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1980 convention launched ‘Reagan Revolution’

Richard Burr
The Detroit News

One of the biggest moments in late 20th-century American history happened at Joe Louis Arena in 1980, when Ronald Reagan accepted the Republican presidential nomination and set the stage for a political revolution.

Ronald Reagan, with wife Nancy, accepted the presidential nomination at The Joe, paving the way for a 12-year Republican reign in the White House.

The July 14-17 convention in Detroit came at a pivotal time for Republicans if they wanted to win the White House. Reagan needed to unify the party and mend fences with former President Gerald Ford of Michigan, who narrowly defeated the former California governor for the nomination in 1976 before losing to Democrat Jimmy Carter.

Reagan had a “blood feud” with Ford that reflected the rift “between the Republican Party’s moderate and conservative clans, between its realist and idealist foreign policy camps, and between its old base in the East and Midwest and its fast-growing new home in the West,” wrote Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy in “The Presidents Club.”

So Reagan proposed a “co-presidency” with Ford. Under one proposal, Reagan would make the final decisions, but as vice president, Ford could veto certain cabinet choices.

As part of the power-sharing deal, foreign policy adviser Richard Allen recounted in the New York Times magazine, Ford wanted Henry Kissinger to be secretary of state — despite his unpopularity with conservatives — and Alan Greenspan to be Treasury secretary. The negotiations occurred in the Detroit Plaza Hotel, a few blocks from the arena.

“The psychology about Reagan at the time … was he was a lightweight, and we gotta have an adult in the White House, so we could accept Ford,” said Bill Ballenger of the Ballenger Report, who was then a state department director for moderate Republican Michigan Gov. William Milliken.

The atmosphere inside Joe Louis Arena on July 16 became electric after Ford was interviewed on CBS television by Walter Cronkite and didn’t disagree with the anchor when asked if he and Reagan were discussing a co-presidency. “The whole convention came to a stop,” former CBS anchor Bob Schieffer said.

As the night dragged on, though, negotiations bogged down. Reagan decided he didn’t want to dilute his presidential authority. So before midnight he offered the vice presidential nomination to George H.W. Bush, the former Central Intelligence Agency director who finished second in primary delegates.

The decision was reported by CBS correspondent Leslie Stahl, who said, “I’m just being told by a high (Reagan) lieutenant that it’s Bush.”

“Well, who’s writing the script for this one? That’s what I want to know,” Cronkite wondered, scratching his head, in reference to Reagan’s acting background.

The 69-year-old Reagan accepted the nomination at the arena, vowing to reduce the federal government’s involvement in the lives of the American people.

“The time is now, my fellow Americans, to recapture our destiny, to take it into our own hands,” he said. “But to do this will take many of us, working together. I ask you tonight to volunteer your help in this cause so we carry our message throughout the land.”

A shower of balloons drop from the top of Joe Louis Arena, where the Republican National Convention was held in July 1980.

Reagan walloped Carter, winning 489 of the 538 electoral votes, including Michigan’s then 21 votes. His victory ended up paving the way for Bush’s successful presidential run in 1988.

As president, Reagan persuaded a divided Congress to slash income and corporate tax rates. Nearly 16 million jobs were created during his eight years in office.

He also ramped up defense spending, started research into a missile defense system and signed the first treaty with the Soviet Union to reduce both nations’ nuclear arsenals. These moves are partially credited with helping prompt the dissolution of the communist Soviet Union.

Detroit “was the launching of the Reagan Revolution. And it was the invention of the modern Republican Party,” said Ballenger, who was in the arena for Reagan’s speech. “The old party was essentially overthrown. The Republican Party ever since that time has been preaching the policies of Reagan.”