In the summer of 1984, America was awash in patriotic fervor. At the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, American athletes, dressed in uniforms bearing the stars and stripes, dominated the games, thanks in part to a Soviet boycott. Against this vibrant backdrop of nationalistic pride, Ronald Reagan campaigned for re-election. In the eyes of many voters, Reagan was synonymous with a newly invigorated America. Just four years removed from the days when American hostages were in Iran and Jimmy Carter spoke of the nation's "crisis of confidence," the Reagan team confidently declared, "America's Back."
Polls indicated that Reagan's appeal transcended traditional boundaries of class, age, and even political party. "Reagan Democrats" consisted largely of blue-collar voters who had turned away from the party of Franklin Roosevelt and Big Government. Additionally, young voters, historically pro-Democrat, now populated Reagan rallies with cries of "Four more years!" Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale further eroded his standings in the polls when he brazenly admitted that he would raise taxes if elected. (His contention was that Reagan would do likewise, he just wouldn't admit it.) For their part, Reagan's team all but ignored Mondale. Their campaign ads never even mentioned his name. Instead, Reagan's television spots presented idyllic images of "Morning in America": weddings, flag-raisings, home buying, and peaceful, scenic vistas. Ronald Reagan, the ads implied, had made all this possible.
While all signs pointed to a re-election victory of historic proportions, Reagan's campaign managers still had one big worry. That worry was Ronald Reagan himself. Despite presenting a portrait of their boss as a decisive and involved leader, Reagan's inner circle feared that image would dissolve under the scrutiny of careful investigation. As a result, Reagan's campaign appearances were as carefully stage-managed as a Hollywood production. Reagan, the star, was handed his lines and coaxed not to wander "off-script." To guard against unexpected questions from the press, Reagan did not participate in a formal news conference from July to November. Reporters were reduced to shouting questions at the hard-of-hearing president above the orchestrated roar of helicopter engines.
Reagan's handlers knew their candidate would face his harshest test during two live debates with Mondale. Known as an "issues man," Mondale was eager to impress voters with his mastery of detail. In preparation for a Louisville, Kentucky, debate on domestic issues, Reagan's team inundated him with notebooks and position papers, taxing both his memory and attention span. By the night of the debate, the always telegenic Reagan appeared off-balance and a bit befuddled. Post-debate polls showed that "the age factor" (Reagan was 73 years old) was becoming an election issue. With another debate looming, Reagan's team re-thought their strategy.
Those closest to Reagan, his wife Nancy, in particular, were angry at his campaign managers for over-loading him with information. They prescribed letting "Reagan be Reagan." Despite delivering a rambling closing statement, Reagan held up much better in the second debate. Deftly brushing aside the issue of age, Reagan jokingly promised not to "exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience." This was the Reagan that voters recognized: witty, confident, presidential.
Soon after Reagan's overwhelming victory -- he bested Mondale with 59% of the popular vote and the largest electoral landslide in history -- reports of an out-of-touch chief executive began to emerge with regularity. As the members of his inner circle moved on, Reagan was left vulnerable by a staff that had little appreciation of the special handling the president required.
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