The Making of the Reagan Generation
Rick Perlstein on the 176-Page Plan to Sell Ronald Reagan to America
In June 1980, Dick Wirthlin completed an unprecedentedly detailed 176-page week-by-week plan for selling Ronald Reagan to the nation. It deployed state-of-the-art computer modeling, digesting data from surveys taken before and after the primaries, historical voting patterns, and financial analysis, to set forth various conditions under which the required 270 electoral votes could be achieved. Called the “Black Book,” in December of 1980 it won Wirthlin Advertising Age magazine’s coveted prize for Adman of the Year.
The models were, in the social science term of art, “dynamic.” In 1970, polling for Reagan’s gubernatorial reelection campaign, Wirthlin had invented something called a “tracking poll,” in which the same question was asked of the public again and again; in a quantum advance for this campaign, tracking poll results could be iteratively fed back into this statistical matrix on an almost daily basis, pinpointing the precise direction and intensity of public attitudes as they changed, down to the county level. They could help determine which formulations for Reagan and his surrogates to utter; which ads hit hardest and which fell flat; which locales demanded additional surrogate or candidate visits, or “media buys”; which tactics to repeat and which to discard.
A new 24-hour cable news station, CNN, had just begun broadcasting; staffers monitored it every minute for possibly relevant developments. This was to help inform another pioneering Wirthlin innovation: “simulation modeling”—the scientific study of what-ifs. Like, What if Carter managed to free the hostages? What were Reagan’s potential routes to political recovery?
Their 23,000-square-foot headquarters in an Arlington office building formerly occupied by John Connally’s campaign was a hive of activity in which nothing was left to chance. No voter subgroup, no issue position, no dollar spent, no mile traveled, no campaign stop’s pros and cons went unaccounted for. Naturally the choice of where to launch the campaign received particularly intense consideration. They chose for his first big speech after the convention an August 2 gathering of the National Urban League, the venerable African American civil rights organization. “We weren’t expecting to pick up any black votes in New York,” an advisor later noted. “We just wanted to show moderates and liberals that Reagan wasn’t anti-black.” The target audience, Wirthlin explained, was suburban whites.
But what the campaign said was a scheduling problem arose, and the Urban League appearance was postponed to the next day—the sort of development, in a crowded campaign, that was neither particularly unusual nor consequential. Except that this made his first campaign stop what was originally supposed to be his second, and Reagan ended up actually opening his campaign marveling, wide-eyed, to a T-shirted crowd of thousands standing under a hot Southern sun, “I think you all know without me telling you that Nancy and I have never seen anything like this—because there isn’t any place like this anywhere on earth! . . . How did you ever accomplish this without a federal program?” The Mississippi crowd roared in appreciation. And it was true. There was nothing like the Neshoba County Fair.
Every July, farm families from across the middle of the state moved into elaborate on-site two-story cabins for a week, enjoying card games, bull sessions, and romancing on the front porch and balcony all night long, after spending long days enjoying the midway, the livestock displays, country and gospel music, mule races, beauty contests, pie-eating contests—and the only legal horse racing in the state.
White families, that is. Blacks only participated as employees.The backlash was immediate and caustic.
In the 1950s and 60s, the fair was the place where state and local politicians competed to outdo each other with nasty imprecations at the evil federal government and civil rights organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the NAACP—an acronym that Paul Johnson said in his successful run for governor in 1963 stood for “Ni**ers, Apes, Alligators, Coons and Possums.” In 1964, the fair opened as planned on August 8 even though six days earlier, the bodies of three SNCC voter-registration workers were discovered buried in an earthen dam a few miles away. They had been assassinated by the Ku Klux Klan, with the assistance of the local sheriff, Lawrence Rainey.
And now Ronald Reagan was raising the curtain on his campaign there. Which raised more than a few eyebrows.
White supremacist organizations like the KKK had been making increasingly frequent appearances in the news in recent years. In 1977, a small Klan unit led by Grand Wizard David Duke received a great deal of publicity for patrolling the Mexican border on horseback with weapons in an effort to halt border crossings, setting “punji traps,” camouflaged pits filled with sharpened sticks, for migrants to fall into, a technique borrowed from the Viet Cong. In 1978, six thousand robed Klansmen rallied in Morgan County, Alabama, after a nineteen-year-old black man with an IQ of thirty-nine was charged with raping three white women; the next year, during his trial, ten thousand rallied, and a gunfight broke out between Klansmen and black demonstrators. That November, Communists in Greensboro, North Carolina, were preparing with residents of a housing project for an anti-Klan march when a caravan of Klansmen and Nazis rolled up, gathered shotguns and rifles out of the trunk of a blue Ford Fairlane, and began firing. Eighty seconds later, five were dead. The women who disrupted Jimmy Carter’s acceptance speech were widows of two of the victims.
