When: Aug. 16-19, 1976
Where: Kansas City
Nominee: President Gerald Ford
Ronald Reagan packed his bags for Kansas City knowing he needed a miracle.
The former California governor, the standard-bearer for the conservative wing of the Republican Party, was running for president. He had briefly challenged Richard Nixon in 1968, but fell short.
Now Nixon sat at home, ill and in disgrace after resigning the presidency because of the Watergate scandal. Nixon’s vice president, Gerald Ford, held the White House.
Reagan’s friends, and many supporters, saw Ford as a placeholder only, damaged by his pardon of Nixon and too liberal to boot. Why, Ford had picked the dreaded Nelson Rockefeller as his vice president! The friends worked to persuade Reagan to try again in 1976, promising financial support for the grueling bicentennial year campaign.
And “Reagan wanted to run,” biographer Lou Cannon later wrote. But there was a problem: Ford was a sitting president from Reagan’s party. Any challenge to an incumbent president is dangerous, but running against one in your own party … well.
It’s also likely to fail.
The extent of that danger became clear to Reagan and his team in the weeks leading up to the Kansas City GOP convention. Reagan had battled Ford to a draw in primary and caucus states, leaving both men short of a clear majority of delegates when the voting stopped.
They were about 60 delegates apart, with more than 130 unpledged to any candidate. The nomination was up for grabs.
But the president had successfully twisted arms throughout the summer, luring uncommitted delegates into the fold. If Reagan did nothing, Ford would likely win the nomination on the first ballot. So on July 26, Reagan lobbed a water balloon into the contest: If nominated, he said, he would pick Sen. Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania as his running mate.
The announcement served two purposes. It was meant to sway unpledged Pennsylvania delegates to the Reagan camp. More important, it might slow down the Ford stampede, giving Reagan one last chance to seize the nomination on the convention floor.
There were risks. Schweiker was more liberal than Reagan, and many GOP delegates. They were furious at the pick, and Reagan faced losing delegates after the announcement.
The potential for erosion led the governor’s team to a second proposal: a change in the rules requiring all candidates to disclose their vice presidential choices before the roll call of states. If Ford could be forced to announce his pick too, the theory went, his delegates might be angry enough to switch to Reagan.
So a second-day floor fight over an obscure rule change became the whole ballgame.
“There was a lot of arguments, heckling,” Reagan organizer Charlie Black told Politico this year.
In the end, the Ford delegates prevailed — the president could wait to make his pick for veep. The test vote showed the Reagan forces they didn’t have the votes, a fact confirmed the next day when the convention nominated the incumbent for re-election.
“Reagan, fighting valiantly to the end in pursuit of delegates, saw his campaign finish as it began — tied to hopes for a miracle,” The Star’s Henry Clay Gold reported.
The Kansas City drama, though, was far from over.
After an awkward early morning meeting at what was then called the Alameda Plaza hotel in Kansas City, Ford turned to the selection of a running mate. His choice: Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, a politician well known within the party but less known nationally.
The pick left many Reaganites unsatisfied. Why not Reagan for vice president? Sure, the governor had told his team to make sure Ford never asked, and the two candidates’ frosty personal relationship might have interfered, but the party’s conservative wing deserved something.
That something came on the convention’s closing night.
After a routine acceptance speech (“We will come out fighting, and we will win,” Ford told the audience), the nominee turned his eyes to his vanquished opponent, who sat with his wife, Nancy, in the rafters of Kemper Arena.
Ford began to wave his arms, motioning for the Reagans to join him on the stage. The crowd exploded. The governor hesitated — could he bury his disappointment and join Ford for a unity picture?
He could, and did. Then, at Ford’s request, Reagan approached the microphone.
Without notes, the actor and radio announcer saluted a GOP platform of “bold, unmistakable colors, with no pastel shades.” Ford’s team had acquiesced to virtually every conservative platform plank offered by Reagan supporters in the weeks leading to the convention.
Reagan warned darkly of nuclear war, of an unspecified loss of freedom.
“We must go forth from here united, determined, that what a great general said a few years ago is true,” Reagan told the cheering crowd. “There is no substitute for victory.”
Some later claimed the moment was planned in advance, but it didn’t matter. Delegates wept. Many were convinced they had picked the wrong candidate. Their fears were confirmed later that year, when Ford lost to Jimmy Carter.
But Reagan’s words — the words that closed the 1976 convention — continued to echo. The next time, Republicans said, we’ll remember.
Reaganism was launched that night in Kansas City. By 1980, it would dominate the GOP.
The modern conservative movement was born.