The Right Man at the Wrong Time
Whether they have the freedoms that we have known up until now will depend on what we do here.
In 1976, my father, Ronald Reagan, took on a seemingly impossible challenge: He attempted to unseat the incumbent president of his own party, Gerald Ford.
After a number of early primary losses, Ronald Reagan battled back with a string of victories in major states. By the end of the primary race, he had garnered more popular votes than Ford, though fewer committed delegates. It finally came down to the Republican National Convention in Kansas City, Missouri, August 16 to 19. My father had made such a strong showing that if he could convince a small number of delegates to switch, he could wrest the nomination from President Ford.
I had never been to a political convention before, and it was the thrill of a lifetime to sit in the Reagan family skybox at the Kemper Arena. I also got to visit many state delegations, along with my sister Maureen, to say a few words and shake hands.
Maureen campaigned tirelessly for Dad in the 1976 primaries. She looked forward to the convention and expected to be a Reagan delegate from California. As the candidate and former California governor, Dad could appoint people to the California delegation. Of course, there are always more people clamoring for delegate passes than there are slots available. When we arrived at the convention, Dad had one delegate appointment left in his pocket—and Maureen wanted it.
She went to Dad and begged, “Please appoint me as a delegate! I’ve just got to be on the convention floor!” She wanted to be the one to announce, “The great State of California proudly casts all its votes for its favorite son, Ronald Wilson Reagan!”
But Dad turned her down. “I’m giving the last delegate seat to Moon,” he said, referring to his older brother, John Neil “Moon” Reagan.
Maureen was livid! She was so angry, I thought she would leave the convention. “That’s not fair!” she said. “I campaigned hard for you, Dad! I’ve earned the right to be on the delegation!”
It was all true—but Dad’s mind was made up. “Merm,” he said (using the nickname she’d had since childhood), “you’ll be around a long time. But look how old Moon is! He might not be here in four years.”
To hear Dad say it, Neil had one foot in the grave and the other on a roller skate—though, at sixty-eight, Neil was only three years older than Dad. (As it turned out, Neil had a lot more years left in him.) Dad appointed Neil to the California delegation in 1976—and Maureen got over her disappointment in time to lead the delegation in 1980.
There’s nothing like the electricity of a political convention. Even when nothing is happening onstage, the delegates find ways to keep things stirred up. The Texas delegation and the California delegation were on opposite sides of the convention hall, and both were firmly in the Reagan camp. From one end of the hall, the Californians shouted, “¡Viva!” From the other, the Texans shouted back, “¡Olé!” Back and forth they chanted, louder and louder, until the rafters shook and you could feel the roar of the crowd in your stomach.
Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, a liberal Republican, had declined to be President Ford’s running mate in the upcoming election. “Rocky” headed the New York delegation and controlled the convention behind the scenes. It was a huge headache for him, because he got hundreds of phone calls from politicians wanting to make deals. At one point, he ripped out the phone and threw it across the convention floor, shouting, “Quit calling me!”
I never cease to be amazed at the games people play. During the nomination proceedings on Wednesday night, I was scheduled to escort Nancy to our seats. It was to be her grand entrance, and she would receive a huge ovation from the delegates. But First Lady Betty Ford was apparently planning to wait for the moment Nancy made her entrance—then Mrs. Ford would make her own entrance and upstage Nancy.
Well, I was oblivious to all this scheming—guys don’t think that way. But Maureen somehow knew what Mrs. Ford was about to do. So, as I was about to escort Nancy down the aisle, Maureen stood and waved to the California delegation. When she did that, the California delegates shouted “¡Viva!” So, of course, the Texas delegates shouted back, “¡Olé!”
Hearing the commotion, Betty Ford must have thought Nancy was making her entrance—so, of course, she made her own entrance. The delegates cheered and applauded as Betty Ford came down the aisle and took her seat, apparently thinking she had one-upped the Reagans.
But when the applause died down, Nancy made her real entrance while Betty Ford stared openmouthed. (Merm, darlin’, that was sheer genius!)
