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Whistlestop My Favorite Stories from Presidential Campaign History by John Dickerson Book

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Whistlestop My Favorite Stories from Presidential Campaign History by John Dickerson Read Book Online And Download

Overview: From Face the Nation moderator and Slate columnist John Dickerson come the stories behind the stories of the most memorable moments in American presidential campaign history.

The stakes are high. The characters full of striving and ego. Presidential campaigns are a contest for control of power in the most powerful country on earth. The battle of ideas has a clear end, with winners and losers, and along the way there are sharp turning points-primaries, debates, conventions, and scandals that squeeze candidates into emergency action, frantic grasping, and heroic gambles. As Mike Murphy the political strategist put it, "Campaigns are like war without bullets.

Whistlestop My Favorite Stories from Presidential Campaign History by John Dickerson Book Read Online And Download Epub Digital Ebooks Buy Store Website Provide You.
Whistlestop My Favorite Stories from Presidential Campaign History by John Dickerson Book

Whistlestop My Favorite Stories from Presidential Campaign History by John Dickerson Book Read Online Chapter One

1980—“I Am Paying for This Microphone, Mr. Green”


When writing, it’s better to show than to tell. This is true with campaigning, too. It’s better if you can demonstrate your presidential qualities than if you simply talk about them. The problem is, candidates are stuck giving speeches all the time. Their days are full of telling. If a candidate has shown leadership in the past, all they can do is talk about it. It’s a marvel that some strategist hasn’t contrived to roll a baby stroller down the street just so a long-shot candidate can leap to the rescue in order to display their mettle to the voters.

In Nashua, New Hampshire, on February 23, 1980, Ronald Reagan came as close as you can to showing what it looks like to be a leader, in a confrontation over a debate. It was the Saturday night before the state’s primary, and two thousand people were packed into the Nashua High School gymnasium, creaking on their folding chairs and holding their thick overcoats on their laps. They had come to see a debate between Ronald Reagan and George Bush, the two Republican front-runners, but standing on the debate stage with Bush and Reagan were four of the other Republican candidates.

That was a problem. But what Ronald Reagan did next would give him his moment, which some people think turned the Republican nomination his way, and we all know where that led. Whether it did start things off for the fortieth president or not, the moment became a symbol for the instant Reagan rescued his campaign and hastened the rise of showmanship in the evaluation of the modern presidency.

Bush: Thunder out of Iowa

George Bush, the former Director of the CIA and U.S. Ambassador to China, arrived in New Hampshire as the winner of the Iowa caucus. He boasted of the “Big Mo,” his idiosyncratic description of political momentum, a dubious quality that candidates claim but which the voters delight in denying them—particularly in New Hampshire, where primary voters seem to be raised from birth to dash political hopes.

Bush promised he was going to unite the party and take on the vulnerable Democratic incumbent, Jimmy Carter, whose approval rating had dipped to 30 percent.

Reagan was in a spot. The candidate who had missed the GOP nomination by a whisker in 1976 was supposed to be the front-runner. Bush had beaten him by only two points in Iowa, but that was enough to strip Reagan of his sheen of inevitability. “Reagan does not look like he’ll be on the presidential stage much longer,” wrote Boston Globe columnist Robert Healy. Jack Germond and Jules Witcover wrote, “A rough consensus is taking shape… that George Bush may achieve a commanding position.”

Reagan had to find a way to battle back. Polls showed that he was nine points behind Bush in New Hampshire.1 Fortunately, he had the support of the publisher of the Manchester Union Leader, William Loeb. The paper was the largest in the state, but more important, its publisher woke up every morning with the look of a man who had just taken a surprise teaspoon of vinegar. That sparked in him an urge to demolish George Bush. Loeb called him a “phony candidate.” He said he was merely the tool of the “entire Eastern Establishment, the Rockefellers and all the other power interests in the East.”

Let’s Settle this Man to Man

There were five other candidates besides Reagan and Bush: Rep. John Anderson, Senators Bob Dole and Howard Baker, Rep. Phil Crane, and former treasury secretary John Connally. But after a forgettable debate in Manchester, Bush and Reagan agreed that it might be best for the two of them to have their own debate—to settle things like men without the others there trying to do their own pushing and shoving.

Both candidates wanted to portray the nominating fight as a two-man contest. Bush thought he could put away Reagan once and for all, and Reagan thought he could use his actor’s skill onstage to claw back the stature he’d lost in Iowa. The Nashua Telegraph was happy to host the face-off.

