Nelson Rockefeller hadn’t expected to become president and like most Americans figured he would never be. Ford was healthy and had no known skeletons in the closet. Most of the politicians in Washington despite their ideological disagreements felt he was a moral and honest man who upheld the legacy of the presidency. Unfortunately, that didn’t prevent his murder and his honesty and morality died with him. Compared to his predecessor and especially Buddy Cianci he was a man who tried to do the right thing and tried to bring honesty and trust back into the government. Now Rockefeller had to try and uphold his legacy. When he heard the news of Ford’s murder he just wept. What else was his reaction supposed to be? Just like tens of millions of Americans that’s all he could do. But he didn’t have the luxury of doing just that. His main and by far most important task during his short tenure was to honor Ford and his legacy. He would start with his speech to the American public at noon about the assassination. With tears visible and a lump in his throat he delivered his most memorable moment of his presidency.
“Hello my fellow Americans. This is not the speech I ever thought about giving nor wanted to give. As many of you have seen and heard our dear president, Gerald Ford was murdered in Sacramento California four hours ago in cold blood. In accordance with the law, I have been sworn in as president of the United States one hour ago. In this time, I want to say that Ford’s murderer has been arrested and will face justice soon for her crimes. Unlike Oswald or Booth, I promise that Ford’s murderer won’t get the luxury of not facing justice. In the meantime, between her trial all I ask of my fellow Americans is unity in the face of this great tragedy. Today we’re not conservatives or liberals but Americans, just as we were when another great president, John F. Kennedy was murdered. Now is the time for unity and understanding with our fellow American and that’s all we can do right now.”
Nelson Rockefeller in the White House, 1976
Rockefeller’s speech was well received and would be remembered fondly amongst Americans. It became a symbol of what it meant to have a stable and caring president in the White House and a great time of unity in a time of great tragedy. The day was a somber one and the atmosphere was a dark one. In D.C it was pouring outside, and the clouds were nearly black it seemed from the White House windows. It was as if the weather knew the mood and adjusted accordingly to the perception of Rockefeller and the White House. Either way life had to go on. Rockefeller first needed to find a vice president. He needed someone who could take over in case he died and could give confidence to the American people. His staff gave him a short list that included Donald Rumsfeld, Bob Dole, Howard Baker, George H.W Bush, and John Connally. Rockefeller wanted someone who had enough experience in government so if they took over, they’d be able to quickly and effectively take over from Rockefeller. He also wanted someone respected by conservatives to bring unity to the Republican Party. Bush was chosen as vice president due to his experience as a representative, UN Ambassador, and diplomat which would allow him to know the ins and outs of the foreign situation in case of Rockefeller’s demise. In addition to his experience in government he was also a southerner, an area where Rockefeller needed to appeal to ASAP if he wanted any chance of winning re-election. With little to criticize or attack Bush for the senate easily confirmed him 98-0. After the confirmation of Bush, it was time to go to Ford’s funeral. His body was laid in the United States Capitol, and he was to be buried in Arlington Cemetery, one of the highest possible honors given by the federal government. At the funeral several world leaders, including UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson, French president Valerie Giscard d'Estaing, Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro, and Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau attended the funeral. The funeral lasted five hours and when the funeral processions were done it was time to get to work.
The first major challenge Rockefeller faced was the New York City Fiscal Crisis. New York City was billions in debt and the city government was on the brink of collapse as banks refused to give more loans to the city. Rockefeller, wanting to avoid a major crisis and save such a crucial part of his home state from ruin, immediately poured billions into New York City to save it from economic collapse, on the condition that they’d institute austerity measures to save money and decrease the deficit they built. While popular to those who lived in New York the conservatives in the Republican Party balked at the measure. Why should Americans pay for the troubles of New York City? Hadn’t they shown they weren’t responsible with spending money? Why did they have to give them more? This was the first major act that burnt the short-term goodwill between the conservatives and the liberals in the Republican Party. Rockefeller’s administration was quickly despised by the conservative Republicans who wanted a strong conservative president. They didn’t like Ford when he was alive and kicking but they hated Rockefeller. Ford was a moderate but at least had conservative views. Rockefeller was the embodiment of the liberal faction of the Republican Party that had slowly dwindled since the Eisenhower years.
Soon enough conservatives and even moderates in the Republican party started to pressure Rockefeller to not run for president in 1976. A big blow to President Rockefeller was when Rumsfeld, a conservative ideologue left a month after the assassination of Ford. Next was Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger who was planning to leave but was accelerated by the untimely death of Ford. Schlesinger left on good terms, but conservatives used this to question the functionality of the Rockefeller administration. Schlesinger’s replacement was Bill Clement, the assistant secretary of defense as he was considered a capable replacement.
