The Stolen Campaign Documents That Helped Reagan Win the Presidency

The Stolen Campaign Documents That Helped Reagan Win the Presidency

Why you should care

Because Hillary’s Clinton’s emails are not the first time stolen documents have influenced a presidential election.

It was about as high stakes a presidential debate as there has been in American history. When President Jimmy Carter and Republican party nominee Ronald Reagan squared off on Oct. 28, 1980, in Cleveland for their one and only debate of that election, there was just one week to go before Americans cast their ballots. There was no early voting, the nation was gripped by an ongoing hostage crisis in Tehran, and the two candidates were running close in the polls. This was perhaps Reagan’s last, best chance to dethrone the Democratic incumbent.

The highlight footage from the debate tends to focus on Reagan’s winning quip, “There you go again,” but that disarming rejoinder to Carter’s pointed critique of the Republican challenger was just one rhetorical flourish in a remarkably sharp debate performance from the former California governor. All night long, Reagan responded with ease to Carter’s attacks, batting them away with well-prepared facts, figures and pithy one-liners.

Three years later — long after Reagan came from behind to beat Carter and become president — a potential reason for Reagan’s successful debate performance rocked the nation: Carter’s debate briefing books, stolen from the White House, had ended up with members of the Reagan campaign shortly before the pivotal debate. And a good quarter century before the current unfolding scandal surrounding the use by President Donald Trump’s campaign of emails hacked by Russians from Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, another scandal erupted in D.C. — known as “Debategate” — that promised to tarnish the victory of a sitting president and take down some of his top officials.

The Reagan campaign was pulling out all the stops to prepare their telegenic candidate for the pivotal debate.

With Reagan starting to pull even with Carter in the polls in late October, the Reagan campaign was pulling out all the stops to prepare their telegenic candidate for the pivotal debate. A series of rehearsal debates was planned to take place in a television studio built into a garage in Reagan’s rental house in Wexford, Virginia, with Michigan congressman David A. Stockman playing Carter. And, just a few days before the real debate, a set of papers titled “Presidential Debate Briefing Book,” containing 69 questions and answers, including a number of potential lines of attack on Reagan, went missing from the White House and found its way into the hands of key Reagan campaign officials.

While it never emerged that Reagan himself was aware of the pilfered papers, they were used by campaign aides in his debate preparations. Stockman later admitted that he used the briefing book to prepare for his role as President Carter. The end product of the extensive debate prep, whatever the means, was a polished candidate, one who, as a former actor, certainly knew his lines. “He has his memorized tapes,” Carter wrote in his diary of Reagan’s delivery of certain soundbites in the debate. “He pushes a button and they come out.” Reagan’s performance in the debate would catapult him to a big victory a week later, when he would win 44 of 50 states — and with them the presidency. In a race that had been a virtual tie before the debate, says Daniel Urman, a law and politics expert at Northeastern University, Reagan’s debate performance helped him pull away.

News of the stolen briefing book did not emerge until June 1983, when a book about Reagan by Time White House correspondent Laurence Barrett reported the theft. The revelation set off a firestorm in the nation’s capital. Many of the individuals involved in Reagan’s campaign and debate prep now occupied high-level positions in his administration, including Chief of Staff James Baker and CIA Director William J. Casey, and it looked like the brewing Debategate scandal — one of the first to bear the -gate suffix in the wake of Watergate — might take them down.

Reagan denied any knowledge of the stolen briefing book, but Congress launched a 10-month investigation that cost half a million dollars and resulted in a 2,500-page report. It turned out that Reagan campaign officials had shown little interest in how the book was obtained, or the ethics of using it since it was not marked as classified, but they insisted that it had not played a major part in the candidate’s debate preparations. The investigation also failed to uncover the actual thief. And so the scandal died out, no administration officials were fired and Reagan sailed to reelection in 1984.

Decades later, however, a Reagan biographer named Craig Shirley claimed to have unearthed the culprit. He pointed to a Carter-hating Democrat (and die-hard supporter of Carter’s 1980 primary opponent, Ted Kennedy): Paul Corbin, who died in 1990. Corbin had denied wrongdoing before Congress but hinted to friends over the years that he had been behind it.

So did the stolen briefing book change history? Carter was a hobbled president going into the debate and it may have only solidified support that was already heading Reagan’s way. As Reagan asked voters in his effective closing argument — another aspect of his impressive performance, and one not derived from stolen papers: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” And for many Americans the answer to that question was no.

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