Senator Dole didn’t like being pushed out of the picture a second time. The first time he’d been shoved aside was when the voters of Iowa gave him less than 2 percent of the vote—less than voted “No Preference.” (“I’ve just been campaigning in Iowa,” Dole would tell New Hampshire voters, with a comedian’s pause. “For no apparent reason.”) Dole—a former chairman of the Republican National Committee—and Baker, complained to the Federal Election Commission that the Nashua Telegraph was violating campaign laws: the exclusion of the other candidates amounted to an in-kind contribution to the Bush and Reagan campaigns.

The FEC advised the Nashua Telegraph editor, John Breen, that he might be violating the law. Reagan had a ready work-around. He agreed to pay for the debate himself. He stroked a check for $3,500, and the mano a mano was back on.

On the day of the debate, however, Reagan changed his mind. The other candidates had sent him telegrams arguing it was fair to include them. He agreed, saying they should all be there. Bush said no. He wanted to have the one-on-one debate to sharpen the differences. He also knew that as the front-runner, if he agreed to the full Thanksgiving dinner guest list, each candidate would come after him.

Bush made it a matter of principle. He announced he wasn’t going to go back on his word. He would abide by the original agreement with the Nashua Telegraph. Bush stood on shaky ground in advocating for a two man debate. He and Reagan had already struck a blow against fairness by colluding with the local paper to do their own dinner theater production. Having changed the rules in the first place, they could just agree to change them right back. A full debate was objectively fairer if Bush wanted to have a conversation about playing things fair and square. So sticking to his word was an obvious dodge.

Reagan called the other candidates and asked them to show up at the debate. None of the outcasts asked what Bush thought, because they were happy to be invited to the party and weren’t going to check to make sure both parents approved.

Was it Reagan’s sense of fair play that caused him to change his mind, or did he have cold feet? Did he not want to face George Bush alone? Or was he hatching an elaborate theatrical trap?

The way Reagan aide Craig Shirley tells it, the whole thing was cooked up by Reagan’s campaign manager, John Sears, who saw an opportunity to make Reagan look commanding and make Bush look small. Expanding the field was also a way to limit the chances of a Reagan gaffe and lower the possibility that the five other candidates would be “bad mouthing us the last three days,” as one Reagan confidante put it.2

The confrontation to come was so premeditated, says Shirley, that the Reagan team made sure that they had an ally working the public address system at the Nashua high school so that Reagan would have control of the microphone.

Talk Loudly and Carry a Big Microphone

The Reagan and Bush camps met at the high school and decamped in separate classrooms, and four of the five also-rans huddled together in the music room. They would later refer to themselves as the Nashua Four, because when you’re stuck in the room with the trombones and glockenspiels, it’s useful to pass the time giving yourself a name.

The debate hour arrived and nobody took the stage. The Bush and Reagan teams were fighting each other over whether to include the others; each was sending emissaries over to the other’s classroom to have expletive-laden debates about who was trying to hornswoggle whom. Bush was adamant. If he backed down it would look like Reagan had made him do so.

In one particularly testy exchange, Reagan sent Sen. Gordon Humphrey to try to convince Bush to participate with the larger group. The two men were not friends. Humphrey suggested Bush was harming the party. Bush roared back, “No fu——ing way! I’ve worked all my life for this and I’m not giving it up… I’ve done more for party unity than you’ll ever know!” (Did the patrician Bush really use that expletive? Perhaps, but this story has grown to such proportions that it’s possible this is an embellishment. It’s a loose rule that once a story gets passed around on the campaign trail it gains a new expletive in every third retelling.)

Before the row over the rules became the story, Bush had told reporters that he wasn’t going to attack Reagan during the debate. There was going to be no “hemoglobin count,” he said. That was a metaphor for political confrontation. What was happening in those tile hallways, however, was actual confrontation.

Reagan and Bush encountered each other in the hallway. “I’m not going on unless this goes as planned,” said Bush. Reagan walked out onto the stage anyway.

When Bush and Reagan finally emerged into the packed hall the crowd was fussy and acting out. They’d been waiting for over an hour. General election debates are held in near-laboratory environments. If there is an audience, they are threatened with home foreclosure if they make too much noise. Primary audiences are far more rowdy, however, particularly if they’re at a relatively low-cost event in a high school gymnasium. What are you to do in a gymnasium but cheer and stomp your feet? In one account, a campaign staffer said the room was “like the bar scene from Star Wars,” which in 1980 might not yet have been the cliché it is today.

Everyone was riled up as Reagan and Bush took their seats. But wait, there were four others on stage. Baker, Dole, Anderson, and Crane stood behind, with no chairs, looking like the sad members of some lost tribe. (John Connally declined to be a part of the charade.)

