Tigers in Detroit

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appeared in the August 8, 1980, issue of National Review.

DETROIT, TUESDAY — Democrats looking forlornly for hopeful signs can take satisfaction from the Republican Convention’s having opened without the traditional benediction. What happened is that the minister who had been engaged to invoke the blessings of the Lord at “12 o’clock,” showed up at 12 o’clock — midnight: on the understandable assumption that political conventions are sinful affairs, which can logically be expected to begin at night.

So let’s see, we have a) the missing benediction. What else? Robert Strauss, Democratic National Chairman, was interviewed on television and his line of analysis was interesting, namely that candidate Reagan in 1976 had faulted the Republican Administration for much the same sort of thing he is now faulting the Carter Administration for! Bob Strauss is a likable and foxy old bird, but the trouble with his line of argument, if it becomes a principal inventory item in the Democratic defense, is that it is neatly dispelled with a single shaft: Reagan was right both times. I.e., we did, indeed, under Nixon-Ford, spend too much money on this-and-that, and not enough money on defense. But the appropriations for this-and-that, as for defense, were made by Democratic Congresses. The idea, this time around, is to elect not only a Republican President but also a Republican Congress.

The latter is a terribly difficult challenge to meet, perhaps impossible without the benediction of the Lord. But the idea is that even if the Congress is controlled by Democrats, a sweeping victory for Reagan will mobilize the voters to send in different signals to their Democratic congressmen. After all, even in the last couple of years — as the Americans for Democratic Action have ruefully pointed out — the average voting score of Congress has dipped (i.e., moved in the right direction) by twenty points. It is amazing what the folks back home can do to a legislative representative who seeks re-election. Anyone tracing the career of Senator Frank Church, who in the months gone by has come to sound as if he had left a Quaker seminary to sign up with the Green Berets, will understand what I mean.

And what else is happening to give the Democrats comfort? The ERA business. Governor Reagan was not adequately counseled on this one, a retired constitutional scholar pointed out over the weekend. What he could have said is that ERA is, for all intents and purposes, moot — because the Supreme Court has taken the Fourteenth Amendment and applied it to women’s rights. I.e., women now have every right you can think of that any woman this side of Bella Abzug wants, and all that ERA would do is give us a lifetime of litigation over such questions as you can constitutionally draft men but not women for duty in the foxholes. Reagan’s people could have used a little oil on those waters. The acceptance speech can be counted on to be, in part, a stout exercise in feminism.

Then there is the entirely unrelated problem of abortion, which however is made to appear to be related by those who take the simplistic view that whether the fetus lives or dies is exclusively the concern of the mother.

One of the television interviews with Reagan, done in his airplane coming in from California, touched on the subject, and here Reagan’s performance was admirable. He confessed to having given the matter great thought only after he had signed an abortion bill while governor of California which went on to promiscuous abuse. More and more scientists, Reagan said, conclude that as a biological matter the fetus, after it has developed for a few weeks, is much more nearly human than vegetable. Pending a consolidation of scientific and philosophical opinion on this matter — is it right to take a chance? This is not the language of a simplistic man. People who argue about the finality of capital punishment pending philosophical and empirical investigations, having to do with violence and deterrence, should understand the Governor’s point.

In any event, the election of Reagan as President is not going to abort a single abortion. Any constitutional amendment would need to obtain the overwhelming support of the overwhelming majority of the people — a decade’s work — which suggests that thoughtful voters who disagree with Reagan on the matter of abortion will not for that reason deny him their support.

Anything else? Well, everybody noticed that Gerald Ford’s speech was something less than a paean to the Republican candidate. He did mention Reagan’s name three times, all of them friendly, none by any means hyperbolic. Oh well. It is, in a strange way, wholesome to see traces of genuine ill humor. Preferable to synthetic, oleaginous harmony. After all, Reagan challenged an incumbent Republican President four years ago, and that wasn’t a very friendly thing to do. Ford is okay, and he will, as he would put it, serve as a team player.

The speeches of Donald Rumsfeld and William Simon were splendid as to content, but anyone talking defense or the economy necessarily suffers from the aridity of figures, which are great lesions in oratory. Shakespeare could not have brought off a sonnet on the diminishing real income of the average man in a society suffering from inflation and unrealistic depreciation schedules. Not that the effort wasn’t made: Simon spoke of Mr. Carter having “the Midas touch in reverse.” We try, we Republicans.

WEDNESDAY — Robert Bauman, the energetic young congressman from Maryland whose specialty is the mastery of parliamentary rules and whose avocation is using this knowledge to keep Tip O’Neill in constant frustration, advised the conservatives attending lunch that he and Congressman Mickey Edwards had spent 45 minutes with Ronald Reagan moments earlier to register disapproval of any morganatic marriage with an ideological outsider as Vice President. Reagan, he reported, had not yet made up his mind; and the crowd was visibly pleased. Because that meant that Reagan would listen to what the conservatives wanted. No point, after all, in approaching someone whose mind was already made up.

