Read an Excerpt
"THE TOWN TREMBLED":
From Election Day to Inauguration Day
No strongly centralized political organization feels altogether happy with individuals who combine independence, a free imagination, and a formidable strength of character with stubborn faith and a -singleminded, unchanging view of the public and private good.
Isaiah Berlin on Winston Churchill
Washington, D.C., awoke on Wednesday, November 5the day after Ronald Reagan's electionto an unimaginable scene. Reagan's victory had been anticipated, but the depth and sweep of it had not. His -tenpoint margin in the popular vote translated into a 489-49 landslide in the electoral college; Reagan won forty-four states, Jimmy Carter just six. Unlike Nixon's forty-nine-state landslide in 1972, Reagan had long coattails: a twelve-seat GOP pickupand a majority for the first time in twenty-four yearsin the Senate, and a thirty-three-seat pickup in the House, enough for a working majority.1 The political landscape was littered with the carcasses of slaughtered Democratic bulls. By Thursday the magnitude of the election was starting to course through the news cycle. "The election was a shocker," Washington Post columnist David Broder wrote in a front-page article with the banner headline "A Sharp Right Turn." "The conservative victory could hardly be more complete." For establishment Washington it was as if a barbarian horde had sacked the city. "The Town Trembled," read another Post news headline.
The Post editorial page was less restrained than the stately Broder. The Post house editorial, "Tidal Wave," admitted that "[s]omething of gigantic proportions happenedmust have been happening for a long whileand the capital and the political wise men were taken by surprise. . . . [A]n 'anti-Washington,' 'anti-establishment' political storm warning was missed by Washington and the establishment."2 Reagan had predicted since the early 1960s that a "prairie fire" of conservative populism would someday sweep the nation; on November 4 it appeared that Reagan had finally struck the match. The Post blamed "the used-up, unrenewed and reflexive quality of so much Democratic Party thought and dogma these days." Democratic Senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts summed up the election's meaning in one sentence: "Basically, the New Deal died yesterday."
The Style section of the Post may have been a better barometer than the staid news pages at capturing how truly aghast was the social sentiment of elite Washington. Columnist Henry Allen wrote: "It's like one of those old horror movies where the atom bomb rouses the dinosaurs from the ice they've slumbered in all those eons . . . and all of a sudden you can hear the cry going up in liberal strongholds: The Reagan People are coming."
John P. Roche, a former head of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, wrote in 1984 that Reagan's election was "an 8-plus earthquake on the political Richter scale, and it sent a number of eminent statesmenRepublican and Democraticinto shock."3 It was a welcome shock in at least one important establishment neighborhood: the stock market rallied sharply the day after the election, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average soaring fifteen points to 953.16 on record volume of eighty-five million shares. The dollar rallied sharply on overseas currency markets. (The "Reagan rally" proved short-lived; the following day the market slumped again after banks raised their prime lending rate by a full point, to 15.5 percent.)
If American elites and intellectuals were wary of Reagan, among opposition leaders in Eastern Europe Reagan's victory was a glimmer of hope. Lech Walesa, the leader of the Polish resistance, remarked to American reporters after the election that "Reagan was the only good candidate in your presidential campaign, and I knew he would win."4 Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev sent Reagan a telegram of congratulations that the Washington Post described as "noticeably cooler" than the message sent to Jimmy Carter four years earlier. According to the New York Times, "Soviet officials, whose job it is to study the United States, said they were depressed by the defeat of such Democratic advocates of detente as Senators George McGovern, John Culver, and Frank Church."
Back in the United States, the far Left twitched with predictable paroxysms of paranoia. In Berkeley, more than two thousand people turned out to protest Reagan's election for three nights in a row, forgetting the irony that it was the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in 1964 that had helped propel his entry into politics. To borrow Yogi Berra's solecism, it was deja vu all over again: police arrested fifty-four people for occupying the chancellor's office.5
To the agitated Left, Reagan's election meant only one thing: the dark night of American fascism was about to descend. Eddie Williams, head of what the Washington Post described as "the respected black think tank, the Joint Center for Political Studies," reacted to Reagan's landslide thus: "When you consider that in the climate we're inrising violence, the Ku Klux Klanit is exceedingly frightening."6 This was not far removed from Fidel Castro's opinion about Reagan offered right before the election: "We sometimes have the feeling that we are living in the time preceding the election of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany." Libya's Kaddafi was not to be left out of the parade, saying, "Reagan is Hitler number 2!" (This is admittedly confusing, since most radical Arab leaders like Hitler.)
