By Gene Kopelson
Figueroa Press, $55, 935 pages
The great historian Douglas Brinkley once told me, “The realm of Reagan scholarship is just beginning to open up.” Mr. Brinkley is the author of many fine and important works of history, including editing “The Reagan Diaries” at the personal request of Nancy Reagan. “The Reagan Diaries” stands as one of the most important books ever written about Ronald Reagan, as the diaries provide a detailed look inside the thinking of one of our most important presidents.
Gene Kopelson’s new book, “Reagan’s 1968 Dress Rehearsal,” somewhat proves Mr. Brinkley’s point. It details a previously underreported phase in the Gipper’s life, covering his late-starting, ill-famed run for the Republican nomination in 1968. Richard Nixon, of course, was the 1968 nominee at a relative unity and harmony gathering in Miami Beach, and a portion of Mr. Reagan’s challenge was covered by Teddy White, Lou Cannon and several others, but not in this detail. Richard Nixon had pretty much an iron grip on the party and the convention despite the efforts of Mr. Reagan and Nelson Rockefeller to stop his nomination. Mr. Nixon won the nomination on the first ballot, with little drama as it turned out. All the drama was in Chicago that year, as violence broke out both inside and outside the Democratic Convention.
At 935 pages, “Reagan’s 1968 Dress Rehearsal” is not for the faint of heart. It is also written in an academic, almost source-book style, and that also may be off-putting to some readers. But it is also rich in research and detail, and Mr. Kopelson is to be commended for his scholarship. For fellow historians, the work is invaluable.
Mr. Kopelson writes early on that historians (including me) “skipped” Mr. Reagan’s 1968 campaign and wondered why. Actually, the campaigns of 1976 and 1980 were historically much more important than 1968 as 1976 led to 1980 and 1980 led to the historic 40th presidency. But 1968 did not necessarily lead to 1976. Not directly, anyway.
Mr. Reagan himself in his writings never referred to 1968 and in an interview with famed columnist Bob Novak after his win in 1980, Mr. Novak said to the Gipper, “Well, the third time’s the charm.” Mr. Reagan looked at him quizzically and then basically denied that he’d run in 1968. But he did, of course. Just not the way he ran in 1976, 1980 and 1984. One reviewer of “Reagan’s 1968 Dress Rehearsal” mistakenly said that Mr. Reagan’s 1976 run for the presidency was “well-documented,” but, in fact, it was not and his 1980 campaign was underreported in book fashion as well.
Mr. Kopelson delves deeply into the relationship between the former actor and the former president and five-star general, Dwight David Eisenhower, and no doubt there is new scholarship there, but it is open to some question whether the deep mentoring took place, as the author claims. Mr. Eisenhower was too self-confident (some thought self-centered) and too conflicted with his own former vice president, Richard Nixon, hanging around on the national stage, to be overtly supportive of Mr. Reagan over Mr. Nixon. Still, it is an intriguing idea.
The claim is also made that Mr. Reagan got the phrase “common sense” from Ike, but, in fact, he’d been reading and quoting Thomas Paine for years. And Mr. Reagan often quoted the Framers and Founders and cited his personal favorite, FDR, but rarely quoted Eisenhower. But Mr. Reagan did keep a signed picture of Ike on all his desks throughout his political life, as I reported in “Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan.”
Mr. Kopelson sometimes overwrites a subject, such as devoting five long paragraphs to Mr. Reagan’s speech to the Gridiron dinner in Washington in 1967. This is occasionally the problem with Mr. Kopelson’s work. The reader has to wade through a lot of overwritten subjects to get to get to the nub of the matter. Being a writer is about making choices and I know from my own experiences about overwriting a subject, such as my book on the 1980 campaign, as my editor sliced out 400 pages of draft text, “reducing” “Rendezvous with Destiny” to 740 pages, making the reading much more enjoyable. In the end, Reagan history is better off because of Mr. Kopelson’s work. Not the same can be said of all works on Ronald Reagan.
Gene Kopelson is a doctor and has written a number of articles on Theodore Roosevelt and the Holocaust, and with “Reagan’s 1968 Dress Rehearsal” has done an invaluable service, providing a look inside a previously underreported campaign. The campaign taken alone was not all that important except it involved an important man, and that makes this book important.
• Craig Shirley is the president and CEO of Shirley and Banister Public Affairs and a biographer of Ronald Reagan.
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