In April of 1980, robed Klansmen had brazenly fired shots from their car while cruising down the main thoroughfare in Chattanooga’s black neighborhood; a week later, Klansmen marched through downtown Kokomo, Indiana. In May, an avowed Nazi got 43 percent of the vote in the Republican primary for North Carolina attorney general, winning 45 of 100 counties, coming only seventy-five votes from taking the county encompassing Winston-Salem. (“There are many closet Nazis in the Republican Party. Most conservatives are closet Nazis,” he said. “If you scratch a conservative, you’ll find a Nazi underneath, just as if you scratch a liberal, you’ll find a Communist.”) That was during the period in which white sheets became a veritable fixture at demonstrations in Arkansas against the Mariel boatlift. A month later, in California, Klansman Tom Metzger won the congressional nomination from the San Diego area as a Democrat. He promised to “get into Congress and have a fistfight every day.”
Then, the head of the Urban League, Vernon Jordan, was shot while riding in a car with a white woman (it was the first story broadcast by CNN). African Americans suspected a racial motive, correctly: it turned out the shooter was a white supremacist who had shot several other interracial couples, firebombed one synagogue and shot at the members of another, and attempted to assassinate pornographer Larry Flynt because his magazine Hustler depicted interracial sex. Klan membership was believed to have gone from 6,500 to 10,500 in the previous five years. The openly racist magazine the Spotlight, published by a Holocaust denier named Willis Carto, had three hundred thousand paid subscribers, many times more than Human Events or National Review. Gallup found that 13 percent of Americans (and 20 percent of Southern whites) approved of the KKK; in 1965, it was 7 percent. The sort of open racists that the civil rights revolution had supposedly vanquished now seemed almost ubiquitous—and they were history conscious: in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the Federated Knights of the Ku Klux Klan even curated an exhibition of 19th-century Klan artifacts: “our version of ‘Roots,’ ” a leader said.
And here was Ronald Reagan, ducking in on what you might call one of their sacred sites. What was his campaign thinking?
It was part of a strategy to signal that Republicans intended to seriously contest the South for the first time in over a century. Jimmy Carter’s Atlanta was considered first, until the Mississippi Republican Party suggested a rural audience would be more receptive. That suited Wirthlin’s plan just fine: a county fair checked off two of the Black Book’s four most important target groups: Southern white Protestants and rural voters (the other two, which overlapped, were blue-collar workers in industrial areas and urban “white ethnics”).
Reagan would be the first presidential nominee ever to address the fair. Previously, it would have been a waste of time: for most of US history it was taken for granted that Mississippi went to the Democrats. This year, however, Mississippi seemed up for grabs.
Reagan was fetched at the airport in Meridian by his state chairman, Congressman Trent Lott. Lott had been president of the fraternity that stockpiled a cache of weapons used to riot against the federal marshals protecting a black student seeking to enter the University of Mississippi in 1962. Later, a defensive state party official insisted it was Lott—and certainly not them—who suggested that if Reagan really wanted to win this crowd over, he need only fold a certain two-word phrase into his speech: states’ rights.
These were the most reliable code words Southern demagogues could deploy to activate their audiences’ most feral rage against African American civil rights. Ronald Reagan, whose unshakable belief in his own purity of motivation was his defining trait, surely got to immediate work persuading himself that in uttering them, he was referring to all federal intrusion into local affairs, from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to the Department of Ed—the same thing he always excoriated. He seemed anxious about taking the suggestion all the same. For, as Reagan speeches went, this was a strange one. He took less than ten minutes, an unusually large portion of that spent buttering up his audience: praising the fair, praising the state, telling an uplifting story about the time he watched the Ole Miss football team upset Tennes- see while sitting next to their governor, telling joke after joke after joke (“Now, I know that people keep telling me that Jimmy Carter’s doing his best”—pause—“that’s our problem!”): almost as if he was reluctant to get to the point. Halfway in, he finally did. He began reciting his familiar litany of federal government failure, though a little more wobbly than was customary:
“Over the recent years—with the best of intentions!—they have created a vast bureaucracy, or bureaucratic structure, bureaus and departments and agencies, to try and solve all the problems and eliminate all the things of human misery that they can. They have forgotten that when you create a government bureaucracy, no matter how well intentioned it is, almost instantly its primary priority becomes—preservation of the bureaucracy.”