Kaddafi's and Castro's reductio ad Hitlerum could also be found in the American press. Los Angeles Times cartoonist Paul Conrad drew a panel depicting Reagan plotting a fascist putsch in a darkened Munich beer hall. Claremont College professor John Roth wrote: "I could not help remembering how forty years ago economic turmoil had conspired with Nazi nationalism and militarismall intensified by Germany's defeat in World War Ito send the world reeling into catastrophe. . . . It is not entirely mistaken to contemplate our -postelection state with fear and trembling." Harry Stein wrote in Esquire that the voters who supported Reagan were like the "good Germans" in "Hitler's Germany."7 Sociologist Alan Wolfe wrote in the New Left Review: "The worst nightmares of the American left appear to have come true."8 In the pages of the Nation, Wolfe's nightmare took a familiar shape: "[T]he United States has embarked on a course so deeply reactionary, so negative and mean-spirited, so chauvinistic and self-deceptive that our times may soon rival the McCarthy era."9 The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, keeper of the "Doomsday Clock," which purported to judge the risk of nuclear anni-hilation, moved the hands on the clock from seven to four minutes before midnight.10
Triumphant conservatives were more than willing to stoke the Left's paranoia. The election seemed to be more than merely the turning out of the bums; it was, as Harvard's Harvey Mansfield Jr. put it, "a general repudiation of the values of the 1960s."11 The Washington Post's Haynes Johnson quoted an unnamed conservative political activist saying, "This country's going so far to the right you won't recognize it."12 In Oklahoma and Wyoming, Republican enthusiasts placed roadside billboards proclaiming: Welcome to the Reagan Revolution.
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Although the frothier expectations of partisans at both ends of the political spectrum would turn out to be overwrought, the shock of the 1980 election would have a long half-life. For movement conservatives, Reagan's election was a golden moment whose like shall never come again. There was a clear sense of destiny, the overwhelming feeling that Our Time Was Coming. Reagan's decisive victory in 1980 produced an upwelling of sentiment leagues ahead of the usual thrill of electoral victory.
Democrats would take nearly a year to recover their bearings and go on the political offensive again. The media and the Washington establishment had set themselves up for a shock with their pre-election predictions of a close vote. Pollster Burns Roper admitted, "The Press, political analysts and political strategists all missed the magnitude and breadth of the sweep."13 A week before the election, the New Republic's Morton Kondracke wrote that "it seems more likely by the day that Ronald Reagan is not going to execute a massive electoral sweep. In fact, the movement of the presidential campaign suggests a Carter victory."14 David Broder had written: "There is no evidence of a dramatic upsurge in Republican strength or a massive turnover in Congress." Though polls in the days leading up to the election showed Reagan ahead of Carter, most were near or within the margin of error, and everyone was predicting a late-night nail-biter. The New York Times poll three days out had Reagan ahead by a single point; veteran California pollster Mervin Field said, "At the moment there is a slight movement toward Carter." George Gallup said, "This election could very well be a cliffhanger just like 1948."15
During the last forty-eight hours, after most major media and polling organizations had completed their final polls, voters broke sharply to Reagan. The combination of public disgust with Carter and Reagan's reassuring performance in the debate the previous Tuesday provided the catalyst for the Republican surge. Only the two campaigns, each conducting relentless tracking polls, knew what was happening. Both Reagan's pollster, Richard Wirthlin, and Carter's, Pat Caddell, saw the same results from their final polls over the last two days before the election. Caddell's polls showed that Reagan's margin moved up to five points on Sunday and grew on Monday to ten points. The pollster's alarm deepened when he saw that the "generic" vote for Democratic House and Senate candidates was plummeting along with Carter. "The disaffection was spreading across the board," Caddell told Public Opinion magazine after the election.
