If there’s one thing that I found curious about the Democratic National Convention last week, it’s how boring and utterly unforgivingly pessimistic many of the speeches were.
Dystopia. Post-apocalyptic. The end of Western Civilization.
No wonder the Democrats secured no bounce out of their convention.
The Democrats missed an opportunity to reclaim their historic role as the party of the future begun in 1932 by Franklin Roosevelt and then lost, in 1980 — to Ronald Reagan.
There was a time when political conventions had moments that could shake the very foundations of the two parties — but in a good way.
There was a time when one set of remarks could awe the audience and bring a fractured party together with fortitude and goodwill, a concept which is foreign in today’s political landscape.
And there was a time when a candidate could handle defeat or adversity with grace, yet use the opportunity to make the party stronger.
William Jennings Bryan’s "Cross of Gold" speech of 1896 to the Democratic convention of that time comes to mind as does the campaign of a young senator from Massachusetts, John Kennedy, who lost the nomination for the vice presidency of the Democratic Party in 1956.
But Kennedy learned from that defeat, and he won the presidency in 1960.
The 1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City was also such a time.
Ronald Reagan, former governor of California, had narrowly lost a fiercely fought, brutal primary to Gerald Ford for the party nomination.
It was a moment of bitterness and unmitigated disappointment for Reagan’s supporters who felt cheated, as a result of Reagan winning more votes than Ford, in the contested primaries.
Nevertheless, Ford, as the incumbent but unelected president, controlled the levers of power in the Republican Party, so it was he and not Reagan who won the nomination — by just 69 votes out of 2,000 plus cast in the Kemper Arena, in August of 1976.
It was the last time the delegates of either party would gather, in a convention city, without knowing who their nominee would be.
The convention hall was electric, thick with tension as a blue cloud materialized over the delegates from all the cigarette, cigar, and pipe smoking.
Ford, looking to bridge the divide, invited Reagan onstage the last night of the convention, despite their being no love lost between the two of them. As Brad Minnick, then an aide to Sen. Robert Griffin, recalled, "Ford’s team had no real love for him."
For his part, the charming and forever-forgiving Reagan could never warm up to Ford, while nice guy Jerry Ford simply despised Reagan.
Contrary to what revisionist historians or journalists will tell you, Ford’s invitation wasn’t planned. Reagan had no remarks prepared, and he initially waived off the request.
Reagan did so in the spirit of not stealing the night.
But, Ford insisted; the gracious Reagan took the stage before a raucous crowd of mostly true believers.
What followed was arguably Reagan’s most masterful speech, ever.
"There were so many people crying," said Terry Wade, a journalist who was on the floor of the Kemper Arena that fateful night.
Reagan spoke of a letter he was asked to write during his time as California governor; a letter that would remain sealed for 100 years.
It was a letter of challenges and of victory:
For seven minutes, the audience was dead silent.
“This is our challenge and this is why, here in this hall tonight, better than we’ve ever done before, we’ve got to quit talking to each other and about each other and go out and communicate to the world that, we may be fewer in numbers than we’ve ever been, but we carry the message they’re waiting for. We must go forth from here united, determined, that what a great general said a few years ago is true . . . ”
Halfway through his short remarks, a "big time Ford supporter" exclaimed on the floor of the arena, "Oh my God, we’ve nominated the wrong man!"
Kenny Kling, one of Reagan’s ablest field organizers was standing next to her when she uttered this astounding statement.
Reagan concluded his remarks with the immortal words of Gen. Douglas MacArthur: “There is no substitute for victory.”
At that point, the 17,000 Republicans went wild, because Reagan’s words were not an admission of defeat, rather, they were a rallying cry.
Reagan's words were a call to arms for a GOP that for years had been locked into the past.
They were a revelation to the party that the key to victory was not a stark obsession with that past but a robust, firm vision of the future and the Kemper Arena exploded with applause and shouts for Reagan including, "We Want Ron! We Want Ron!"
Reagan’s words, that night, set in motion a tectonic shift for Republicans though Reagan himself may not have known it at the time. Ford’s wing of the party was stuck in the past, but Reagan had planted the seeds that would root the party into the future and in the pages of history.
Reagan’s speech was broadcast live on all three networks and was seen by millions.
At the time, the Gipper was 65, and while it was open to question whether he would run again in four years, everywhere he went that fall of 1976, everybody told him — cab drivers, chambermaids, flight attendants, airline pilots, people on the street — all said to Reagan, "Oh governor, you’ve got to run just one more time."
Significantly, Reagan’s campaigns were often youth crusades.
The oldest president attracted the youngest supporters precisely because he was a man of the future.
One wag once said of Reagan, "He was nostalgic for the future" and nothing could be more accurate. Young Americans flocked to Reagan, such as 19-year-old college student, Mark Levin, who was organizing for Reagan in Philadelphia in 1976.
Such stories were legion and like thousands of other young conservatives, Levin later was part of the Reagan Revolution as it took over the national government in 1981, changing America — and then the world.
Reagan’s remarks in Kansas City were the beginning of a revolution. Such times are still possible for the parties of today. As the Gipper exemplified in his magnanimous speech so long ago, dogmatism and dissidence will eventually lead to defeat.
Irrefutable, meaningful progress is built on robust ideas, unshakable faith, immovable principles and ironclad optimism.
Craig Shirley is a Ronald Reagan biographer and presidential historian. His books include, “Reagan’s Revolution, The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started it All,” “Rendezvous with Destiny, Ronald Reagan and the Campaign that Changed America,” "Reagan Rising: The Decisive Years," and “ Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan." He is also the author of the New York Times bestseller, “December, 1941” and his new 2019 book, “Mary Ball Washington,” a definitive biography of George Washington’s mother. Shirley lectures frequently at the Reagan Library and the Reagan Ranch. He has been named the First Reagan Scholar at Eureka College, Ronald Reagan’s alma mater and will teach a class this fall at the University of Virginia on Reagan. He appears regularly on Newsmax TV, Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN. Read Craig Shirley's Reports — More Here.
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