He had started rushing, like he was nervous, far shy of his usual level of energy, when he delivered the payload:
“I believe in states’ rights; I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level, and I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of government.”
Then, he returned to his usual boilerplate. Far from the usual Neshoba County Fair demagoguery, the way he carried out Trent Lott’s suggestion doused the enthusiasm of a previously energetic crowd. He did far better with the jokes and the football story. And it was hardly worth it. The backlash was immediate and caustic.Reagan had just been endorsed by the imperial wizard of the Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan—who praised his platform for reading “as if it were written by a Klansman.”
Jimmy Carter organized a passel of Southern politicians to demand a collective apology that framed Ronald Reagan as a modern-day carpetbagger. Andrew Young penned a moving essay for the Washington Post about stopping in Neshoba County during Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1966 March Against Fear.
Sheriff Lawrence Rainey and his posse were nightriders in good standing, and a black man’s life wasn’t worth much once he decided to approach the courthouse with voting on his mind.
I remember Martin standing on the Neshoba County Courthouse steps in 1966, describing how the bodies of the slain civil rights workers had been found buried in a dam two years earlier. He said, “The murderers of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner are no doubt within the range of my voice.” A voice rang out: “Yeah, damn right. We’re right here behind you.”
Young noted, too, that Reagan had just been endorsed by the imperial wizard of the Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan—who praised his platform for reading “as if it were written by a Klansman.” Carter’s only African American cabinet member, Health and Human Services Secretary Patricia Harris, observed that Reagan had taken weeks before disclaiming that endorsement, and that now, when she heard Reagan speak, she saw “a specter of white sheets.” As for the intended audience, many white Mississippians who might have once been proud of their state’s reputation as the most fearsome bastion of resistance, were now ashamed to find the nation pointing it out. Which was why, claimed an embarrassed Mississippi Reagan fan in a letter to Bill Brock, in Neshoba County, the Republican candidate had screwed the pooch. “Three weeks ago Reagan had a landslide victory in Mississippi. Today it is a tossup.”
Reagan’s speech before the Urban League the next day, followed by a hospital visit to Vernon Jordan, might have proven a political coup, were it not for the Neshoba controversy—and the opening that day of the trial in the Greensboro Klan/Nazi murders. The Urban League was the most conservative of the major black organizations. At the convention, its vice president for political affairs had presented a report criticizing affirmative action and the “permanent civil rights enforcement bureaucracy” supporting it, in favor of a strategy of “expanded black business ownership”—just what Reagan endorsed, in a speech sketching out Jack Kemp’s idea of “enterprise zones” with tax advantages and reduced regulations in depressed minority areas. But he was met with stone-faced silence.
He hopped into a limousine for the same South Bronx block Jimmy Carter visited in 1977 to promise federal disaster assistance. Reagan pointed reporters to the surrounding rubble, “DECAY” spray-painted on one abandoned building, “BROKEN PROMISES” and “FALSE PROMISES” on another: a paradigmatic example of failed big government solutions. Local residents pinned behind barriers across the street, their every move watched by police snipers on surrounding rooftops, did not appreciate being cast as Reagan’s props. They started booing and yelling for him to talk to them. Reagan walked over, reporters and TV crews with their heavy equipment lumbering behind like a herd of buffalo, to do just that. He hated being accused of racism.
A woman shouted: “What are you going to do for us?”
Reagan cried back, hoarse, almost at the top of his lungs: “I am trying to tell you! That I know of no program, or promise that a president can make that the federal government can come in and wave a wand and do this! And I can’t do a damned thing for you if I don’t get elected.”
“No, but afterward! What are you—?”
The exchange continued fruitlessly, cameras clicking and whirring, until the crowd converged in an angry chant: “You ain’t gonna do nothing! You ain’t gonna do nothing!”
The next day a former Nazi and Klansman named Gerald Carlson won the Republican nomination for the congressional seat representing the depressed automotive city of Dearborn, Michigan. He had spent only $180, had no campaign headquarters or phone number, and electioneered mostly by handing out leaflets comprised of mug shots that appeared in newspapers during National Auto Theft Week. A few weeks later, ABC News followed him canvassing voters for the general election:
“I’d like to get to Washington to see if we can’t get back some of the civil rights that the white majority of this country once had.”
A woman: “I agree with that.”
“The blacks will not perform the same way that white people do. They don’t have that much respect for white society, for the white civilization that we have here.”
Another woman: “I personally find it frightening.”
From Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980. Copyright © 2020 by Rick S. Perlstein. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.