Come November the conservatives in the Republican Party, just after Thanksgiving prepared to challenge President Rockefeller. Ronald Reagan had planned to challenge Ford in the primaries, but his plan was thwarted when Ford was assassinated. Still, despite Rockefeller’s high approval rating of 64% Jesse Helms, the far-right senator from North Carolina pressured Reagan to instigate a primary challenge. Reagan was hesitant but Helms and was adamant and threatened to run third party or find a different primary challenger, whether that’d be Senator James Buckley, Jack Kemp, or himself was unknown but Reagan figured it was worth a shot. The bailout of New York City particularly made him worried about four years of Rockefeller. Still Reagan wanted to wait until December to let Rockefeller’s approval ratings drop a little, but Rockefeller found out about Reagan’s plans and went on the offensive. He attacked Reagan and Helms for planning a primary challenge right after the death of Ford and for trying to push the Republican Party farther to the right than what Ford intended.
Architect of the Reagan campaign, senator, and white supremacist Jesse Helms.
Ronald Reagan announcing his run for president in Concord.
The second attack backfired and damaged Rockefeller’s standing in the Republican Party. Reagan retaliated to these attacks by saying “Rockefeller, a man not elected by Republican voters let alone the American people shouldn’t be telling Republicans what they want. The Republican Party is the party of the rational right, not big city liberals like himself who the Republican Party rejected in 1964 and 1968.” With that the campaign was on. Rockefeller expected to do well in the first caucus in Iowa, so he didn’t spend as much money as he should’ve and decided to focus more on New Hampshire and delegate rich primaries like Illinois. This was a grave mistake. Reagan and his campaign seeing an opportunity hit Iowa hard. New Hampshire was important but if they could win Iowa, they would build momentum and deliver a knockout blow to Rockefeller. Come January 19th, Iowa narrowly went to Rockefeller by one delegate. But the popular vote was a different story. Rockefeller’s overconfident campaign allowed Reagan to close the gap to 1.5% and thoroughly embarrass Rockefeller. The shocking blow caused Reagan to spike in popularity as Rockefeller went into damage control as Republicans and the Rockefeller campaign realized Reagan could actually win this despite Rockefeller’s high approval rating. The Rockefeller campaign decided to try and deal a death blow to Reagan by challenging him to a debate. This was built as the debate of the primary season and Rockefeller sealed his fate there. Reagan came off as an optimistic and grandpa like figure while Rockefeller came off as more intellectual, but one issue reigned supreme in the debate. Abortion. Reagan ruthlessly attacked Rockefeller’s pro-choice views in the debate and Rockefeller refused to yield. If there’s one group that decided the New Hampshire primary it was pro-life Republicans. They were politically active and always showed to vote and they voted en mass for Reagan. Reagan the next day watched the results closely and by a narrow 700 vote margin. The Rockefeller campaign was crushed by the shocking lost and the campaign started to spiral.
Rockefeller easily swept the states of Massachusetts and Vermont while Reagan dominated the Florida primary, with southern conservatives despising Rockefeller. Next the Wisconsin primary was up and was considered the one primary that could turn the campaign around for Rockefeller. Rockefeller flooded the airwaves with ads calling Reagan a radical and invoked Ford’s legacy as a moderate to boost his campaign. Reagan fired back by calling Rockefeller a liberal in a conservative party and the candidate of abortion. The race was turning ugly, and it benefited Reagan as Rockefeller lost moderate conservatives. Reagan promised tax cuts, a decrease in the deficit, and to appoint pro-life judges while Rockefeller defended his pro-choice stances and highlighted his tough on crime record. Reagan shot back by pointing out how he had kept guns out of the hands of the Black Panthers while Rockefeller pointed to his crackdown on drugs in New York. Come election day news reporters swarmed polling stations and interviewed Rockefeller and Reagan supporters duke it out in tense arguments and in some cases with their fists. No matter who won the Republican primary the party was going to look like a bunch of squabbling children by the end of it. When the polls closed Reagan won Wisconsin by 1.2% of the vote. With this the comeback Rockefeller had hoped for collapsed. The rest of the primary went as expected. Rockefeller dominated the North while Reagan dominated the South and secured the more libertarian western states such as Montana, Oregon, and the Dakotas, allowing him to rack up a massive delegate lead by the time the RNC rolled around. Reagan had done what he set out to do. Unseat the liberal president and cement conservative dominance over the Republican Party. Finally, the public would have a viable conservative choice for president. This time, someone with enough PR skills to not be branded as a psychopath who would start nuclear war.