When the turn came for Philip Crane to speak, he announced that the argument that Reagan needed “balance” in his ticket was as foolish as to suppose that Reagan’s views are other than in the mainstream: not of Republicans, but of “all Americans.” Again the crowd cheered. I found this a little unsettling, because if Reagan’s views are those of the political center, then shouldn’t we move over to the right? Or has Reagan moved left? It doesn’t matter. Perceptions matter. It is important to cultivate the illusion that a) Reagan is a true believer in the conservative catechism and b) the majority of the voters are also. This rhetoric was also the rhetoric of 1964, although most people knew that Senator Goldwater didn’t have a chance. But Reagan does have a chance. From which one concludes that, indeed, the country has gravitated to the right, the sanctuary of realism.

Goldwater, his recent hip operation notwithstanding, was ubiquitous, and received from the Convention the first genuine ovation — as if to compensate for the voters’ neglect of 1964. He spoke with his customary forthrightness. And the following morning, on the Today Show, he said he had come to the conclusion that President Carter was a “terribly dishonest man.” For instance? Well, for instance, said Goldwater, just last week Carter came to Detroit and promised the automakers a billion dollars of goodies. Now that was bad enough, said Goldwater, because a President can’t constitutionally promise to deliver a billion dollars, because it is only Congress that can pass money bills. But on top of that, the very next day Carter announced he would veto any extra money bills. Everybody says Carter is a bad President but an honest man. The first part is true, the second false.

It isn’t easy to listen to a convention speaker. Take Benjamin Hooks — there was a surprise invitation to Mr. Hooks to address the Convention on behalf of the NAACP. I would bet the national deficit that not three people in the audience could write a three-paragraph précis of what he said. This is no reflection on Mr. Hooks, though concededly he does not have the oratorical powers of a Jesse Jackson, let alone Martin Luther King Jr. If he has hurt feelings, I hope he watched Henry Kissinger’s speech, during the whole of which Mrs. Kissinger and Mrs. Reagan were animatedly talking to each other. A distraction lasciviously covered by CBS’s cameras. Every now and again, perhaps two or three times in the course of a four-day convention, a speaker somehow manages to engage the floor. This was done by Congressman Jack Kemp, whose fluent, salvific delivery brought something near to silence to the crowd. John Connally was surprisingly ineffective, and his serial quotations from Ted Kennedy criticizing Jimmy Carter were theatrically weak. Connally is one of the great orators, but he was off pitch.

Kissinger’s speech, superbly constructed, was a forthright declaration of war against the foreign policy of Jimmy Carter. “The Carter Administration has managed the extraordinary feat of having at one and the same time the worst relations with our allies, the worst relations with our adversaries, and the most serious upheavals in the developing world since the end of the Second World War.” His sustained attack on the weakness of our defenses would wipe away any perception of him as the godfather of detente. His sponsorship of that doctrine is always linked, as he correctly insists, to Soviet behavior. But — did anybody listen?

There is the alternative of leaving the convention hall and listening on television. But network cameras have a short attention span. It isn’t easy to listen hard to Kissinger when the cameras are focused on two delegates playing cards. Besides, those cameras cost a lot of money, so in mid-speech you are likely to be switched from Kissinger analyzing the void in the Indian Ocean, to Bruce Jenner telling us to eat Wheaties; then there’s the post-event blur, something on the order of the need to send more Wheaties to the Indian Ocean.

Is there a solution? Yes: you can generally find the printed text, and read the speeches.

THURSDAY — Only Walter Cronkite seemed genuinely amused by it all, notwithstanding that some of his own people had said that a deal between Reagan and Ford was “99 per cent certain.” “Ninety-nine per cent” will take its place in political history alongside George McGovern’s promise that he would back Senator Eagleton “1,000 per cent.” Pundits take it as a personal affront when that which they advise lesser men will happen, fails to happen. A few seasons ago James Reston assured the parched community of the curious that Nelson Rockefeller had “as much of a chance of losing the nomination in 1964 as he has of going broke.” He was good-natured about the turn of events, but one suspects he never quite forgave Goldwater. Tom Brokaw of the Today Show was so irritated by it all he pronounced the events of Wednesday night testimony to the utter confusion of Reagan’s generalship. But when the clouds parted, little by little it was seen to have been brilliant political maneuvering.

