Now he looks at Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign in his new book, Rendezvous with Destiny. Shirley, also the president of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, said he worked on his 600-page tome “every day for three and a half years — for no less than five hours and often more than 12 hours.”
Shirley spoke to The Hill about his writing, Reagan’s role in the Republican Party and what’s next for the GOP:
Q: Was there anything you learned in your research for the book that surprised you?
Yes. How much the Republican Party establishment despised Ronald Reagan and really set out to destroy his candidacy.
Q: That’s very surprising given how he revered he is today.
Isn’t it ironic? … The very same people inside the party were utterly convinced Ronald Reagan would lead the Republican Party to utter ruin in 1980. … There was definitely a cultural schism between the elites of the party and the populist movement. And very much so, they tried to destroy his last candidacy.
Q: When did the GOP really start to look up to Reagan?
After the Alzheimer’s diagnosis. … It took the establishment Republicans a long time to really appreciate Reagan the man and Reagan the principled conservative leader.
Q: Where did the animosity between Ford and Reagan come from?
It came from ’76, from Reagan challenging Ford in the primaries, and it never really went away. Ford confirmed that in a number of interviews. Reagan was more circumspect and more forgiving. But Ford, he told Tom DeFrank in a book he wrote that Reagan really should have stepped aside in 1980 because he really wanted to take on Carter again.
Q: You have a lot of colorful personalities in this book in terms of Reagan’s staff.
We really don’t have a lot of people like that in politics anymore. They’re all too obsessed — the celebrity consultants, I call them — all too obsessed with going on cable television rather than winning campaigns. And it’s all about them. It’s not about ideology. It’s not about saving Western civilization. It’s not about the issues. It’s not even about the candidate anymore. It’s about them.
Q: You write that in the summer of 1983 it was revealed that just days before the 1980 presidential election, someone had stolen President Carter’s debate briefing books and given them to Reagan’s campaign. An FBI and congressional investigation never officially determined who took the documents, but you claim it was the late Democratic operative Paul Corbin. How did you clear up the mystery?
[Originally,] Jimmy Carter accused George Will of taking the briefing books. Yeah, it’s a 30-year-old mystery that nobody in the media or [investigative committees] were ever able to solve. … I knew Corbin and ... I pieced the story together by talking to various people. He did admit it to a number of people. … Dick Cheney had an aide … who told Cheney that Corbin had told him and Cheney in turn told me. I knew enough of other sources I was able to nail it down. But also the research turned up a lot. I got ahold of Corbin’s FBI file, which was 2,000 pages long.
Q: What can we as readers learn from a pre-Internet campaign in this age of social media?
It was a whole different world back then. … You didn’t have the Internet, you didn’t have cell phones, you didn’t have websites, you didn’t have [Twitter], but the principles are timeless. … That’s one thing that I think people should draw from the book: that there are certain things that never change, and that is a commitment to the Constitution, a commitment to individual freedom and personal privacy, and that the individual is more important. …
The thing also that I hope people come away with is an understanding that [Reagan] was not a superficial man. He read, wrote and listened extensively, and what people can learn from that is his brand of conservatism, my brand of conservatism was never about hating liberals or bashing liberals. … It was about maximum freedom for all individuals. The problem with modern Republicanism is that it is too often defined by the opposition.
Q: What do you think Reagan would think of blogs and Twitter?
I think it’s dangerous, and frankly reckless, for people to go around and say, “This is what Reagan would have done.” You don’t know what Reagan would have done. I think the technology would have impressed him and he would have been amused by it. I think that he would say that we need to remember it’s ultimately about our ideas and not just about how we deliver those ideas.
Q: You wrote that you are not a Reagan worshipper, so what is your opinion of him?
I’m an historian. … A lot of [reviews] have brought up the fact I’m politically conservative. Well, Doris Kearns Goodwin is politically liberal and Michael Beschloss is politically liberal and my old friend Doug Brinkley is politically liberal, but nobody seems to bring up their politics. I think I’m capable, like them, of wearing different hats. … In pointing out Reagan’s mistakes and foibles, I play it straight down the line. I’m an admirer of Reagan but I’m also an admirer of any man who would walk through that type of fire, like President Obama or anybody else, to become president of the United States, because you have to be made of inner steel to go through that.
Q: Will you write another Reagan book that looks at the 1984 campaign?
Yeah, I’m doing the ’84 campaign. Probably I’m doing three more Reagan books.
Q: There’s been a lot of talk about infighting in the Republican Party. What’s your take on the 2010 elections?
The conservatives will win the fight.