The audience started pleading for the forlorn four. “Give ‘em a chair,” yelled one person.3 Another fellow suggested that Sen. Howard Baker (who was short) could stand on the table instead of taking a seat.

Dole tried to lean over and speak into one of the microphones, but editor John Breen of the Nashua Telegraph, who was moderating the debate, blocked him from doing so.

The publisher of the paper said it was starting to feel like a boxing match. Perhaps embracing this spirit, the chair-deprived candidates raised their hands in unison like they were triumphant fighters.

Bush stared ahead, stone-faced, trying not to participate in the madness. He looked like a child who adopts a middle-distance stare while being chastised.

Reagan’s aide Jim Lake took a piece of paper from NBC anchorman John Chancellor’s notebook and wrote a note to Reagan: “Everybody’s with you.”

Reagan looked over at him and winked. (Again, this is what Reagan boosters say happened. Given the frosting that comes with each retelling, it’s a wonder someone hasn’t claimed that Reagan paused to wrestle a bear to the ground before resuscitating an elderly widow who had fainted.)

But then again, maybe Reagan did wink. He was a man who knew how to play his moment.

Editor John Breen, who did not know how to play his moment, tried to start the actual debate, even while the four discarded candidates were loitering there in the crosswalk. He offered some introductory remarks into his microphone.

As he did, Reagan tried to interrupt the editor. He could because his microphone was on, and they had the sound man on the payroll.

“I am the sponsor and I suppose I should have some right,” said Reagan. Breen ordered Reagan’s microphone turned off, but the technician ignored him. Breen tried to cut Reagan off a second time. That was when Reagan, now seated, let him have it. Red in the face like he’d just sprinted up a few flights of stairs, he turned and thundered while jabbing the table in front of him, “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!”

The crowd roared with approval.

We don’t often get to see candidates when they’re angry. And that was particularly true of the sunny Ronald Reagan. But boy, did he look angry. When Breen first asked that his mic be cut off, Reagan stood up and moved toward him like he was going to use the microphone to brain him. When he finally did pop, he called Breen “Mr. Green,” which was of course not his correct name, but no one really cared. This was not a time for fact-checking.

While this cowboy action was taking place, George Bush looked like he was in another film, and in that film he was not the hero and wasn’t going to get the girl. There was “no solution in sight,” wrote Francis Clines of the New York Times, for Bush, who had been campaigning on the slogan “There’s no problem Americans can’t solve.”4 He looked so much like the East Coast prep school vision of entitlement, it was almost as if he’d been asked to audition for that part in the school’s winter play. The moment, wrote reporter Jules Witcover, contributed to the perception that Bush “had the backbone of a jellyfish.”

Reagan looked like the leader who had taken charge. He was seizing the moment the way he said he would with the Soviets. Since his 1976 campaign he had been boasting that he would be tougher in negotiations than either the Ford or the Carter administrations. He would know how to act in the moment. And here he was, acting in the moment.

Editor Loeb of the Manchester Union Leader must have been attending church regularly in the previous weeks, because the exchange appeared to answer his prayers for opportunities to make a series of small-minded attacks. He editorialized that Bush “looked like the little boy who thinks his mother might’ve dropped him off at the wrong birthday party.”5

A Bush staffer told Newsweek, “It was a crisis, and our man failed to respond.”6 Later Bush would tell Jon Meacham, “I looked like a fool. Not my finest hour, to say the least.”7

After the confrontation, the four candidates (remember them?) left the stage. With no seats and no one to bring them seats, there was not likely to be a role for them in the second act of the drama.

Instead, they went into the band room, where they held a press conference for an hour. The press was covering them and not the actual debate. Reagan appeared the champion of free speech, while the candidates castigated Bush for excluding them from the democratic process. The coverage was full of quotes like this one from Sen. Howard Baker, who said, “If George Bush is the nominee I’ll support him. But I do not plan on George Bush being the nominee. He is not wearing that crown very well, and I’m going to do what I can to make sure that doesn’t happen. Because I think too much of the Republican Party to see it go down the tube.”

“We want a president, not a king,” Bob Dole told the Chicago Tribune. He also said, “I’ll never understand George Bush’s attitude as long as I live. They stiffed us. That’s what they did. They stiffed us. They said, ‘You can’t come,’ and they had the help of the paper. No doubt in my mind, Bush and the Nashua Telegraph are in this together.” In one account, Dole whispered to Bush, “I’ll get you someday, you f——ing Nazi.” (Nixon had pushed Dole out of his post at the RNC in 1972 in favor of Bush, so there was some history between the two men.)