What was needed from the beginning was a conciliatory gesture. Now what wasn’t clearly seen, even by those of us with X-ray vision, was that conciliation came in three parts. It was necessary to propitiate the senior Republican establishment around Gerald Ford. Necessary because, after all, Reagan had challenged Ford while Ford was President and was widely thought to be responsible for Ford’s defeat. Next, it was necessary to make a gesture toward a representative of that wing of the party deemed to lie to Mr. Reagan’s left, a gesture of an ecumenical sort. Finally — and by no means unimportant — it was necessary not to alienate the party’s right wing, which is every bit as much concerned over the age of Ronald Reagan as the nation’s liberals: conservatives wish Reagan’s successor to be as committed to the same principles as Reagan.

When, having pronounced his benediction on the impending marriage of Reagan and Ford — the “dream ticket” — Senator Jesse Helms left the Convention and went to bed, the conservatives, more or less comfortable with Ford, felt appeased. But then in a flurry of about 15 minutes it gradually transpired that Ford — or, more properly, Ford’s representatives — were insisting on pre-conditions of egregious, near-insolent magnitude. It almost seemed as if Ford was insisting on a twin bed in the presidential living quarters. The whole idea of a “co-Presidency” began to stir resentment. Jerry Ford, of course, knew any such thing to be impossible. Not only had he served as a Vice President, coming to know its distinctive frustrations. He himself had promised Nelson Rockefeller in effect the dominant role in the formulation of domestic policy, only to find that he needed — in order to function as President — to renege on that promise. Henry Kissinger, though not the spokesman for Ford (Alan Greenspan served that function), reacting to the rumor that his own reinstatement as Secretary of State was a part of Ford’s demands, angrily insisted that no demands be made involving individuals. Kissinger knew from Nixon’s treatment of Secretary Rogers that the office of Secretary of State is absolutely worthless unless the President himself desires a particular man as his special counselor on foreign policy. The notion that Kissinger’s participation in the negotiations was motivated by the appetite of a job-seeker is preposterous and documentably untrue.

Reagan’s insistence that Mr. Ford make a decision within a half-hour emerges as an act of decisiveness. The pro-Ford wing of the party understood the necessity to act, and did not impute impatience to Reagan. The subsequent designation of Bush, who after all had been the runner-up, was then received . . . as the natural thing to do. Scrambled efforts to crank up a protest from the floor were easily dissipated by the solidarity of the momentum that Reagan had built up.

Ronald Reagan’s speech was classified by CBS observer Jeff Greenfield as proof that he is the principal rhetorician in American politics. It was lucid, galvanizing, transparently genuine, and its force was enhanced by the awful congruity of the rhetoric and the current crisis. The speech might profitably have made generous mention of Gerald Ford. But, minor imperfections to one side, it was an awesome performance by a man born to unite — and to govern.

FRIDAY — Concerning the Reagan-Ford business, some afterthoughts:

1. It is quite generally conceded that the pressures of television, demanding as they do Instant History, caused people who should have known better to be carried away. This includes television, radio, and newspaper reporters, pundits of every variety — but also political practitioners. There was in fact talk about “sharing” presidential authority. And Gerald Ford, in his famous interview with Walter Cronkite, appeared to validate the notion by vague references to such shared responsibility. For all that there was a disposition the next morning to blame Ronald Reagan for the confusion, it was in fact he who put a quick end to it: by courteously but firmly reiterating his invitation to Gerald Ford to serve as Vice President, period.

2. Gerald Ford, as he had stressed to Henry Kissinger 24 hours earlier, knew exactly what the problems were, and knew that they were insoluble given his present frame of mind. Gerald Ford had served as Vice President for almost a year. He found the office intrinsically frustrating. When he became President, he reached out for Nelson Rockefeller as Vice President. To interest Rockefeller in an office without executive authority required a great deal of persuasion — and President Ford, in all good faith, offered Rockefeller in effect the role of principal architect of domestic policy. Rockefeller accepted — but in a matter of weeks, reality asserted itself. Ford discovered that he could not be President of the United States without being the principal policymaker in his own Administration. In short, Gerald Ford knew that whatever Reagan said — and however genuine Reagan’s intentions might be to invest additional authority in the office of the Vice President — in fact President Reagan would not be able to deliver, any more than President Ford had been able to deliver.

3. When Reagan, listening to television reports that went beyond the spirit of his overtures to Ford, made his decision to abort the operation, Ford had a final opportunity to accept with, in effect, no strings attached. His representatives pleaded for more time, but Reagan’s sense of timing ruled this out. It is inaccurate that Ford intended to manipulate the Convention by dragging the negotiations on into the next morning. Because, for reasons given, Ford knew that no explicit concessions by Reagan could survive their inauguration. What Ford wanted to sleep over was the question whether to take the Vice Presidency. It is safe to speculate that he believed he would indeed enhance Reagan’s prospects for election, but safe also to speculate that Ford wished to consult his own inclinations, personal and professional.

