In the face of a troubled economy and deep voter pessimism about the direction of the country, Ronald Reagan accepted his party’s nomination for president in 1980 with a stirring speech that promised better days ahead.
“I will not stand by and watch this great country destroy itself under mediocre leadership that drifts from one crisis to the next, eroding our national will and purpose,” he said in June of that year. “The time is now, my fellow Americans, to recapture our destiny, to take it into our own hands.”
With those words, Reagan announced his intention to change the direction of a country dealing with surging inflation, high unemployment, and an apparently ascendant threat from the Soviet Union. There was also a high-tension hostage crisis in Iran, where more than 50 Americans had been taken captive.
Not unlike today, Americans were nervous about the future and they doubted their leaders.
During the campaign, Reagan blamed the policies of his opponent, President Jimmy Carter, for the country’s problems. But he also believed there was a deeper cause – the inability of Carter and others to inspire confidence in the country with their words.
“The mood of the country was just as bleak, just as dark, just as scared in 1980 as it is today,” said Craig Shirley, author of the forthcoming book, “Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America.”
“In a way, the malaise in the country had been going on for 17 years going back to the assassination of JFK in November of 1963,” he said. “We’d had one president cut down by an assassin’s bullet, one president resigned because he had contempt for the constitution, a failed presidency in Lyndon Johnson, the first time America had ever lost a war, and then you had the cultural decline of the 1970s.”
Polls showed that Americans no longer believed the future would be better than the present. Operating in this atmosphere of pessimism, Reagan’s overarching campaign theme was the restoration of America’s morale.
“Carter said people were in a malaise,” said Ed Meese, Reagan’s campaign manager, referring to a speech in which Carter spoke of a crisis of confidence in America. “Ronald Reagan’s idea was that the people aren’t in a malaise, the leaders are in a malaise. One of his objectives was to revive the can-do spirit of the American people.”
Reagan, a Midwesterner who seemed to effortlessly move from a radio career to one in movies and then politics, was tailor-made for this moment of history, Meese believed.
“[Optimism] was just such a natural characteristic of Ronald Reagan that it was implicit in everything we did,” Meese said. “He didn’t come out and say, ‘We should revive our spirits.’ He did this subtly by his own manner, by the ideas he projected and by his talks in which he expressed his confidence in the American people.”
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., who served on Reagan’s press team, believed this helped the candidate connect with blue-collar and working class voters.
“Ordinary Americans were treated as buffoons and criminals,” Rohrabacher said of their portrayal in 1970s media. “He talked about heroism being a trait of ordinary people who are meeting their challenges and the challenges of the country.”
Carter was considered an easy political target. His public standing was low and he barely survived a primary challenge from Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., which helped split the Democratic Party. Public dissatisfaction was so high that the election attracted a strong challenge from third party candidate John Anderson.
Despite these advantages, Reagan faced a big challenge of his own: Many people, including many in his own party, doubted his ability to handle the job.
“There was a lot of skepticism in the media and in the public that someone who spent much of his life in Hollywood was qualified to be president,” said Gene Gibbons, a former White House correspondent who followed Carter and Reagan in 1980 for UPI.
Reagan, who wanted to cut taxes and strengthen the U.S. military, struggled to have his ideas taken seriously. The eastern and northern wings of his own party, the so-called Rockefeller Republicans, supported George H.W. Bush, Reagan’s eventual running mate, in the primary.
Reagan emerged victorious from the GOP primary, but he still had to convince the general public he was up to the job. He allayed their doubts, in part, by taking advantage of the communication skills he developed in Hollywood and later on national speaking tours for General Electric.
“It was not for nothing that he was called the ‘great communicator,’” Gibbons said. “He was masterful on the stump. He conveyed a sense of reassurance. That is the underlying thing people are looking for in a president.”
In 1980, Reagan was building on the strong base of support he had cultivated among the country’s most conservative voters, including many Democrats, over the previous two decades. He was seen as the person who could lead them out of the political wilderness, despite the fact he had failed twice in runs for the presidency, at least one of which he wanted people to forget.
“He’d wiped ’68 from his memory,” Lou Cannon, a long-time reporter, said of Reagan’s aborted primary run against Richard Nixon. “He used to say, ‘I didn’t run in 1968.’” But Cannon, who chronicled Reagan’s rise in a series of biographies, covered Reagan that year, so he wouldn’t stand for the candidate’s deflections. “I’d tell these people, ‘Look, I was there. He can’t tell me that.’”
Even though the 1968 campaign was an apparent bust, Cannon said, it was vitally important to Reagan’s political development.
“In these places, particularly in these southern and western towns, he would go in and speak. A lot of these delegations were committed by their leaders to Nixon for one reason or another, but they loved Reagan, they adored Reagan. Nixon, they respected, but he didn’t make their hearts go pitter pat. In 1968, Reagan came to realize that, hell, he could be president,” Cannon said.
'Tempered by prudence'
The conservative voters Reagan met that year became the core of his support in the decades ahead. They embraced Reagan not just for his moving pro-America rhetoric, but also for his anti-tax, small government policies and his strong stance against communism and the Soviet Union.
But the broader public resisted this message. It wasn’t until the country had gone through one of the worst economic periods in its history that it was ready to take a chance on something new.
“We’d gone through the 60s and the 70s, including, quite frankly, the Nixon administration to a great extent, of big government,” Meese said. “I think people by that time were seeing how this had failed. But they were uncertain as to the future and Ronald Reagan gave them a concept for the future.”
In his nomination acceptance speech, Reagan laid out an indictment of the Carter administration, blasting it for runaway taxes, surging oil and gas prices and the forward march of the U.S.S.R. Against that backdrop, he proposed his plan for America, anchored by a conservative governing philosophy that still looms large over U.S. politics.
“I pledge to you a government that will not only work well but wisely,” Reagan said, “its ability to act tempered by prudence and its willingness to do good balanced by the knowledge that government is never more dangerous than when our desire to have it help us blinds us to it’s great power to harm us.”