from a fight. He proceeded toward the stage.
Jim Lake could see that Reagan was livid, his face florid. As they stood in the wings, Lake borrowed a piece of paper from NBC News anchor John Chancellor and slipped Reagan a note telling him to keep his cool and that everyone was on his side. Reagan read it and winked at Lake.
Reagan volunteers Jim Roberts and his wife, Patti, also noticed Reagan’s mood. Patti turned to her husband and said, “He’s going to be great tonight because he is just furious.” Reagan was always at his best when angry.
Bush, accompanied by Breen, went onstage to the subdued cheers of his supporters. Bush and his entourage had swept right past Reagan in the back hall and neither man said a word to the other. Reagan climbed up on the stage, glowering. This was no act. Reagan was pissed off at Bush’s and the newspaper’s intransigence. Standing, he motioned for the excluded candidates to come up to the stage, which they did happily.
Reagan, the old pro, tapped his microphone. It was already on, because steps had been taken, according to Carmen, to make sure that the soundman, Bob Molloy, was under their control. Reagan politely but firmly asked Breen if he could address the crowd. Breen rudely said, “No.” Reagan spoke anyway. He began to tell the feisty throng that he felt it was in the interest of fairness that all the candidates be included. He looked at Bush, but Bush just stared ahead, frozen, with his granny glasses on, refusing to meet Reagan’s gaze. Breen interrupted Reagan . . . the crowd booed and hissed Breen again . . . and those who knew the Gipper said this was the angriest they’d ever seen him. His hands were shaking, he was so mad.
Talking over Reagan, Breen ordered Reagan’s microphone turned off, but the technician ignored him. Breen impatiently told Molloy a second time to turn off Reagan’s microphone, and again he ignored Breen.
That was it. Reagan had had enough.
He turned to Breen with blood in his eye and thundered, “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!”
The crowd went wild, and the other four candidates forcefully applauded Reagan. Though Reagan called the editor “Green” instead of “Breen,” the newspaperman was lucky that Reagan didn’t call him something worse.
Reagan asked Breen one final time to include the others but was rebuffed yet again. Breen talked down to Reagan, saying, “Are you through . . . ? Have you concluded your remarks?” The gymnasium was a madhouse—“total chaos,” in Molloy’s words.
“Through all this, Bush sat woodenly at the debate table, staring straight ahead like a goody-two-shoes in the midst of a college cafeteria food fight,” wrote one of Bush’s longtime tormentors in the press, Jules Witcover.
Reagan had completely outmaneuvered Bush. It didn’t matter that after several unpleasantries hurled at Bush and pleasantries aimed at Reagan, the excluded candidates—Dole, Baker, Crane, and Anderson—agreed to leave the stage, meaning that Bush got his two-man debate after all. According to Witcover, the incident in Nashua created the “perception” that “Bush had the backbone of a jellyfish.”
Standing off to the side, proud of the riot he had created, John Sears was “smiling like the Cheshire cat,” Reagan speechwriter Peter Hannaford remembered.
The “Nashua Four,” as the exiled candidates quickly dubbed themselves, retired to the school’s Band Room, where they were met by a mob of media and joyously bashed Bush. Bush “wants to be king,” Dole said. “I told him onstage there’ll be another day.” Actually, he had leaned into Bush and loudly whispered, “I’ll get you someday, you f—ing Nazi!” Speaking to the media, he said that Bush “better find himself another Republican Party.” He even compared the hated Bush to the “Gestapo” and “Hitler’s Germany.” Phil Crane made similarly dark references, intoning, “Shades of the beer-halls.”
Bush never knew what hit him. Shell-shocked, he kept muttering, “I kept my commitment. I kept my word.”
Though the event had not been televised live, the networks and local news ran footage, repeatedly, of a frozen Bush and the booming Reagan. Most of New Hampshire’s voters probably saw the film at least once.
Three days later, Ronald Reagan won the New Hampshire primary in a completely unexpected blowout, 50 to 23 percent. He had staved off what had seemed his sure political death.
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Note: A similar excerpt ran on National Review Online on October 19, 2009.