Title: Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America, by Craig Shirley
Motivation: “Personal” recommendation from Amazon.com
Completed: June 9, 2012 (#38)
Recommendation: A sepia-toned account, likely to delight conservatives and those who enjoy “inside baseball” accounts of politics.
Rendezvous with Destiny is a minutely researched history of the 1980 campaign. Well footnoted and drawn from exhaustive interviews and archival research, Mr. Shirley has produced the definitive account of the Reagan/Carter election. Inter alia, Mr. Shirley breaks down the canard that President Reagan was an essentially unknowable quantity.
The book is quite long and on occasions reads like a daily journal entry on the campaign, from the primaries through Election Day. The pace rarely slackens, however, and Mr. Shirley has a gimlet eye for anecdotes that illustrate larger truths.
On President Carter’s condescending hokum:
Fittingly, the first movie aired in the Carter White House was All the President’s Men. but Carter fundamentally misunderstood the consequences of Watergate. He made symbolic gestures, including taking limousines away from the White House staff, banning the playing of “Hail to the Chief,” carrying his own suit bag slung over his shoulder (though rumors were rampant that the bag was empty), wearing dungarees, and other “depomping the presidency” efforts. He thought the American people wanted their next-door neighbor to be president. Carter, like Ford before him, confused the dignity of the office with the character of the individual occupying it. The American people wanted somebody with a common touch, but they also wanted somebody with uncommon dignity. They didn’t mind—indeed, actually liked—a little bit of pomp; what they objected to was pomposity.
On President Carter again, because it’s my website, and who can resist?
A former Carter speechwriter, Jim Fallows, wrote an article for the Atlantic Monthly charging that the president personally approved who could and who could not use the White House tennis courts. Carter denied the micromanaging charge, but then told an astonished television interviewer that his secretary arranged tennis schedules “so that more than one person would not want to use the same tennis court simultaneously, unless they were on opposite sides of the net or engaged in a doubles contest.”
By contrast, the Great Communicator:
Reagan had worn contact lenses in public and glasses in private for years, as he was extremely nearsighted. Before he gave a speech, he would pop out his right contact lens to read the text and keep the left one in so he could see his audience and their reaction to him. Deaver and Hannaford often asked the governor if he just wanted to show up, make his speech, and then leave, but Reagan rarely took them up on this option. He liked to settle in, have dinner, and observe the other speakers, but especially the crowd, to judge its mood and temperament. He also hated missing out on the after-dinner dessert. Years later, as president, he was quickly hustled out of a CPAC dinner speech and later complained to an aide that he didn’t get to stay long enough to have the apple pie à la mode that was being served that evening.
While fairly hagiographic in tone, Mr. Shirley’s chronicle will be of use to future historians and campaign staffers.
One parting shot: Pundits often unflatteringly contrast curmudgeonly Republican candidates with President Reagan’s good-natured optimism, and even President Obama has picked up on this theme in some of his comments on the Reagan Era. Reagan’s penchant for quoting the radical Thomas Paine is often cited as evidence in this context. For the record, let it be known that A Superfluous Man sides with the incomparable George Will on this point:
Some on the right were less than thrilled with Reagan’s high regard for Paine. A notable example is Reagan’s friend George Will. Will criticized Reagan for being “inexplicably” and “painfully” fond of quoting Paine’s line “We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” which the columnist dismissed as a “preposterous cry” and “the most unconservative statement that ever issued from human lips.”
A more comprehensive account of President Reagan’s political life is Stephen Hayward’s superb two-volume The Age of Reagan, which provides a more philosophical look at Reagan’s development from a New Deal Hollywood Democrat to the Right’s FDR. For general readers, Mr. Hayward’s account is possibly the more compelling book and the place to start for Regan neophytes.