Why you should care
Because some revolutions begin with a big loss.
By 1976, Ronald Reagan had been a successful actor, broadcaster, corporate spokesman and governor of California. But the story of Reagan the president and conservative icon doesn’t really begin until the year of the American bicentennial, when the 65-year-old upstart challenged the leader of his party, and sitting president, Gerald Ford, in one of the most contested primaries in U.S. history.
Hard as it may be to imagine, Reagan was once a joke in the party that idolizes him today. The GOP establishment despised the telegenic conservative (President Richard Nixon called him a “lightweight” in internal memos), a candidate they believed would fall to pieces if he strayed from his prepared remarks and talking points. A view that seemed validated after Reagan lost the first five straight primary contests in 1976, and found himself with more than $2 million in campaign debt and members of his own staff urging him to quit the race.
Learn more about Reagan’s iconic ’76 run in The Contenders: 16 for ’16, a new TV series from OZY — airing every Tuesday this fall on PBS — that celebrates the men and women who have run the ultimate political gauntlet in pursuit of the most powerful job on Earth.
Reagan’s broke campaign would rally, however, to win in North Carolina in May, and 11 other states, racking up over 1,000 delegates — enough to ensure that President Ford would not be able to clinch the nomination ahead of the party’s August convention in Kansas City. At that convention, the nation at large got a taste of the Great Communicator, and the delegates in the hall were left to wonder whether they had chosen the right man.
Here’s a taste of Reagan’s performance, as seen in The Contenders.