DIGGING DEEPER: JOHN B. ROBERTS II ON THE 1984 REELECTION CAMPAIGN’S SECRET OPERATION AGAINST GERALDINE FERRARO, THINKING OUTSIDE THE BALLOT BOX, AND HIS NEW BOOK ON MORNING IN AMERICA: “REAGAN’S COWBOYS”
In the run-up to the 2020 election, Reagan Political Strategist John B. Roberts II looks back at 1984—only to find a highly controversial president, a terrible economy, and mass protests in the streets. The parallels go on . . .
Interview with Bob Shuman, Stage Voices
Where were you on New Year’s Eve 1983 and then on New Year’s Eve 1984? In what area of your life had you changed the most?
In 1983 I celebrated New Year’s Eve with my best friend and colleague, Tony Blankley. He and his wife Lynda were great hosts and, while we looked forward to 1984, there was also a little trepidation about the coming election. A year later, I was back working at The White House, but my mind was focused on making a change. In the seven weeks between the election and the year’s end, I’d grown determined to curtail my involvement in politics and spend more time writing. It took me ten more years to make that change, but I finally did it.
As a political writer, you have looked at the contributions of first ladies to the country and CIA involvement in the escape of the Dalai Lama from Tibet, among other issues. What do you see as Ronald Reagan’s greatest contribution to the nation and could he have made it without winning in 1984?
It sounds corny, but his greatest achievement was rallying the country’s spirit and unifying it after the bruising decades of the sixties and seventies. Three presidencies in a row had ended in failure before Reagan, with Nixon, Ford, and Carter all serving only one full term in office. When he took his office, political polarization was high, and there were massive protests over his defense build-up and deployment of nuclear weapons in Europe. But his ability to forge broad-based political coalitions with bipartisan support set the stage for his three biggest accomplishments: restoring economic growth, ending runaway inflation and double-digit interest rates, and, through direct negotiations with Gorbachev, setting the stage for the end of the Cold War. It took two terms for all this to come to fruition.
The first images or thoughts that come to mind regarding,
Sartorial splendor, the shiny veneer covering a hard-core political operative.
Everyone’s prudent uncle. A fundamentally decent man, who will never be the life of the party or probably ever have a hangover.
He had piercing blue eyes that looked to me like they concealed a thousand years of experiences.
Long rows of crosses decorated with tiny French and American flags. A stark contrast, in their bone whiteness, to the lush green grass and blue skies of June.
One person from the 1984 campaign who should be working on the Republican campaign today–and why?
Doug Watts. He was in charge of advertising for the campaign and oversaw what came to be called the “Morning in America” theme, which emphasized the nation’s economic and spiritual recovery, with memorable television ads. Doug Watts not only helped Reagan win a landslide reelection, he set the stage for a period of national unity and bipartisanship that lasted well into the 1990s.
1984 is also an important year for dystopian fiction, a genre you have also written in. How do you reconcile politics and literature?
Growing up in one of Europe’s last Fascist dictatorships piqued my interest in the dysfunctional detours societies can take. I lived in Franco’s Spain at a time when no political opposition was tolerated: the media was tightly controlled, and the Guardia Civil (whom the poet Garcia Lorca called “those patent leather men with their patent leather souls”) were virtually omnipotent and widely feared.
On a vacation in London, during the time, I bought a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book from a Socialist Workers party street vendor. I had to smuggle it like contraband into Madrid. Weirdly, such controls also created opportunities. Playboy magazine could be purchased, from American military personnel, for a dollar and twenty-five cents, and resold to Spaniards for a thousand pesetas–about a 1,500 percent profit! Besides augmenting my allowance, differences between free societies and dystopian ones were usually dangerous. My father was in the military and we took a .22 rifle to Spain and registered it. Every time Franco’s motorcade drove past our apartment to the airport, a Guardia Civil officer, with a machine gun, was stationed on the roof over our balcony.
Of course, Orwell fought in the Spanish Civil War, and he wrote about it explicitly in Homage to Catalonia. I think that conflict also influenced 1984.
What is the biggest misconception about the 1984 campaign that’s still with us today?
That the outcome–Reagan’s reelection in a landslide–was inevitable because of the strength of the economic recovery. The truth is our polling showed that Reagan was vulnerable to a Democratic ticket headed by U.S. Senator and former astronaut John Glenn, and even to a Mondale/Hart ticket. When Mondale first named Ferraro as his running mate, our polls showed she had the potential to galvanize female voters across the party spectrum and change the outcome of the election. After Reagan badly flubbed the first presidential debate, the age issue could have derailed his reelection. In hindsight, the magnitude of Reagan’s victory makes it appear inevitable, but the truth is that it took many components of the campaign, working in synch, to create that landslide. The operation against Ferraro wasn’t the only factor in Reagan’s victory, but it was an important one.On Election Day, Reagan won 58% of the female vote.
Thank you very much.
Reagan’s Cowboys by John B. Roberts II, available now from McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers
View on Amazon
Read Part 1 of this interview
Interview (c) 2020 by John B. Roberts II and Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.