While Caddell, a brilliant if idiosyncratic analyst of public opinion, had always been wary of Carter's chances for reelection, most of Carter's inner circle was incredulous at their fate. For months White House chief of staff Hamilton Jordan had been so confident of victory over Reagan that he openly predicted, "It's not even going to be close." Wirthlin couldn't believe what he was seeing either and, knowing Reagan to be guarded until the votes were counted ("I remember President Dewey," Reagan often said), put his final poll results in the bottom drawer of his desk and didn't tell the candidate.16
Reagan passed Election Day calmly, voting early in the same Pacific Palisades precinct as Lawrence Welk, Sylvester Stallone, and Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully. Asked by reporters how he felt about his prospects, Reagan said, "You know me, I'm too superstitious to answer anything like that." His horoscopeReagan was an Aquariusfor that day read: "Ideal day to spend more time on home affairs so that everything there is more harmonious." And so he did. After voting Reagan went to get a haircut at his usual Beverly Hills barber (Druckers) and then lunched on tuna salad at home. Ed Meese and Mike Deaver, top advisers since the California years, dropped by his house after lunch to talk over transition planning. In Washington, the phone company activated phone lines at the office space the Reagan campaign had secured for the transition. Over at the campaign command post at the Century Plaza Hotel, the early exit poll results were confirming what Wirthlin called "those numbers no one could believe." The TV networks were seeing the same thing with their exit polls of more than twenty-three thousand voters. ABC News political director Hal Bruno said afterward, "Our exit polls told us by 1 p.m. that it was going to be a landslide."17
Despite the confidence of his pollsters, Reagan still expected it to be a long night. He was stepping into the shower when NBC News "officially" declared Reagan the winner at 5:15 p.m. Pacific time, even though only 4 percent of the vote had been counted. (A few days before the election, NBC anchorman John Chancellor had said, "I think we'll be here until way after midnight before we can predict the winner.") Nancy Reagan had to roust the -presidentelect from the shower to take President Carter's concession phone call.18 While Reagan's campaign aides were erupting in giddiness at the Century Plaza, Reagan appeared serene and relaxed during dinner with fifty of his closest longtime supporters at the Bel Air home of steel magnate Earle Jorgensen, causing Newsweek to speculate that "perhaps jubilation, like depression, is not in his emotional repertoire."19
Reagan clearly relished the moment when he appeared before supporters at the Century Plaza Hotel after the polls closed on the West Coast. "There's never been a more humbling moment in my life," he told the rapturous crowd. Then he invoked the memory of his two most distinguished predecessors:
Do you know, Abe Lincoln, the day after his election to the Presidency, gathered in his office the newsmen who had been covering his campaign, and he said to them: "Well boys, your troubles are over now; mine have just begun."
I think I know what he meant. Lincoln may have been concerned in the troubled times in which he became President, but I don't think he was afraid. He was ready to confront the problems and the troubles of a still-youthful country, determined to seize the historic opportunity to change things.
I am not frightened by what lies ahead. And I don't believe the American people are frightened by what lies ahead. Together, together we're going to do what has to be done. I aim to try and tap that great American spirit that opened up this completely undeveloped continent from coast to coast and made it a great nation, survived several wars, survived a great Depression, and we'll survive the problems that we face right now.
* * *
It was not clear in November 1980 whether Reagan's election would entail a decisive break with the enervated 1970s, as John F. Kennedy's election signaled a sharp turn from the staid 1950s. On the surface it was supposed that Reagan was Eisenhower redux, that the political cycle had run full circle: Reagan would try to take us back to the 1950s. It was an easy mistake to make about the nation's soon-to-be oldest president, who often spoke in nostalgic terms about the good old days of his Hollywood career. The paradox of Reagan was what might be called his old-fashioned futurism. As Lou Cannon put it, "Reagan spoke to the future with the accents of the past"; George Will's equally serviceable formula was "He does not want to return to the past; he wants to return to the past's way of facing the future." Reagan's variety of future-oriented optimism rooted in historical attachment has become almost unrecognizable in the age of a postmodernism that is openly contemptuous of history and historical experience.
The sense of national crisis in 1980 was palpable, more so than at any other time since 1932. Persistent high inflation and unemployment had shattered the nation's confidence that it could fine-tune the economy. This was more than just a crisis in economic doctrine; it seemed to herald the end of the American Century. Starting in 1979, for the first time since public opinion surveys had begun to be taken, the majority of Americans doubted that the future would be better than the past, or even equal to the present. The number of Americans who told the Gallup poll that the country was on the wrong track hit a new peak of 84 percent in August 1979; 67 percent agreed with the statement that the United States was in "deep and serious trouble." A popular bumper sticker of the time read: God Bless Americaand Please Hurry.