There was a huge groundswell of support for Ronald Reagan at the convention. Though most delegates were bound by convention rules to vote for President Ford on the first ballot, some would have switched to Reagan if the rules could be changed. When the Reagan camp lost the rules fight, we knew Ford had won. As Dad later observed, “Where delegates had freedom to vote, we did well. Defeat came in those three [northeast] states where the party structure controlled the vote and I suspect ‘Rocky’ controlled the party structure.”1
In the end, Ronald Reagan fell just short of the 1,130 votes needed to nominate, collecting 47.4 percent of the votes. The final tally was 1,187 for Ford versus 1,070 for Reagan. It was the first time I had ever seen my father lose at anything.
He Said “Nyet”
Ronald Reagan came from a generation in which parents never let their kids see them in a moment of weakness. He never showed that side of himself to me or my siblings. For example, I didn’t learn until years later that in the early 1950s he spent a couple of weeks as a floor show emcee at the El Rancho hotel in Las Vegas because he couldn’t get decent movie roles.
So it was strange and surreal to see my father in a moment of defeat.
After Dad lost the rules fight, we had dinner together in the suite. Seated at the head of the table, Dad said, “We’re going to the convention tonight, but you need to know I’m not going to win the nomination. The delegates just aren’t there.” Maureen and I already knew this, but Dad wanted to forewarn the entire family.
Despite having to be the bearer of bad tidings, my father was his usual upbeat self. Nancy, however, was teary-eyed throughout the meal. The harder Dad tried to keep things light and convivial, the more melancholy Nancy became.
After dinner, Nancy gathered us around the fireplace and poured champagne. Then she raised her glass and, with a tremor in her voice, proposed a toast to Dad.
We clinked our glasses and drank. Then Nancy added haltingly, “I’m sorry I pushed you into this, Ronnie. I really thought you would win. But no matter what happens, we still have each other.”
It was as if she felt the loss was her fault. I had never seen Nancy so vulnerable before.
I know a lot of people think Nancy was the power behind the throne. It’s true, she has a strong personality. Nancy believed that her Ronnie could truly make the right kind of difference in the world. She was probably convinced she was in control of the situation.
Dad gave Nancy control of the house and all the domestic and social matters. He depended on her in so many ways. But when it came to politics, Ronald Reagan was his own man. He knew his own mind, had his own values and strong inner core—and he had his own reasons for wanting the presidency.
So when Nancy took the blame for the loss, Dad smiled, took her hand, and said, “I love you. There’s no one to blame. We gave it a good run, and that’s all there is to say.”
That was what Nancy needed to hear—what all of us needed to hear.
On the final day of the convention, the Reagan family gathered once again with Dad in his hotel suite, waiting for Gerald Ford to arrive. We hoped that President Ford would ask Dad to be his running mate. Maureen and I prayed that Dad would accept the offer because we thought he’d never get this close to the presidency again.
While we waited, I took my father aside in a corner of the room, just the two of us, and asked, “What are you thinking about, Dad?”
“Michael,” he said wistfully, “the thing I’ll miss most by losing this nomination is that I won’t get to say ‘nyet’ to Mr. Brezhnev. I really wanted to win the presidency in November because I was looking forward to arms negotiations with the Soviets. For too many years, American presidents have been sitting down with the Soviets, and the Soviets have been telling us what we will have to give up to get along with the Soviet Union. I was going to let the general secretary of the Soviet Union choose the place, the room, the shape of the table, and the chairs, because that’s how they do those things. And I was going to listen to him tell me what we would have to give up to get along with them. Then I was going to get up from the table while he was still talking, walk around to the other side, and whisper in his ear, ‘Nyet.’ It’s been a long time since they’ve heard ‘Nyet’ from an American president.”
Ten years later, in October 1986, President Ronald Reagan went to Reykjavík, Iceland, for a summit with Soviet general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. Topping the agenda was strategic arms control and the proposed Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Just as my father expected, Mr. Gorbachev demanded that the U.S. give up the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) missile shield. And just as Dad had planned more than a decade earlier, he said “nyet” to Mr. Gorbachev.
No, Dad didn’t use that exact Russian word. But he did refuse the Soviets’ demands—and he pressed Gorbachev on a number of moral and political concerns, including human rights abuses in the USSR, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and the Soviets’ refusal to allow emigration by Jews and dissidents.
For the first time in decades, an American president told the Soviets what they would have to give up in order to get along with us. As a result, the talks in Reykjavík concluded without an agreement. Believe me, it gave Ronald Reagan no pleasure to walk away empty-handed. But he did what he had planned to do: He demonstrated American strength and resolve—and in the fullness of time, it paid off.
