Music Matters
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

1976: The Last Time Republicans Duked It Out To The Last, Heated Minute


Yes, the race for the White House is about winning states, but the nomination is really about winning delegates. In a typical election year, the candidate who snags the magic number of delegates in the primaries and caucuses goes to the national party convention already a winner. Way back in March, as Donald Trump kept winning primary after primary, his opponents hoped they could hold down Trump's delegate count and force a contested convention. One by one, those candidates dropped out of the race, and Donald Trump became the Republican's presumptive nominee.

This week a new effort surfaced, designed to keep the nomination away from Trump. A group of GOP delegates have come up with a plan to amend convention rules. Their proposed rule is called Preserving Delegates' Ability to Vote Their Individual Conscience, and it allows delegates to change their allegiance in cases of, and I quote, "the public disclosure of one or more grievous acts of personal conduct by a nominee candidate, including but not limited to criminally actionable acts, acts of moral turpitude or extreme prejudice and/or notorious public statements of support for positions that clearly oppose or contradict the policies embodied in the Republican Party's platform."

Members of the GOP Convention Rules Committee are planning to consider that rules change in the coming weeks. And it could - probably wouldn't but could - lead to a contested convention. For The Record today, NPR's Rachel Martin has this encore presentation of the last time it all came down to the delegates - the Republican convention in Kansas City, President Gerald Ford against his challenger, former California governor Ronald Reagan. The year was 1976.


ANN COMPTON: I'm Ann Compton. In 1976, I was a relatively young White House correspondent for ABC Network News. The '76 convention for the Republicans was a real battle. The party didn't know quite what to do with an incumbent president who hadn't been elected but had been appointed president and a popular California governor who had tried to run before and was amassing huge numbers of delegates. The convention meant the climax to a party that had a kind of split personality.

STEPHEN HESS: In 1976, I was chosen to be the editor-in-chief of the Republican platform.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Stephen Hess was a Ford man. He recalls the months leading up to the convention.

HESS: If I remember correctly, the president, Gerald Ford, was winning, winning, winning from New Hampshire on. And then suddenly, he hit a block in North Carolina, and Governor Reagan started to win, win, win, so suddenly they came into the convention almost tied.

MARTIN: Our next guide through this historical event is John Sears.

JOHN SEARS: Gee, that was a long time ago. Well, I was Ronald Reagan's campaign manager in 1976. We were the outsiders in that race.

MARTIN: Did you relish that label?

SEARS: Well, yeah, because even then, you know, people talk about how upset people are with Washington, but they were back then too, especially coming on the heels of the Watergate. There was a great deal of anti-Washington feeling.

MARTIN: So by the time the convention rolled around, Stephen Hess says...

HESS: They came to Kansas City ready to brawl.


MARTIN: It was a fight for each and every delegate. Gerald Ford was the sitting president, which meant he could sweeten the deals. Here's Stephen Hess who was for Ford.

HESS: I don't mean that he was quickly handing out jobs. Maybe there were in some cases jobs, but that I certainly didn't know about. But he certainly was handing out the goodies of why don't you come over and spend an evening at the White House. Or I'm flying out your way, would you like to ride on Air Force One with me?

COMPTON: I recall being behind the scenes in a Ford campaign kind of boiler room when the campaign delegate counters led by Jim Baker - later secretary of state - were befuddled by delegates who were asking for favors, including one, a delegate from New York, who wanted a federal judgeship for his brother - a serious request - in return for his vote for Gerald Ford. He didn't get it.

SEARS: The president had more power than we did.

MARTIN: John Sears with the Reagan camp.

SEARS: So we turned. And the only thing we had was the possibility of appointing the vice president, so we took that and announced it beforehand.

HESS: And this is where I really think the Reagan people defeated themselves. They thought they were too clever by half and they - Reagan announced that he was going to name Senator Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania, a moderate or liberal even, to be his running mate. They must have thought this was a very clever way of attracting liberals and centrists in the party. What it did, of course, was backfire. People like Jesse Helms of North Carolina were furious. And so it worked against him. And then they compounded their errors.