Reagan had all of the candidates and the audience aligned with him against Bush. To control the damage, Bush cut a radio spot in the days after the debate that protested, “At no point did George Bush object to a full candidate forum.” That, of course, only put more gas on the fire. Anyone who might have forgotten the whole thing had a radio ad to remind them of how Bush had acted.

Though the debate had not been televised live, the radio ad plus the controversy meant that the clip of Reagan seizing the microphone and saying, “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green,” was shown over and over again on the evening and morning television. It became a national story.

Green with Envy

Reagan went on to wallop Bush in New Hampshire, 50 percent to 23 percent, a shock that was compounded by the fact that the Boston Globe had polled just days before the primary and said the two men were dead even. Reagan then went on to win all but five of the remaining thirty-three Republican contests.

Was the moment orchestrated, or did Reagan simply improvise like all good actors? It was probably a bit of both. John Sears, the campaign chief who had managed the showdown, was reported in newspaper accounts to have been seen at the end of the melee grinning broadly as he leaned against one of the gym lockers. He smiled at a reporter and said it was just “another day on the campaign trail.”8 The great irony is that if Sears was the puppeteer of this great moment, he was not given credit for it by the candidate. Sears was fired the day New Hampshire voters went to the polls.

Sears was the leftover victim of the Iowa caucus defeat. The New Hampshire campaign had also convinced Reagan that Sears’s insistence on substance and proving Reagan had an in-depth knowledge of the issues—which Reagan found annoying—was getting in the way of campaigning.9

Did this turn around the Reagan campaign? We should be skeptical that single moments can do that, but it probably helped. It made Reagan look good, made Bush look bad; it reinforced that it was a two-person race, which both men wanted; and it narrowed the conversation to a note that was good for Reagan just before people went into the voting booth. If New Hampshire voters were late deciders that year, as they have been every other year, then they went into their local polling places with the image of Ronald Reagan in the middle of Main Street taking on the invading desperadoes.

We just don’t know how much it helped. There’s a fallacy of the “key moment” in presidential races, where campaigns are turning in a particular direction and then a cinematic moment like this takes place and people invest that moment with the significance as if it were the beginning of a trend, rather than an event that took place while a trend powered by different forces was already well under way.

In the view of Reagan’s pollster, Richard Wirthlin, which was supported by exit polling interviews, Reagan had already surged over Bush with his performance in the Manchester debate three days before the Nashua debate. What the high school showdown had done was drive home that point. According to Wirthlin, the repeated television coverage of Reagan bellowing “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!” reaffirmed the image of Reagan as a “dynamic, commanding and appealingly human candidate,” while making Bush look like “a stiff, formal and uncommunicative one.”10

Word of the moment spread because reporters were there to cover the debate. There were a lot of celebrities from the press corps there—including CBS’s Walter Cronkite and NBC’s John Chancellor—which helps give a moment lift. When events happen in front of famous news anchors and columnists, they can boast about it, and in doing so, boast about their on-the-scene reporting. So they have every incentive to tell the story and give it tremendous weight.

For Reagan, the Nashua moment became an impediment to improving relations with Bush after the nominating race was over. He thought his adversary had shown unpardonable weakness. “I don’t understand it,” he said. “How would this guy deal with the Russians?” When Reagan was resisting picking Bush as his running mate—going so far as to contemplate naming his old adversary Gerald Ford—he referred back to this moment as one where he had lost faith in Bush.

Leading up to the debate in New Hampshire, Bush’s campaign had been focused on making Bush look more substantive, but what they really needed in the age of the personal presidency was a spectacle—a moment that emphasized Bush’s leadership abilities. (Bush would face this challenge again in 1988 and orchestrate a fight with CBS News anchor Dan Rather to give himself the spectacle he needed.) It may seem depressing that theater plays such a role in presidential politics, but voters aren’t as passionate about substance as they say they are. What they do remember is image. Similarly Reagan’s famous speech at the 1976 GOP convention was not about substance, but about a feeling. Reagan and his campaign intrinsically understood this.

When the respective campaigns went into New Hampshire, Bush was focused on avoiding mistakes, giving tight lectures and subdued rhetoric.11 Reagan was focused on image building that showed a wider range of his emotional makeup and leadership qualities.

Whatever impact the microphone seizure had, the ability to grab the moment and show cinematic leadership in front of all the cameras was seen as such a boost in Reagan’s mind, that his wife memorialized it. When Nancy Reagan was looking for artifacts from each of the presidents for an exhibit at the Reagan Library, she chose the microphone from the 1980 debate in Nashua.

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