On the return flight from Iceland aboard Air Force One, Dad’s longtime friend and adviser Charles Wick told him, “Cheer up, Mr. President. You’ve just won the Cold War.” I don’t think Dad believed him, but Wick’s words were prophetic.
The Reykjavík summit was the climactic moment Dad had dreamed of for years, ever since he had gotten into politics. That was the dream he revealed to me as we sat in his hotel suite in Kansas City. That was the reason he ran for president—unsuccessfully in 1976, then triumphantly in 1980. That was the goal he pursued throughout the last half of his life. And it was the centerpiece of his presidential legacy.
He said “nyet” to Mikhail Gorbachev, and the world was changed.
The Beginning, Not the End
Of course, on that August night in 1976, none of us could see what lay ahead. Reykjavík and the end of the Cold War were far off in the misty future. On the last night of the convention, we saw nothing but defeat.
A little while after Dad and I had that conversation in the corner of the room, President Ford arrived and he and my father went into another room of the suite for a private conversation. They didn’t talk long. Minutes later, Dad and President Ford emerged. They shook hands and the president left the suite.
Dad knew the question on our minds: Did he accept the offer? Was he going to be President Ford’s running mate?
“He didn’t ask me,” Dad said simply. “He chose Bob Dole.”
With that announcement, our last ray of hope was extinguished.
I remember what I was thinking—the same thing we were all thinking: This is it. Dad’s too old to run for president again. He was sixty-five and would be approaching seventy in 1980. All of us, including Nancy, thought this was the end of the road.
But it was just the beginning. Losing the nomination turned out for the best. The loss in 1976 laid the foundation for all the miraculous events of 1980 and beyond.
“I Don’t Know What to Say!”
Members of the Reagan family and Dad’s inner circle arrived early at the skybox for the closing ceremonies and President Ford’s acceptance speech. As I chatted with my wife, Colleen, and sister Maureen, we heard a knock at the door. Someone opened the door and there stood a stranger. His eyes were red, he swayed on his feet, and he was obviously intoxicated. In a slurred voice he asked, “Is Mr. Deaver here?”
Michael Deaver, Dad’s media adviser, stood up.
The man tottered over to Deaver and pointed toward the stage. “I’ll tell ya what’s gonna happen tonight,” he said. “President Ford’s gonna give his speech—then he’ll look up to this booth and say, ‘Ron, come on down, and bring Nancy with you.’ Then Governor Reagan and his wife will come to the platform, and President Ford will ask him to say a few words. So make sure Governor Reagan has a few remarks ready.”
The man turned, staggered out into the corridor, and was gone.
We all looked at one another and laughed. Someone said, “Who was that guy?” No one took it seriously. We knew Gerald Ford would never ask Ronald Reagan to speak after his own acceptance speech—not in a million years! The candidate always wants the last word at the convention. Besides, if President Ford had wanted to send my father an invitation, he wouldn’t entrust it to some drunk! We dismissed the incident from our thoughts.
Sometime later, Dad and Nancy arrived in the skybox. No one thought to mention the drunk and his message.
Meanwhile, on the floor, the delegates celebrated. Speaker after speaker came to the platform and pumped up the crowd for the main event: President Gerald R. Ford’s acceptance speech. At 10:45 P.M., as President Ford got up to speak, many of us in the skybox prepared to leave. We knew that as soon as he finished speaking it would be pandemonium in the convention hall. A lot of Reagan family members decided to leave early to avoid the crowds.
Maureen, Colleen, and I made our way out of the arena and across the street to the hotel. We sat in the bar, sipping wine and watching the closing minutes of Ford’s speech on television. As the president delivered his final applause line, the convention erupted in cheers. Our mood was melancholy.
We were surprised to hear some of the delegates shouting for Dad: “Ron! Ron! Ron! Speech! Speech! Speech!” The network coverage cut back and forth between the platform and the Reagan skybox, where well-wishers from the grandstands reached up to shake Dad’s hand.
Next, the TV screen showed Jerry and Betty Ford on the platform, beckoning to Dad. “Ron,” the president said into the microphone, “would you come down and bring Nancy?”
