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Arts & Culture

How Texas brought Ronald Reagan back from the dead

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Looking at America's political map today, it is hard to believe that, for most of the nation's history, Texas was a Democratic stronghold.

In 1960, only two of the more than 5,000 elected state officials were Republican, and in 1966 (10 years before Reagan unsuccessfully challenged President Ford) only one of 181 seats in the Texas legislature was Republican.

What the hell happened?

The fascinating Reagan's Comeback by Gilbert García, a former Current staffer and now staff writer at the online news outlet Plaza de Armas, answers that question in an entertaining, well-researched history by focusing on Reagan's out-of-nowhere trouncing of Gerald Ford in the Texas Republican primary, an event that would provide a key in delineating much of the political map we have today. But the book also draws a parellel between the Reagan phenomenon and today's Tea Party (Reagan was critical of his own party and was considered an extremist by many). Throughout, García provides a gripping examination of the national web of American politics but also recalls significant campaign moments that took place in San Antonio (former Mayor Lila Cockrell's recollection of the "tamale incident," when Ford supposedly ate a tamal without removing its husk, is a hilarious must-read).

García builds up to the historical 1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City, where a victorious President Ford did something unusual: he gave a chance for the losing candidate to speak. Reagan seized the opportunity and, in less than six minutes, gave a speech for the ages that set the stage for his successful presidential campaign four years later.

After that memorable speech, Reagan "would never again be seen by a significant segment of his party as a reckless extremist or the leader of a fringe movement," writes García. "Ford was the nominee, but Reagan now owned the GOP." Four years later he would own the country, and eight years later would be re-elected by yet another landslide.

García, who I see as a liberal but who considers himself a "political independent," never lets his own ideology get in the way. Reagan's Comeback is not meant to evaluate or judge, but to describe a pivotal moment in American — and the world's — politics. It is an objective, well-balanced book by a writer that knows how to turn dry facts into an engaging story full of high points. But the book's biggest strength is that it serves as a detailed reminder of an often overlooked fact: Reagan was pretty much done and over with before he used four weeks in Texas to turn things around in an amazing display of charisma and political genius. It was here, not in North Carolina (his first primary victory after six defeats), that the Reagan myth was born.

The book explains how the so-called Bentsen Primary Bill (which would have allowed U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen to simultaneously run for the White House and for a new Senate term and open the doors for yet another Democratic victory in Texas) backfired to the benefit of the GOP, which then swept up conservative Democrats behind Reagan. The Gipper also got key help from people that could have, in turn, helped Ford in 1976 against Carter (only if Ford's campaign hadn't shown so much resentment to Reagan's people). The book meticulously details who did what, but Reagan ultimately liked to do things his own way, and most of the credit belongs to him. Love him or hate him, Reagan was his own man and even his detractors "conceded that his views were genuine," writes García, unlike those of rivals who never "believed in anything deeper than [their] own ambition."

"We're not going to do it," Reagan said when Texas campaign manager Ray Barnhart urged him to speak at a Dallas Baptist church with the argument that "we've got four million Baptists in this state and they vote like a bloc!"

"You don't understand, Ray. My relationship with my God is my relationship, and we're not going to abuse it."

Oh, those were the days. •

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