"When Reagan landed in Texas twenty-six days before the primary that would define his political future, he did so on a commercial flight. On arriving in Dallas, he conceded to reporters that he had been forced to give up his red, white and blue private jet in order to save his cash-strapped campaign $50,000 a week in rental expenses."
According to author Gilbert Garcia such were the circumstances of the fledgling Reagan for President campaign less than a month before the crucial GOP Texas primary back in 1976. Ronald Reagan was challenging the incumbent Republican President Gerald Ford and to this point things had not been going well. And yet, a confluence of unlikely circumstances in the Lone Star State was about to shake up conventional wisdom and rescue Ronald Reagan's endangered political career. "Reagan's Comeback: Four Weeks in Texas That Changed American Politics Forever" tells the incredible story of how and why Ronald Reagan swept the Texas primary back in 1976 and what the implications would be for both Texas and for America at large. It is a story of how Mr. Reagan finally found his voice and captured the hearts and minds of millions of his fellow Americans. It is a story I had certainly never heard before.
First and foremost, "Reagan's Comeback" is a story about unintended consequences. The prominent Texas Democratic Senator Lloyd Bentsen harbored his own Presidential ambitions for 1976. Senator Bentsen officially announced his candidacy on February 17, 1975. Around the same time Mr. Bentsen's political allies in the state legislature introduced a bill that would establish a state presidential primary. This had never been done before in Texas and those who fashioned this legislation tried to make sure that such a primary would boost Bentsen's presidential hopes. One of the provisions of this bill would allow voters to "crossover" to the opposing party's primary if they so desired. Clearly, the idea here was to allow Republican voters to "crossover" for Bentsen. But as Gilbert Garcia points out things did not work out quite the way the Bentsen forces had planned it.
As March turned into April the Reagan campaign was gearing up for a "do-or-die" primary in Texas. If Reagan were to lose Texas his 1976 campaign would essentially be over and the odds of him ever becoming President would be greatly diminished. One of the forces at play in Texas at that time was the ongoing rift between the Dallas and Houston wings of the Texas GOP. The Dallas wing of the party essentially consisted of pragmatic and moderate members of the party or the so-called "country club" Republicans. The Houston-based GOP was much more populist and conservative and these were the folks that Reagan chose to align himself with. In "Reagan's Comeback" you will meet many of the key players in Mr. Reagan's '76 Texas campaign including Ray Barnhart, Ernie Angelo, Barbara Staff and a Houston banker named Jimmy Lyon. It was Lyon who stepped up and loaned the Reagan campaign $1,000,000 that allowed Reagan to tape a nationally broadcast 30 minute infomercial in the closing days of the campaign that many would argue changed the political landscape not only in Texas but across the country as well. Ronald Reagan was surging in Texas and the Ford campaign knew it. Reagan would go on to a landslide victory in the Lone Star State capturing all 100 convention delegates and throwing the outcome of the race with President Ford into doubt. Unfortunately for Lloyd Bentsen tens of thousands of the conservative Democrats he had been counting on to vote for him crossed over and voted for Ronald Reagan instead. Oh, the best laid plans of mice and men! Meanwhile, it is interesting to note what the Ford folks were thinking after they were trounced in Texas. An internal memo written right after the Texas primary noted "Many members of these groups are not loyal Republicans or Democrats. They are alienated from both parties because neither takes a sympathetic view towards their issues." Seems like nothing much has changed.
As it turned out Ronald Reagan's huge win in Texas coupled with his subsequent victory in his home state of California would prove to be "too little, too late". President Gerald Ford would eke out a narrow victory at the GOP convention in Kansas City. As it turned out the party was not very enthusiastic about their nominee. Ford's loss to Jimmy Carter in November would make it almost a foregone conclusion that Ronald Reagan would be the Republican nominee in 1980. But make no mistake about it. Reagan's conservative influence was quite evident in the platform that was adopted by the Republican party at the '76 convention. Among the provisions of that platform were resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment blocking Congress from increasing the national debt, strict term limits for Congress, more incentives for oil exploration, opposition to national health insurance, a constitutional amendment banning abortion and prohibiting the children of undocumented aliens from attending public schools and becoming citizens. Remember, this was 36 years ago!
Being a lifelong history buff and a vociferous reader I am constantly amazed at how much history I do not know. The story of the 1976 Texas Republican primary told in "Reagan's Comeback: Four Weeks in Texas That Changed American Politics Forever" proved to be a real eye-opener for me. Gilbert Garcia has given us a very engaging and well-written book here. In my view the parallels between the interests and concerns of those disaffected Texas conservative voters back in 1976 and the agenda of the Tea Party of today is quite striking indeed. More than three decades ago Ronald Reagan saw the moral fiber in the country crumbling and warned that individual initiative was under attack by the forces on the left. This is still true in 2012. Against the conventional wisdom Ronald Reagan proved that a Republican could win running on the social issues. Perhaps today's Republican establishment types need to read a book like "Reagan's Comeback" to understand what is happening in the country. They just might learn a thing or two. Highly recommended!