MARTIN: After announcing a running mate, which in and of itself was unusual to say the least, the Reagan campaign then proposed a rule change requiring that Gerald Ford name his VP pick too. And the Republican fight to retain the presidency, which had become a fight over the nomination, now boiled down to a fight over a rule change, yet another fault line in the GOP of 1976. Ann Compton was reporting from the convention floor.

COMPTON: There were moments of incredible frustration and yes even physical altercations on the floor of the convention. It was a huge - just a traffic jam of people on the floor. But I happened to be standing right next to the New York delegation where Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and his New York delegation, which they were all supporting Gerry Ford, Rockefeller was so angry somebody yanked the New York delegation telephone off its stand and out of its moorings, trashed it right there on the convention floor in fury.

MARTIN: We actually have some sound of that. This is from a CBS News report. Let's listen.


NELSON ROCKEFELLER: Well, some guy came charging over and tore out my phone.


ROCKEFELLER: Yeah, he dropped the poor phone, and he also damaged my other phone.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And what did he say?

ROCKEFELLER: He was for Reagan - he was a Reagan man.

COMPTON: There were no two-way radios or cellphones or ways to text people. That telephone was Nelson Rockefeller's lifeline to the command headquarters. This is how they coordinated. It was so crowded on the convention floor you couldn't even walk over to another delegation. So that shows just the extent to which tempers flared.


SAM: Ann Compton.

COMPTON: Sam, there are not many signs here on the floor of peacemaking among these shouting delegates, although they...

MARTIN: There were debates and handshakes and deals and then it all hinged on the state of Mississippi.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Mississippi, 30 votes.

MARTIN: Here's Reagan campaign manager John Sears.

SEARS: Had Mississippi stayed with us instead of going as a block to Ford on the procedural question that we raised, I think we might have been nominated but it was that close.


UNIDENTIFIED #2: Let's see if it passes.

UNIDENTIFIED #3: Clarke Reed, the Mississippi chairman, reflecting the problems they've been having this evening, trying to agree what to do.

UNIDENTIFIED #4: Now if the delegates will please take their seats and clear the aisles. We are now ready to begin the very important business of nominating the next president of the United States.

COMPTON: Gerry Ford still got by a - just an eyelash margin enough votes to win the nomination on the first ballot.


GERALD FORD: Mr. Chairman, delegates and alternates to this Republican convention, I am honored by your nomination and I accept it.


COMPTON: And then of course in his generosity - he was a generous and kind person - they invited Ronald Reagan to come up and address the convention.


RONALD REAGAN: May I just say some words?

HESS: A marvelous little speech, which pretty much declared him as the next Republican candidate. And in that speech, praised the Republican platform as a banner of bold, unmistakable colors with no pale pastel shades and meaning that.


REAGAN: I believe the Republican Party has a platform that is a banner of bold, unmistakable colors with no pale pastel shades.


COMPTON: The Ford team was so relieved to have it resolved, to know that he would get his first and only chance to run a full campaign for president, that the idea of letting Ronald Reagan unite the party was incredibly appealing. And if he was more poetic than the more prosaic Gerald Ford, so be it.


REAGAN: 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.

UNIDENTIFIED #5: Mr. President.


COMPTON: The delegates sitting in their chairs on the floor loved it.


MARTIN: Gerald Ford had won. However, he went on to lose in the general election to the Democrat, Jimmy Carter. As for Ronald Reagan, he may have lost the nomination, but he was the man who would go on to define the Republican Party for a generation.


RAY CHARLES: (Singing) California, here I come right back where I started from, where bowers of flowers bloom in the sun. Each mornin' at dawnin' birdies singing everything. A sun-kissed miss said, don't be late. That's why I can hardly wait. So open up your golden gates, California, here I come.

MARTIN: For the record today, we heard from Stephen Hess, who supported Gerald Ford in 1976. We also heard from former ABC News correspondent Ann Compton and Ronald Reagan's campaign manager John Sears. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.