Dad shook his head no, but Nancy urged him to go.
Maureen, Colleen, and I looked at one another and our jaws dropped. That drunk was telling the truth! I kicked myself for not being in the arena when Dad was invited to address the convention. Instead I was watching on television with the rest of the country!
Dad and Nancy left the skybox while the delegates cheered. On the platform, President Ford and his running mate, Senator Bob Dole, raised their hands and waved. Minutes later, Dad and Nancy appeared on the platform and shook hands with the Fords while the band played “California, Here I Come.”
I saw Dad lean over to Nancy and whisper something. Nancy’s smile tightened. Only later did I learn what he told her—
“I don’t know what to say!”
“We Carry the Message They Are Waiting For”
President Ford invited Dad to the lectern and the crowd thundered its approval. Dad tilted his head and began, “Mr. President, Mrs. Ford—” The convention hall became very quiet. The TV cameras panned the crowd. The delegates leaned forward, some with tears in their eyes. Then, for the next five and a half minutes, my father proceeded to deliver, completely unrehearsed, one of the great speeches of his career:
“There are cynics who say that a party platform is something that no one bothers to read and it doesn’t very often amount to much. Whether it is different this time than it has ever been before, I believe the Republican Party has a platform that is a banner of bold, unmistakable colors, with no pale pastel shades.
“We have just heard a call to arms based on that platform, and a call to us to really be successful in communicating and revealing to the American people the difference between this platform and the platform of the opposing party—which is nothing but a revamp and a reissue and a running of a late, late show of the thing that we have been hearing from them for the last forty years.
“I had an assignment the other day. Someone asked me to write a letter for a time capsule that is going to be opened in Los Angeles a hundred years from now, on our tricentennial. It sounded like an easy assignment. They suggested I write something about the problems and the issues of the day. And I set out to do so.
“Riding down the coast in an automobile, looking at the blue Pacific out on one side and the Santa Ynez Mountains on the other, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was going to be that beautiful a hundred years from now as it was on that summer day.
“Then, as I tried to write—let your own minds turn to that task—you’re going to write for people a hundred years from now, who know all about us. We know nothing about them. We don’t know what kind of a world they’ll be living in.
“And suddenly I thought to myself, if I write of the problems, they’ll be the domestic problems the president spoke of here tonight: the challenges confronting us, the erosion of freedom that has taken place under Democratic rule in this country, the invasion of private rights, the controls and restrictions on the vitality of the great free economy that we enjoy. These are our challenges that we must meet.
“And then again, there is that challenge of which he spoke, that we live in a world in which the great powers have poised and aimed at each other horrible missiles of destruction, nuclear weapons that can in a matter of minutes arrive at each other’s country and destroy virtually the civilized world we live in.
“And suddenly it dawned on me, those who would read this letter a hundred years from now will know whether those missiles were fired. They will know whether we met our challenge. Whether they have the freedoms that we have known up until now will depend on what we do here.
“Will they look back with appreciation and say, ‘Thank God for those people in 1976 who headed off that loss of freedom, who kept us now a hundred years later free, who kept our world from nuclear destruction’?
“And if we failed, they probably won’t get to read the letter at all because it spoke of individual freedom, and they won’t be allowed to talk of that or read of it.
“This is our challenge; and this is why, here in this hall tonight, better than we have 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—though we may be fewer in numbers than we’ve ever been—we carry the message they are waiting for.
“We must go forth from here united, determined that what a great general said a few years ago is true: There is no substitute for victory.”
And for a final time, the arena erupted with cheers and applause, and the band struck up “California, Here I Come” once more.
I didn’t fully appreciate the power of those words at the time. I was too busy thinking, I should have been there! But I later found out what my father’s speech meant to the people in that arena—and to the millions who had watched it on television.