Unfortunately, for Reagan he would still be viewed as a radical. The man was easily the most conservative man to run for president since Goldwater. Furthermore, his brazen economic conservatism became prime cannon fodder for the Democrats who ran a less economically moderate campaign. Moderate economic policies where already failing the country as the economic crisis deepened, why would the American people want to go further right?
Come the Republican National Convention the moderates sat and waited patiently. Things where calm. To calm for comfort.
Reagan’s negotiations with Rockefeller were stalling. In an attempt to bring party unity Reagan and Rockefeller negotiated. Much to the anger of the conservatives Rockefeller flat out refused to endorse Reagan if a anti-abortion amendment was added to the official platform. Reagan, despite Helms’s wishes obeyed. One issue they particularly agreed on was tough on crime measures, with Reagan promising to support the death penalty and tougher punishments for drug use and trafficking.
Come the vice-presidential selection Reagan ran into some problems. His original choice of Rich Schweiker flat out refused to be on the ticket, having no interest in the vice presidency. Then Reagan got a seemingly genius idea. Why not re-nominate George H.W Bush? He was a moderate and from the south, a seemingly perfect choice. If the moderates wanted someone from the Rockefeller wing then picking someone appointed by Rockefeller that’s one heart beat from the presidency seemed like the best way to please them. So, history was made in 1976 with the Reagan/Bush ticket being nominated by the RNC.
But Reagan’s nomination in hindsight wasn’t the biggest story out of the 1976 RNC, however. That would be the Mayor of Province, Buddy Cianci’s role. He was considered a rising star in the Republican Party due to his time as mayor of Province Rhode Island. Running on an anti-corruption campaign he was able to end 150 years of Democratic rule. His fiery campaign style was perfect for higher office and both Reagan and Rockefeller were impressed with his oratory skills. By the end of the first day, he was discussing a potential seat in the Reagan administration if he won. On the second day he was given a offer. He was offered by Rockefeller to give the keynote address to the RNC. Cianci was shocked. When he came down to Kansas City, he was expecting to be promised a minor position in Reagan’s justice department, maybe attorney general if he was lucky. But now he was headlining the RNC. His speech would be the catalyst for the rest of his political career.
On the third day it was his time. His staff finished the final edit of his speech after thirteen straight hours of work. Reagan shook his hand as Vice President George H.W Bush finished his speech. The crowd roared in approval and Cianci’s turn was up. He walked up to the podium and grabbed onto it. His sweaty hands struggled to grab the podium, so he let go and began his speech
“The Democratic Party likes to pretend its policies are not only wanted by the American people but a group that’s close to me, immigrants. They have a monopoly on immigrants despite the fact when they come over the government bureaucracy grinds the process of citizenship to halt from those brave men and women fleeing communism. Furthermore, they want to claim that they’re programs will provide an opportunity for all Americans but when they get here are they met with the conditions to make an honest living? No! They’re taxed like all regular citizens into oblivion and have their hard-earned wage stolen, so corrupt government bureaucrats can give themselves an unearned wage. Make no mistake, the Republicans are the party of the people. I would know as I was elected as a man of the people, as a crusader against corruption who wouldn’t serve government bureaucrats nor be bound by members of my own party and that’s the path the Republican Party is going down. One which we‘ll focus on pragmatic solutions that benefit hard working Americans. For example, Ronald Reagan over here recognizes social security as a right to all Americans and understands we need to work with both ends of the Republican Party to bring economic prosperity and peace to the world.”
The crowd erupted in cheers from both conservative and liberal Republicans. Cianci’s speech was all Reagan had wished for. Passionate, appealing to middle class voters, and uniting. Cianci’s speech quickly united the factions of the Republican Party behind him and put a rocket on the back of his increasingly successful political career. It was truly the perfect speech and it would be remembered as such. In recent years it has taken a sinister tone. As Cianci was released from prison people looked back at his speech and realized it was what started the Decade of Malice and allowed him to become the most corrupt president in American history. It was the speech that nearly brought down the government.
The same couldn’t be said for Reagan. Reagan by the end of the RNC was losing 36-57 against the Jackson/Harris ticket, with moderates fleeing the Republican Party and the economic crisis in full swing. Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise though. At least he didn’t have half the legacy of Cianci’s. Though that isn’t an accomplishment as it requires a basic moral compass politicians that to the average working class American, seemingly ditched after their election.