Essay / Culture

Almost No Reagan

The death of John Paul the Great is a good time to review the history of the 1980’s. Some decades count more than other decades. Can anyone remember anything about the 1990’s? Does anyone wish to do so? On the other hand, the “eighties” marked an end to Communism and almost all of the Victorian utopian ideologies, Darwinism only excepted. Giants seemed to walk the earth. Ronald Wilson Reagan. Lady Thatcher. John Paul the Great.Each one of these remarkable individuals almost did not reach the summit of power. It is not worth thinking about what would have happened to the planet if any one of them had been stopped. The Nazis nearly did in John Paul. Tory stupidity almost blocked the rise of Thatcher. The same is true for the rise of Reagan.In his splendid book, Reagan’s Revolution, Craig Shirley reminds us that Republicans rejected Reagan (narrowly!) in his first serious bid for President in 1976. I don’t remember those primaries well (being all of thirteen), but Shirley brought it all back. And it is important to remember how far Reagan and that campaign brought conservatives.It gave us control of the party. It gave conservatives a voice that was not negative. It made an entire generation of political workers turned off by Watergate hopeful again. It nearly defeated a sitting President in the royal party and broke the back of the geriatric North-East leadership which was content to lose to Democrats as long as their genteel hands kept some power. It gave religious conservatives a voice that was free from the sin of racism (Wallace) or the stupidity of populist economics (Bryanism). My own family backed President Ford in the New York primaries. We were seventh generation Republicans and took our politics seriously. We knew that Jimmy Carter was a disaster in the making. My father sensibly reasoned (given what we knew at the time) that Reagan could not win. Goldwater had taught that lesson hadn’t he? The 1976 campaign changed all of that. Reagan might have won. He would have done at least as well against Carter as Ford. However, it is not clear that my father was not right in 1976. Didn’t it take four years of liberal ineptitude on the part of Carter to get the conservative Democrats to consider becoming Reagan Democrats? Would Reagan have inherited the troubles of the late 1970s without the Republican Senate that passed his tax cuts and defense build up? Carter made Reagan possible, just as Gerald R. Ford and the primaries of 1976 made Reagan plausible. In 1980 my father and entire family (though I could still not vote!) were solidly in Reagan’s camp. We were Reagan Republicans who decided that this time their heads and their hearts could settle on the same candidate. This process was repeated all over America.Buy the book and learn that once upon a time, Nelson Rockefeller was a serious player in the Republican Party. Remember that small victories and even big defeats can lead to positive changes. The modern Republican Party was born out of the narrow loss of 1976. The book is pithy, moving, and fun for political junkies and Reagan fans alike. Most of all, in this Dark Age, it is a reminder that God knows. He brings His men to the right place at the right time. At just the right time, almost at the same moment, John Paul the Great, the Iron Lady, and the Great Communicator shared the world stage for almost a decade. Divine providence indeed. I appreciate being sent a review copy by the publisher.

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