A Speech About Choices
Ronald Reagan always seemed to rise to the occasion. One moment, he was confiding to Nancy, “I don’t know what to say!” The next moment, he let the words flow from his heart and delivered a speech that was truly a turning point in his career. As columnist George F. Will observed:
Reagan’s rise to the White House began from the ashes of the 1976 Republican convention in Kansas City. Truth be told, it began from the podium of that convention, with Reagan’s gracious—but fighting—concession speech. No one who knew the man and listened to him carefully could have mistaken that speech for a valedictory statement by someone taking his leave from national politics.…
As was the case with Winston Churchill, another politician spurned by his party and consigned to “wilderness years,” the iron entered Reagan’s soul after adversity. In a sense, therefore, his loss in 1976 was doubly fortunate: The Carter presidency made the country hungry for strong leadership, and the Reagan of 1980 was stronger and more ready to lead than was the Reagan of 1976.2
That speech was impromptu—but it didn’t come off the top of his head. It welled up from the depths of his soul. This was no cut-down version of his stump speech. His thoughts were custom-crafted for that unique moment in history.
It was a speech about choices—the choices we make as a self-governing society. He was reminding the American people that the decisions we make as a society today have a profound impact on generations to come.
The choice America made in 1976 has come back to haunt us again and again. That was the year America sent Jimmy Carter to the White House. What did we get as a result of that choice? For starters, we got a deepening economic crisis—fuel shortages and gas lines, skyrocketing unemployment, and runaway inflation (rising from 4.8 percent in 1976 to around 12 percent in 1980).3 To top it off, we got an American president who announced in 1977 that America was finally free of its “inordinate fear of Communism.”4
President Carter’s approach to foreign policy was to treat our friends as enemies and our enemies as friends. His decision to undermine the Shah of Iran led to the radical Islamic revolution and the Tehran hostage crisis, in which fifty-two Americans were held captive for 444 days. Watching President Carter’s fumbling response to world events, the Communist overlords in the Kremlin perceived Carter to be weak and ineffectual. Believing they had nothing to fear from the United States, they brazenly invaded Afghanistan in 1979.
The continuing legacy of Jimmy Carter is the present crisis in Iran. As I write these words, the Islamic Republic of Iran is on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons and the mullahs threaten Israel with extinction. We also face a nuclear-armed North Korea, thanks to a treaty negotiated by former president Carter in 2002 (the “Agreed Framework,” which the North Koreans have used as a fig leaf to disguise their nuclear cheating). Three decades after Jimmy Carter left office, we are still cleaning up the messes he left behind.
So Ronald Reagan’s message in 1976 was prophetic. He was a forward thinker, and he warned that if we choose poorly today, we’ll be in a world of trouble tomorrow. So he urged America to choose wisely in 1976. His plea went unheeded, and we are still paying the price.
I wonder if my father truly understood the lasting importance of that speech, both to his own political career and to history. Probably not. In his autobiography, An American Life, he mentions the speech only in passing: “After the balloting, President Ford called me down to the platform. Nancy and I went and I asked the delegates to make the vote unanimous for Ford and pledged my support for him. It was an exciting and unforgettable evening.”5 He hardly seemed to realize how momentous that speech was, either to his career or to the nation.
Where did that speech come from? Nancy later recalled that when Dad said he didn’t know what to say, she thought frantically, Good Lord, I hope he thinks of something.6 Dad really didn’t know what he was going to say. I’ve watched the tape of that event many times, and if you look closely, especially at his eyes, you can see his mental wheels turning. Yet the words flowed beautifully when he needed them.
I don’t know why President Ford took the unusual step of offering a defeated rival the last word at the convention. Unfortunately for Ford, that speech allowed America to compare these two leaders side by side. My father’s brief remarks completely overshadowed President Ford’s forty-minute acceptance speech. There was something magical about Ronald Reagan’s impromptu remarks, and everyone in the arena felt it.
I’ve talked to people who were there that night, and they speak of the hush in the arena, as if all the oxygen had been sucked out of the air. When my father finished speaking, the convention floor erupted in cheers—and tears. Many wept openly, believing they had just witnessed the last hurrah of Ronald Reagan. Others wept tears of remorse, thinking, We’ve nominated the wrong man!
I thought they had, too.
But with the 20/20 hindsight of history, I’ve come to see things differently. I believe in the wisdom of Ecclesiastes 3:1 (KJV): “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” Yes, Ronald Reagan was the right man, but 1976 was the wrong year. Four years later, his time came—and the world was changed.
Actors in the Drama of History
It’s hard to believe how much time has passed.
In June 2004, we buried my father on the grounds of his presidential library in Simi Valley, California. I kissed my father’s casket and said good-bye to the greatest man I’ve ever known—one of the greatest men the world has ever known.
