Front cover from Where’s the Rest of Me? The Autobiography of Ronald Reagan (1965) Scanned courtesy of Benjamin Scwabe, Small World Books See My first and last purchase at Small World’s College Town Books
In keeping with our Presidential visits to Rochesters series, on October 29th, 1980, President Jimmy Carter spoke at a campaign rally before a crowd of over 20,000.
Having written in 1976 an optimist autobiography, Why Not The Best, that year Jimmy Carter won the presidency by presenting himself as an outsider who could finally turn the page on the distrust of government spawned by Watergate.
But early in his presidency, Carter clashed with the Democratic-held Congress. Then in 1980, as reported by chief of staff Hamilton Jordan, the Carter administration faced one crisis after another: the primary challenge of Edward Kennedy, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the failures of the Stategic Arms Limitation Treaty, and the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran.
These difficulties provided an opening for the Republican challenger, former California Governor Ronald Reagan.
Reagan ran on a platform of smaller government, lower taxes and a bigger military. In many ways, Reagan was the culmination of Movement Conservativism born in Goldwater’s defeat to LBJ in 1964. (see The Agony of the GOP” The Cow Palace, July 1964)
Arguably, Carter moved closer to Reagan’s positions late in his administration by signing the Airline Deregulation Act and proclaiming in his January 23, 1980 State of the Union Address that the United States would use military force if necessary to defend its national interests in the Persian Gulf: the so-called Carter Doctrine.
But a second Carter administration would surely have looked much different from Reagan’s. A comparison of their ideological differences shows that Carter ranged from the slightly liberal on defense and international issues to very liberal on economic issues. Reagan’s positions ranged from moderately conservative on domestic issues to slightly conservative on defense and international issues.
But the question became moot when Reagan won 51 – 41% and 489 – 49 in the Electoral College. At some point during his two terms, Reagan’s presidency became known as the Reagan Revolution.
During the campaign, Carter’s difficulties included a strong challenge by Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. Kennedy.
While Kennedy won the March 25th New York primary, the D & C reported that Monroe County Democratic voters were unenthused with both Carter and Kennedy. One voter suggested that Kennedy’s role at Chappaqiddick was disqualifying.
Ultimately, Carter won the nomination fairly handily. But Kennedy did not support Carter with any vigor during the general election against Reagan.
Carter still holds the dubious distinction as the last sitting President to lose a state primary. By comparisons, in the popular primary vote since 1980: Reagan 98.9% (1984); George W. Bush 98.1 (2004); Clinton 89 (1996); Obama 88.9 (2012) and George H.W. Bush 72.8% (1992).
Nonetheless, after bowing out, Bush accepted the vice presidential nomination. In October, Bush campaigned at the Rochester Public Market. As President, Bush visited Wilson Magnet High School in 1989.
During the campaign, Reagan spoke in Syracuse but missed Rochester.
On the Democratic side, First Lady Rosalyn Carter spoke at the Rochester City Hall.
Vice President Walter Mondale spoke at the airport on September 23rd.
Jessie Jackson — who would challenge Mondale in the 1984 primaries — spoke in support of Carter at Madison High School on October 15th. (see also In 1967 when Muhammad Ali visited Madison High School)
Former President Gerald Ford was a close-show in Rochester. Just two day before the election, Ford was scheduled to campaign for Reagan (who had strongly challenged Ford in the 1976 primaries). But at the last minute, the trip was cancelled.
In a sign of the technological times, attempts were made to broadcast remotely some comments by Ford. Apparently, the telephone didn’t work and a cassette recording was tried instead.
Mondale would be back in Rochester less than two weeks after his defeat. The still Vice President stayed at the Hilton Inn on Jefferson Road. Mondale was traveling to Buffalo to watch his daughter’s St. Lawrence University football team play Canesius College. As the headline writer noted, this time the outcome was happier for Mondale.
According to the article, Mondale’s entourage paid for 40 rooms at $35 each. That evening Mondale had dinner in Pittsford with Chris and Nancy Collins in Pittsford.
By the time, Carter arrived in Rochester on October 29th, the writing was on the wall that he would lose. As Jordan notes in The Last Year, the day before ABC News released a dispiriting poll:
One common misconception about the 1980 election was that Carter led in the polls for most of the campaign. Nate Silver, however, shows that Reagan was ahead for good by mid May. ABC News was right.
The 1980 election also featured several third party candidates, most significantly John Anderson.
An Illinois Congressional Representative, Anderson first ran in the Republican primary. Offering positions amenable to moderates of both parties, Anderson broke witht he Republicans and ran as an independent. With Patrick Lucey as his vice presidential candidate, Anderson won 6.6% of the popular vote.
One debated point of the 1980 election is whether Anderson cost Carter the election by siphoning off his supporters. The website Hot Air effectively debunks the theory that Anderson effected the outcome.
Both Anderson and Lucey campaigned in Rochester, and generated some local interest.
While too young to vote, my friend Alan Sun worked for the Anderson campaign. Alan felt the two party system allowed too much concentrated power, what today we call the “Du-Opoly.” Alan went to — and was impressed with — Anderson’s talk at the UofR.
While not as engaged as Alan, I did help blow up balloons and move tables at the Unitarian Church on Winton before an Anderson fundraiser.
My friend Eric Kemperman briefly flirted with the Anderson campaign, spending an afternoon at its headquarters. Eric became interested in third parties after doing a research project for his Brighton Social Studies teacher, Mrs. Kress.
Eric would then turn his research into a D & C letter to the editor calling for the end of the Electoral College.
