Bring GOP convention back to Kansas City — and Reagan
The Republican Party is now going though its quadrennial debate to select a city for its presidential nominating convention. The finalists are likely to be named next week. The site selection committee has reportedly narrowed the choices to Cleveland, Cincinnati, Dallas, Las Vegas and Kansas City.
This decision is important because it helps set the theme and encapsulate the philosophy that the party wants to communicate to voters across the nation. Stagecraft often becomes statecraft.
As a longtime foot soldier for the GOP’s conservative movement, I have visited all these cities. Each has a case to be made, but none possesses the symbolism or history of Kansas City. (Besides being the best place in the country to get a good steak.)
The 1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City was where candidate Ronald Reagan lost the nomination battle but set the modern GOP firmly on a path to electoral victory — and changed American politics in the process.
The GOP in 1976 was at a crossroads metaphorically, and Kansas City was — and is — at the junction opening up America from east to west, from north to south. If the Republican Party chooses the city as its 2016 convention site, it may again be opting for a path through the wilderness back to the future — and ultimately to the White House.
Reagan lost out to President Gerald Ford, who then chose Senator Bob Dole of Kansas as his running mate. These three men may well have saved the party, setting it on a course to Reagan’s historic 1980 win, his success thereafter and where it needs to be in 2016 if it is to again govern the nation. For Kansas City represented a clear break with the GOP’s troubled Nixonian past.
The GOP had been badly damaged by the scandal of Watergate. But Ford, Dole and Reagan represented everything Richard M. Nixon was not. All were considered ethical politicians and Reagan, in particular, was regarded as a sunny, genial personality. He was the opposite of a hater.
Ford and Reagan, representing, respectively, the moderate and conservative wings of the GOP, had fought a protracted nomination battle. When the dust settled, Ford narrowly defeated the former California governor by 57 delegate votes. Ford realized he needed to stitch the party back together. He did two things to accomplish this.
First, he chose Dole, a tough, smart, Midwestern conservative with a tender heart beneath a battle-scarred surface.
Second, Ford asked Reagan to join him at the rostrum the night of his nomination and address the crowd. Ford’s goal of bringing the party together was also Reagan’s. The two men may have not liked each other but both believed in the Republican Party.
Reagan’s comments at the convention stirred Republicans — and the nation. He spoke of the future, about a letter he was asked to write for a time capsule, wondering what the world would be in 100 years and if it had avoided nuclear war. “Those who read this letter … will know whether those missiles were fired,” he said. “They will know whether we met our challenge.”
He concluded, thundering “We must go forth from here united, determined that what a great general said a few years ago is true: There is no substitute for victory.”
After that Kansas City convention, it was clear that the Republicans had finally moved beyond the Nixon scandals to create a new version of the GOP.
Now, Kansas City may again be the right venue to launch the 21st-century model of the Republican Party.
PHOTO (TOP): President Gerald Ford, the Republican nominee, shakes hands with nomination foe Ronald Reagan on the closing night of the Republican National Convention, August 19, 1976. REUTERS/Ford Library
PHOTO (INSERT 1): President Ronald Reagan waving to well-wishers on the south lawn of the White House on April 25, 1986. REUTERS/Joe Marquette
PHOTO (INSERT 2): President Ronald Reagan addressing a news conference in Washington, October 19, 1983. REUTERS/Mal