4. The question finally arises: Why is it all but unanimously held that the office of the Vice President is undignified for someone who once served as President? Every schoolboy knows that one has to go back to John Quincy Adams to find a President who subsequently accepted the relatively ignominious role of a mere member of the House of Representatives. But even there you are your own man, whereas as Vice President you are the agent of the President, save for your constitutional authority to preside over the Senate of the United States and vote in the event of a tie. What a Vice President is, really, is the understudy to the President; and what one needs to reflect upon is the perplexing notion that this role should be deemed humiliating to one who had previously served as President.

Why? In 1964 I publicly suggested that General Eisenhower could serve his country by agreeing to run for Vice President on the ticket headed by Senator Goldwater. To my suggestion, Arthur Krock (and others) raised constitutional objections, construing the Twenty-Second Amendment as denying any President who had served two terms the right to occupy an office which contingently could catapult him into the Presidency. Others differed: but the conventional wisdom was that to serve as Vice President, having served as President would be psychologically castrating.

Surely the office, precisely because it is largely ceremonial, ought not to be disdained by useful ex-Presidents? For the very reason that a Vice President does not have executive authority, an ex-President should feel comfortable serving, essentially, as the back-up man in the event of the President’s incapacitation. In parliamentary systems, former Prime Ministers frequently show up as members of a cabinet of successor governments. Public opinion is guilty of encouraging the sin of pride. None of which has any bearing on the splendid choice of George Bush.

JULY 12 — Reflections on the eve of Convention:

After the Lyndon Johnson landslide victory (not the one he scored by counting dead voters, but the one against Senator Goldwater in 1964) National Review rounded up comments by prominent Republicans. Among those who contributed to the symposium were Ronald Reagan, and George Bush.

Reagan’s role in the Goldwater campaign was very simple, and very effective. He gave a single speech — which is generally accepted as the most galvanizing of the postwar period. It generated $8 million in contributions. It launched Reagan’s own career. Two years later he was elected governor of California. Sixteen years later he will probably be elected President of the United States. What did he say about the defeat?

He said that millions of Americans didn’t really want LBJ “but . . . were scared of what they thought we represented.” (Has anything changed?) He stressed this point. “Read that sentence very carefully because in my opinion it tells the story. The landslide majority did not vote against the conservative philosophy, they voted against a false image our liberal opponents successfully mounted. Indeed it was a doubly false image. Not only did they portray us as advancing a kind of radical departure from the status quo, but they took for themselves a costume of comfortable conservatism . . . Our job, beginning now, is not so much to sell ‘conservatism’ as to prove that our conservatism is in truth what a lot of people thought they were voting for when they fell for the cornpone come-on.”

And then Reagan added “. . . a postscript — I don’t think we should turn the high command over to leaders who were traitors during the battle just ended.” Whom did he have in mind? Most prominently: Nelson Rockefeller, who all but refused to back the ticket; Senator Jacob Javits, who this time around has swallowed his pride and is backing Reagan; and Congressman John Lindsay, who just a few years later deserted not only Goldwater, but the GOP. Reagan was prophetic: indeed the GOP did not seek out the defectors for leadership.

What about George Bush? Bush was beaten in Texas, though he ran well ahead of Goldwater. The GOP was crushed by the image-makers, he insisted. He gave a concrete example by referring to the black vote. “The ‘lever’ gave 98.5 per cent of the Negro vote to proponents and opponents of the Civil Rights bill alike. Sixteen Texas Democratic congressmen who voted against the Civil Rights bill were up for re-election and all 16 got this same high percentage of the Negro vote.”

Bush touched on other themes. “The GOP must remain the conservatives’ hope. A third party movement will never work.” That position has not brought around John Anderson, but he is an exception. Bush wrote, “The GOP must welcome all who want to be Republicans. We cannot afford the luxury of screening committees to see if a man’s every iota of political philosophy conforms to some guidelines laid down by ‘true conservatives.’ There simply aren’t enough people who share my every view for me to dictate just who can or can’t be a Republican.” Those words have not aged.

And Bush, although his statement came in uncoordinated with Reagan’s, made an identical point about the defectors. “I have no respect for the Republican who quit his Party this year because he didn’t get it all his way. It’s easy to quit and then criticize. I have plenty of respect for people who . . . fought for what they believed, lost, and then went to work for their Party swallowing their points of difference with Goldwater and campaigning hard on the broad philosophical differences between the GOP and the national Democratic Party.” (One notes that Laurance Rockefeller and four other family members have contributed to the campaign of John Anderson. It will be interesting to see whether the Rockefeller clan will now abide by the counsel of the Republican faithful. I would guess, though it is only a guess, that Nelson, this time around, would have gone the way of Javits, giving Reagan full support.)

And, Bush concluded, “Conservatism can and will survive — it needs to be practical and positive. It has to be fair. It has to win and it can only win through the GOP, through the give-and-take of a two-party system. I for one plan to stick with my Party and to try to help build a better tomorrow.”

In 1980 — alongside Reagan.