It’s not clear that the Electoral College system always hurts third party candidates. For example, in Utah independent candidate Evan McMullin has a decent chance to win the state’s electoral votes — not having happened since Wallace in 1968. A Fox News article suggests that in a razor thin election, McMullin’s electors could become kingmakers, either switching to another side or forcing the House of Representatives to choose the president.
While Eric was too young to vote in 1980, by the end he had switched allegiances to Carter. More interestingly, Eric reveals that Anderson never expected to win. As Eric reports:
More interesting, in about 1983 I was living in DC and ran into Anderson on the Metro (subway). I said hi. He said he was on his way to give a speech at a liberal political club. I asked him if he really thought he might win (maybe a bit of a rude question). He said no. His main intention was to get the issues out there.
You heard that revelation on Talker first.
The Libertarian Party was also active in Rochester, running Ed Clark for President and David Koch for VP. Today, we know Koch, along with his brother Charles, as the owner of Koch Industries. In recent elections, the Koch Bothers have been high profile political donors, mostly for Republican and Libertarian candidates. In 2016, the Kochs have been tepid in any support for Trump; at various points they have said they support neither candidate.
In 1976 David Koch made his only personal foray into electoral politics. In late July, Koch campaigned in Rochester. He appeared on Newsmaker, hosted by Maggie Brooks.
And then there was Barry Commoner.
Barry Commoner (1917 – 2012) was a leading ecologist and among the founders of the modern environmental movement. Commoner was a strong advocate for the elimination of nuclear weapons and warned of environmental disasters — often called the “Paul Revere of ecology.”
In 1979, Commoner formed the Citizen’s Party . The party drew support from environmentalists, peace activists and New Leftists. The party called for a systemic overhaul of environmental policies and advocated economic democracy: a shift to decision-making power from corporate managers and corporate shareholders to a larger group of public stakeholders that includes workers, customers, suppliers, neighbors and the broader public. (see the Citizen Party’s Platform). The party could be seen as a mixture of Ralph Nader and John Maynard Keynes.
In 1980 Commoner ran as the presidential nominee with La Donna Harris (then, at that time, the wife of Democratic U.S. Senator Fred Harris of Oklahoma) for Vice President. A Comanche Indian, Harris may have been the first Native American woman to run for national office.
The party faded after 1986. As described by Mark Dunlea, the Citizen’s Party was in many ways the forerunner of the Green Party. Nonetheless, Commoner’s campaign in 1980 drew a fair amount of national and local interest.
At that time, my sister Leslie was majoring in environmental studies at Brown University. Leslie and others studied and worked with Harold Ward, an early sustainability pioneer (see Brown Alumni Monthly, “What’s in a Building”)
In 1980, Commoner captured the imagination of environmentally conscious students at Brown and throughout the country. Now a sustainability engineer at Stanford University, Leslie recalls that in 1980 Commoner was a little like Bernie Sanders of today:
My enviro friends really had high hopes for Barry Commoner in the same way today’s youth had high hopes for Bernie. Barry was way more fringe than Bernie though. Many of his then radical ideas are probably mainstream now at least in California.
The summer of 1980 Leslie was back in Rochester. She volunteered for the Commoner campaign.
Leslie even decided to go to Texas to for the national campaign. But my mother the realist talked her out of a trip to the deep south in the middle of the summer. As Leslie says: “Mom thought it would be too hot in Texas and a waste of time. Probably true in hindsight.” It is hot in Texas and Commoner only won 846 votes in Monroe County.
I also spoke with Martin Linskey, the then co-chairman of the Genesee Valley Citizen’s Party. Calling Commoner an “enlightened scientist,” Martin long admired Commoner for his work on nuclear arms control and reduction. Like many, Martin was inspired by Commoner’s 1971 The Closing Circle. Martin realized Commoner wasn’t going to win. But spreading Commoner’s message of environmental sustainability and social justice was worth the effort.
Martin also told the story of Bernie Sander’s fundraising trip in 1980. In 1980, Sanders was running for Mayor of Burlington, Vermont. Martin remembers Sanders taking time from his own campaign to fly to Rochester for a Commoner fundraiser.
At the fundraiser, Martin says Bernie talked about the same issues he talks about today. Sanders’ fundamental message hasn’t changed that much in 35 years — and for Martin is just as relevant. When Martin drove Sanders back to the airport, Martin offered him some of the over 1,000 dollars raised, at least for expenses. Bernie said no; all the money should go to Barry.
35 years later, Martin had forgotten about the one big splash Commoner’s 1980 campaign made. On 600 radio stations, the party ran an advertisement in which and actor proclaimed:
Bullshit! … Carter, Reagan and Anderson, it’s all bullshit!
The add raised some First Amendment issues when several radio stations tried to remove the profanity. But the Federal Communications Commission ruled that the ads could not be censored.
Martin chuckled at the memory because Commoner himself never used profanity or caustic language at all. Martin guesses some young staff members must have cooked up the idea — although Commoner apparently did not object. Long-time teacher, writer and activist and Citizen’s Party member, Jack Spula referred to the barnyard epithet when crafting his final campaign pitch.
As Martin looked over the old clippings, he realized he has lost touch with many of the members of the Genesee Valley Citizen’s Party. But looking at the clippings he also noticed:
Funny how some things never change. The same old issues are sadly alive and well — militarism, racism and good old fashioned corporate greed.
UPDATE: RIT English Professor John Roche adds that he does indeed remember Election Day 1980:
Indeed I do [remember Election Day 1980]! What a stunner! I was at a Bobbie and the Midnights concert election eve in Rochester (or was it Buffalo?), and recall Bob Weir saying, “Well, folks, looks like it’s going to be an interesting four years.” The Dead, of course, remembered Governor Reagan in California.
PRESIDENTIAL VISITS SERIES