“For Ronald Reagan, the easy waiting game that had lasted through most of 1975, the luxury of sitting back and letting Jerry Ford take all the heat, was over. On the morning of Thursday, November 20, he strode before a battery of microphones and television cameras at the National Press Club and staked out his position as the Gentleman Caller of Republican politics, the outsider with clean hands, the savior come to Washington to purify the waters.
‘Our nation’s capital’, he said, ‘has become the seat of a buddy system that functions for its own benefit – increasingly insensitive to the needs of the American worker who supports it with his taxes. Today it is difficult to find leaders who are independent of the forces that have brought us our problems – the Congress, the bureaucracy, the lobbyists, big business and big labor.’
Reagan did not list [President] Gerald Ford as a member of the buddy system. Nor would he single out his opponent for any other criticism. Instead, as he had done in his two gubernatorial campaigns, Reagan pledged to honor California’s ‘Eleventh Commandment’ that said ‘Thou shall not speak ill of any fellow Republican’.”
So wrote the journalist, Jules Witcover, in his lengthy book, MARATHON, THE PURSUIT OF THE PRESIDENCY 1972-1976. Much has been written about the election contest in which Democrat Jimmy Carter ultimately defeated incumbent Republican President Gerald Ford (who had been appointed Vice-President by his predecessor, Richard Nixon, and ascended to the Presidency when Nixon resigned). However, Witcover’s MARATHON remains the standard.
The great sub-plot of Witcover’s historical account of the events of 1972-1976, of course, centered around the epic struggle between President Ford and Governor Ronald Reagan of California, in which the conservative Reagan sought to unseat a more moderate Gerald Ford by denying a sitting President the nomination of his own party at the Republican National Convention of 1976. As most Mississippi Republicans know, the Mississippi delegation at Kansas City, although badly split, played an important role at the 1976 convention in which Ford was ultimately nominated with 1187 delegates to Reagan’s 1070. Ronald Reagan, as we also know, went on to capture the Republican nomination four years later, defeat President Jimmy Carter, and he is now an icon of the Republican Party faithful. However, the scars remain from that monumental struggle in 1976 within the ranks of the Republican Party even today.
On the national stage today, we see those seeking the Republican nomination for President regularly taking shots at each other in violation of the Eleventh Commandment, although almost all of them speak of Ronald Reagan with reverence. Likewise, Republicans in Mississippi have recently gone through several bitter primary elections (particularly in the Lieutenant Governor’s race), hopefully on our way to victory in the general election in November, 2011. During those primary elections, Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment was also cast aside with abandon, with our candidates boldly attacking the integrity of their Republican opponents and questioning their fitness to hold public office.
As a very vocal proponent of the view that bitter and deeply personal primary fights weaken the Republican Party and cause permanent divisions that ultimately lead to Democratic victories, I decided to go back and review how President Ford and Governor Reagan conducted themselves in their marathon contest in 1976, in which the charismatic California Governor almost unseated his fellow Republican, a sitting President. My review shows that Reagan, who had for years been attacking Washington in support of his arguments that we should throw the Democratic rascals out, first attempted to reshape his anti-Washington theme as an attack on the status quo, without attacking President Ford personally, in order to avoid violating the Eleventh Commandment. Ford countered, upon the advice of his aides, by attacking Reagan with local press releases and surrogates leading up to the New Hampshire primary, thus keeping Ford “out of the cross fire” and looking Presidential.
As the campaign progressed, the Ford camp increasingly attempted to portray Reagan as “the new Barry Goldwater on Social Security”. The President also exercised the power of his incumbency on the campaign trail by promising numerous pork barrell plums such as new hospitals, missile contracts or mass transit programs in key states. He also “invited local [Florida] television anchormen to Washington for Oval Office interviews – the weekend before the Florida primary”.
Finding himself on the defensive, and initially insisting that he was merely challenging the President’s policies and not breaking with his Eleventh Commandment pledge, Reagan began to attack Ford’s foreign policy initiatives, charging that neither the President nor Secretary of State Henry Kissenger had shown “the vision nor the leadership necessary to halt and reverse the diplomatic and military decline of the United States.” He attacked Ford’s efforts for détente with the Soviet Union and the President’s apparent desire to turn over ownership of the Panama Canal to the Panamanians – under the leadership of “Panama’s military dictator, Fidel Castro’s good friend, General Omar Torrijos [Herrera]”. From the political stump, Reagan delivered these memorable lines: “when it comes to the canal, we built it, we paid for it, it’s ours, and we should tell Torrijos and company that we are going to keep it.” He added: “Under Messrs. Kissenger and Ford this nation has become number two in military power in a world where it is dangerous – if not fatal – to be second best.” Finally, paying his respects to Ford’s excessive political use of his incumbency, Reagan stated off the cuff at a rally in North Carolina: “If he comes here with the same list of goodies as he did in Florida . . . the band won’t know whether to play ‘Hail to the Chief’ or ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”
In the course of the heated Republican Presidential primary elections of 1976, both Reagan and Ford ultimately abandoned the Eleventh Commandment in their pursuit of victory. Their justification was that they had to defend themselves against unfair attacks from their opponent. Still, the scars within the party remain. Similar scars will remain for a while among Mississippi Republicans in the aftermath of our August, 2011 Republican primaries here in the Magnolia State. Hopefully, we will be wise enough to realize that a divided party whose members are more interested in fighting among themselves than in fighting Democrats, is a sure recipé for defeat – sooner or later. Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment remains the standard in Republican politics but will be followed only if all candidates in a Republican primary agree to abide by it. They will agree to abide by it only if Republican voters demand it.