That night, my family and I stayed at the Hotel Bel-Air, where many of the dignitaries in the funeral cortège stayed. The next morning, we went downstairs for breakfast and I saw one of my father’s dearest friends, Lady Margaret Thatcher. I went to her and said hello, and she greeted me warmly.
We talked for a few minutes about the close friendship she enjoyed with my father. “Michael,” she said, “I’ve often thought it was tragic that your father was not elected in 1976. Perhaps the Berlin Wall might have come down and the Cold War ended four years earlier. The world would have been spared so much suffering.”
“Actually,” I said, “I believe Ronald Reagan reached the White House at exactly the right time. If he had been elected in 1976, I don’t think he would have accomplished all that he did.”
The thought surprised her. “What do you mean?”
“Ronald Reagan needed allies to bring down the Iron Curtain—and his allies weren’t in place in 1976. You, Lady Thatcher, were Dad’s strongest ally, and you didn’t become prime minister until 1979. Pope John Paul II came on the scene in 1978—and his visit to Poland in 1979 sparked the rise of Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement. Vaclav Havel came to prominence in Czechoslovakia in 1977. And Mikhail Gorbachev didn’t come to power until 1985—a year after my father would have left office if he’d been elected in 1976. None of Dad’s allies were in place in 1976—but almost all of you were in place in 1981. It took all of you, working together, to end the Cold War.”
She nodded. “Why, I never thought of that! I’m going to have to give that some more thought.”
I believe God chooses the times and selects the people to accomplish His purpose in the world. He chose each of the Founding Fathers and brought them together in Philadelphia in 1776 to craft that magnificent statement of human liberty, the Declaration of Independence. He chose the right time to assemble the Constitutional Convention, so that the Founders could draft a document that would enumerate our rights, structure our government, and bind us together as “We the People.”
God chooses the times for all the great events in history. He chose the right time for Ronald Reagan’s election. On March 30, 1981, God arranged events to the split second to prevent my father from being killed by an assassin’s bullet. And He chose the right time for the Iron Curtain to fall. I believe God places the actors on the grand stage of history, and as they play their parts, the drama of history unfolds.
Though Dad was disappointed to lose the nomination in 1976, he was right on schedule, playing his part, delivering a five-and-a-half-minute message that still reverberates through history. And God is not through using Ronald Reagan and the speech he delivered in Kansas City. The words he spoke that night still have a job to do here and now, in the twenty-first century.
That’s why I’ve written this book.
He Still Speaks to Us Today
My father’s convention speech could be delivered today without changing a word. Line by line, every principle he proclaimed is as valid today as it was then. Why? Because even though times may change, principles do not.
Look again at the agenda set forth in that speech. He began by talking about the party platform—”a banner of bold, unmistakable colors, with no pale pastel shades.” My father was justly proud of the GOP platform, because he helped shape it.
The centerpiece of the party platform that year was the American family. It read: “Families must continue to be the foundation of our nation. Families—not government programs—are the best way to make sure our children are properly nurtured, our elderly are cared for, our cultural and spiritual heritages are perpetuated, our laws are observed and our values are preserved.… Thus it is imperative that our government’s programs, actions, officials and social welfare institutions never be allowed to jeopardize the family. We fear the government may be powerful enough to destroy our families; we know that it is not powerful enough to replace them.”7
It’s important to remember the historical context in which the GOP platform was written. This was the first convention since the divisive Roe v. Wade decision of January 22, 1973. The GOP platform positioned the party firmly in the pro-life camp, proclaiming “a position on abortion that values human life.”8
Because the convention was held in 1976, America’s bicentennial year, the ideals of the Founding Fathers were on the minds of the American people. The Preamble of the Republican platform reflects those ideals: “Our great American Republic was founded on the principle: ‘one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all.’ This bicentennial year marks the anniversary of the greatest secular experiment in history: That of seeking to determine that a people are truly capable of self-government. It was our Declaration which put the world and posterity on notice ‘that all men are … endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights’ and that those rights must not be taken from those to whom God has given them.”9 Ronald Reagan rightly called this platform “a banner of bold, unmistakable colors, with no pale pastel shades.”
