Monday, February 2, 2015

Rendezvous with Destiny

I am always surprised at how easy it is to think of the outcome of historical events as somehow foregone conclusions. Of course, the Allies won WWII. Of course, the Civil Rights movement succeeded. Of course, Abraham Lincoln held the Union together. Of course, a handful of colonists successfully threw off British rule. They happened, therefore they were inevitable.

Part of that is that we look back with clearer vision. But another part is that we determine what is significant from the outcome. Those living before the outcome, however, had no such guide.

So of course, it is tempting to say that Ronald Reagan had to beat Jimmy Carter in 1980. Carter was weak, Reagan was, well, Reagan. But to say that would be to let the outcome determine how we view the campaign.

This is where Craig Shirley is helpful. His book Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America, gives a blow-by-blow of Reagan's 1980 campaign for the White House. Shirley, a former Reagan aide and campaign worker, has done extensive research into the details of the Reagan, Carter, Bush, Kennedy, Anderson, Connally, and others' campaigns for President that year. This is his second book on a Reagan campaign, the first being Reagan's Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All, about Reagan's failed 1976 primary challenge to President Ford.

If detail on the politics and maneuvering of this monumental election is what you are looking for, this is probably the definitive source. Shirley captures both the high-level rhetoric and the daily grind of politicking. In fact, the level of detail is one of the greatest drawback of the book. At 600 pages, it includes so many asides and secondary stories that, at times, the overarching narrative disappears. It would have been a better book had a hundred or so pages been edited out.

Nonetheless, it is the story of what happened. The story of how an campaign that had been a toss-up all summer, and which one week before looked tilted in favor of the incumbent, ended up being a landslide the other direction. It's a story of strategies, victories, errors, and bungles on both sides. Of the confusing muddle of elections. And most of all, how little in history is a foregone conclusion. This is an important volume to add to the library of anyone seriously interested in significant historical campaigns.

In closing, I'll leave you with clips of the NBC and CBS election night coverage. Although all the networks had anticipated it being a long night, the election was called for Reagan at 8:15 p.m. EST, before the polls were even closed in the western states. Reagan went on to win the electoral college by a margin of 489 to 49. Carter only won the states of Minnesota, Georgia, West Virginia, Maryland, District of Columbia, Rhode Island, and Hawaii.

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