His 1976 convention speech, though delivered at a moment’s notice, is so timeless it still speaks to us today. He spoke of a time capsule that would be opened in a hundred years, during America’s tricentennial, and he wondered how future generations would be affected by the choices made in 1976. As I write these words, about a third of a century has passed and we are still making choices that will affect future generations. Is the world a better place because of the choices we are making today—or are we destroying our children’s future? When that time capsule is opened, will the people of 2076 thank us—or will they curse us for surrendering their freedom and prosperity?
My father warned about the erosion of individual freedom, the invasion of privacy, the controls and restrictions that hamper the economy—all the results of the Big Government policies imposed on us by years of Democrat Party rule. From 1981 through early 1989, Ronald Reagan used the power of the presidency to halt that erosion, block that invasion, and remove those controls and restrictions from the economy. He was successful beyond anyone’s expectations.
But after he left office, his successors, both Democrats and Republicans, neglected his wisdom. Government has grown; freedom has contracted; prosperity has declined. It’s time to heed Ronald Reagan’s warnings again.
In somber tones, he reminded us of the ever-present threat of nuclear destruction. Today we face that same threat in a myriad of new forms, as nuclear weapons are finding their way into the hands of unstable dictators who sponsor global terrorism. Ronald Reagan showed us how to disarm an Evil Empire and how to strike terror into the hearts of terrorists. It’s time we listened to him once more.
Above all, in his 1976 speech he reminded us that all people yearn to be free. “Whether they have the freedoms that we have known up until now,” he said, “will depend on what we do here.” Those words are as true today as when he spoke them.
Finally, Ronald Reagan issued a “call to arms” and urged the party faithful to go out and communicate to the American people that conservative values are truly American values, the principles on which this nation was founded. He candidly acknowledged that, in the wake of Watergate and the Nixon resignation, Republicans were “fewer in numbers than we’ve ever been.” Yet he boldly reminded them, “We carry the message they are waiting for.
“We must go forth from here united, determined that what a great general said a few years ago is true: There is no substitute for victory.”
Today, the Republican Party is once again “few in numbers.” Conservative principles are under constant attack by a hostile media. George W. Bush left office an unpopular president. But what Ronald Reagan said in 1976 is still true: We carry the message that people are waiting for. Now as never before, we must go out and communicate the truth that conservative values produce freedom, opportunity, and economic expansion.
Today, there is still no substitute for victory.
Principles Don’t Change
If the world was a dangerous place in 1976 (and it was), the dangers are even greater today. The Ford-Carter years brought America to the brink of economic disintegration and military collapse. Ronald Reagan pulled us back from that brink.
Today, America is on the endangered species list once more. Our economy has been dangerously weakened. Our national debt is unsustainable and still growing. A wave of unfunded entitlement liabilities (trillions of dollars of Social Security and Medicare payouts) is about to hit us like a tsunami. Our military is stretched to the breaking point and dangerously undermined by political correctness. Our government has nationalized the banks, the car companies, and the health care system. We have more government and less freedom than at any other time in our history.
I have friends who emigrated here from Eastern Europe because they want to be free. Now some of them are going back to Eastern Europe because they want to remain free! We need to ask ourselves: Why do people in Poland and the Czech Republic have more freedom than we have today in the United States of America?
Ronald Reagan still speaks to us. After he delivered that speech and walked off that stage in 1976, many thought he had passed into history. Four years later, he came back and made history. For eight years, he put the principles of that speech into action—and he changed the world.
Here was a man who knew who he was, who saw the world clearly, who understood how to fix what was broken. When he spoke, he made it simple for us all to understand. Many politicians seem to say one thing one day and the opposite thing the next. Ronald Reagan’s message was consistent from day to day and year to year, because it was rooted in values and principles, not the political advantage of the moment. You always knew where Ronald Reagan stood and you knew he stood with you.
I travel around the world and talk to thousands of people. Again and again I hear: “I miss your father. I wish we had Ronald Reagan back. I wish we still had a leader with bold colors, who was willing to stand up proudly for America.” People today are tired of politicians who pay lip service to Ronald Reagan but won’t stand up for his principles. They are tired of politicians who mimic the style of Ronald Reagan while denying his substance.
My father delivered so many speeches during his career, and all of them are filled with ideas and principles we still need today. Whether he was speaking on behalf of Barry Goldwater in 1964 (“A Time for Choosing”) or speaking before the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 1987 (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”), Ronald Reagan was the Great Communicator of noble ideas. If you listen to those speeches, you will be instructed and inspired—and you will learn truths that still apply today.
Unfortunately, we are not hearing such words today. We rarely hear our leaders talk about freedom or self-reliance or fiscal restraint or American resolve in the face of tyranny. Conservatives today still talk about Ronald Reagan, but I wonder if they truly understand him. I wonder if they could articulate what Ronald Reagan believed, what he taught, what he practiced, and what he stood for. We know that he ended the Cold War. We know that he pulled the American economy out of its tailspin. But do we know how he did it? Do we grasp the principles that guided him through eight years in office?
It’s time to listen and learn from him again.
How to Use This Book
I’ve opened this book with a look back to 1976. But this book is not about the past. It’s dedicated to America’s future. It’s about the choices we make today that will affect future generations—our children, our grandchildren, and beyond. The decisions we make as a society will determine whether or not we leave to our children the same American dream and American ideals that were entrusted to us. As Abraham Lincoln said in a December 1862 address to Congress, shortly before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”10
If you talk to your liberal friends and tell them you worry that the America we know and love may soon be lost, they will look at you in disbelief and say, “What are you talking about? America will always be here!” But you and I know better. As Ronald Reagan said in 1983, “Freedom is not something to be secured in any one moment of time. We must struggle to preserve it every day. And freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.”11
America has undergone dramatic changes in my lifetime—and not for the better. I’ve seen how everything that is good and noble about America has come under attack—our love of freedom, our belief in the rights of the individual, our respect for the Constitution, our respect for God and religious faith, the integrity of the family, a strong national defense, and sound economic policy. These values have come under attack in the name of political correctness and globalism and progressivism.
So, in this book, you and I will find solutions to the crises of the twenty-first century in the thoughts and actions of the man who changed the world during the 1980s—my father, Ronald Reagan. The challenges we face today are eerily similar to the conditions in the world before the beginning of the Reagan era. The good news is that we now know what works. Ronald Reagan has given us the blueprint for dealing with the problems we face today. In the coming pages, we will explore:
• The events and forces that shaped the life and vision of Ronald Reagan
• What it truly means to raise a banner of bold colors
• Why liberal-progressive ideas are still nothing but late, late show reruns of failed ideas—and what you can do to stop them
• The economic and national security crises that are headed our way as a result of liberal policies and political correctness
• How to secure the blessings of liberty for yourself, your children, and future generations
• What you can do to help defend against the approaching social, political, and economic meltdown
• And more
All around us, people say that America’s best days are over, that we must accept the fact that America is in decline, that we must learn to live with increasing scarcity and rising terrorism as facts of life. That’s what people were saying in 1980, before Ronald Reagan was elected president. He refused to accept that view. So do I. So should you. Ronald Reagan told us that America’s best days were ahead, that American ingenuity and free enterprise could defeat any enemy. Then he proved he was right.
It’s time for us to prove him right again.
This book is not merely a diagnosis of our nation’s ills but also a prescription to heal our nation, rooted in the words and principles of Ronald Reagan. In these pages, you’ll find a plan for returning America to its former greatness and prosperity. It’s not my plan but the plan my father developed over years of study, observation, and reflection. It’s a plan he announced to the nation, straight from his heart, one summer evening during America’s two hundredth year. It’s the plan he put into action during his eight years as the most effective president of the twentieth century. It’s the proven and tested plan that brought America back from the brink of disaster.
Each of the following chapters of this book ends with an agenda of actions that every freedom-loving American can use to make a difference in the world. In these pages, you’ll discover what our next president must do, what our Congress must do, what the political parties must do, and what you and I as American citizens must do to restore our nation’s greatness.
I hope that as you read you’ll make notes in the margins, highlight important ideas, and share these insights with your friends and neighbors. And I hope you’ll write to me at Reagan.com. Tell me what you are doing to make a difference. Send me your ideas and personal stories. Let’s keep this conversation going.
The challenge Ronald Reagan issued in 1976 still stands. You and I carry the message the world is waiting for. It’s time to carry that message forward once more and ignite a New Reagan Revolution. There is still no substitute for victory.
And there is no time to lose.
Copyright © 2010 by Michael Reagan