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Pod Corner: 'Landslide' covers how the 1976 presidential election shaped politics

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The year is 1976. Both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party have their own liberal and conservative factions, and both parties prefer to avoid divisive social issues like abortion or fights over textbooks. A new narrative podcast explores how and why that all changed by following the story of the 1976 presidential campaign. The unelected president, Gerald Ford, faced a challenge from a one-time actor considered too reactionary for voters of the day. That's Ronald Reagan.

The podcast is Landslide. It's from NuancedTales, in partnership with member station WFAE and distributed by the NPR network. The host and creator is journalist Ben Bradford, and in this preview from the series' third episode, he looks back to the roots of today's culture war and how it would help save Reagan's campaign. Here's Landslide.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PASTOR: But we'll stand. God's people have had to stand and be persecuted from the very beginning.

BEN BRADFORD, BYLINE: A pastor shouted.

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UNIDENTIFIED PASTOR: And we'll continue to protest for Jesus Christ.

BRADFORD: Parents picketed.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It's a moral issue, and it's a spiritual issue.

BRADFORD: Trucks honked. Workers went on strike.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: Many coal mines were closed.

BRADFORD: Mothers sang.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #1: (Singing, inaudible).

BRADFORD: A community was torn by outrage. This was Kanawha County, W.V., 1974. The conflict was over new textbooks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: There's things that I don't want my child to know, and when he gets ready, I'll teach it.

BRADFORD: The books contained profanity, mentioned sex, and quoted Malcolm X.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: The argument by parents over their children's schoolbooks has caused demonstrations, beatings, closings of schools and bombings.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #3: A sniper has fired at a school bus as the controversy over textbooks in public schools there continues.

BRADFORD: Protests and violence in Kanawha County went on for months. Local high school students said they thought the conflict was about whether they would read Black authors. The Ku Klux Klan arrived and burned crosses. And a group of outsiders flew in to aid the protesters - a D.C. lawyer from a new think tank called the Heritage Foundation, a Californian representing what was ostensibly an anti-pornography group.

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BOB DORNAN: Who elects the school board?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #2: We do.

DORNAN: And who pays for the textbooks?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #2: We do.

DORNAN: Well, let's hear a little cheer for parent power.

(APPLAUSE)

BRADFORD: Soon, in a nondescript office building outside Washington, D.C., a printer buzzed. Out came a letter. Parents around the country found it in their mailboxes. Your taxes are being used to pay for grade school courses that teach our children that cannibalism, wife swapping and murder of infants are acceptable behavior. Up in Boston, a bottle shattered. Protesters shoved. Children on school buses flinched.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: They was throwing eggs at the window and try to hit people with them.

BRADFORD: White parents had erupted against a plan to integrate schools. It involved busing children, sometimes across towns.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Let us go to our neighborhoods where our kids are safe. We want our kids safe.

BRADFORD: Just like in West Virginia, outsiders arrived to help the protesters. They came from organizations with names like the Conservative Caucus, the National Right to Life Committee. Again, in a nondescript office building outside D.C., a printer buzzed and parents read. Dear friend, are you as sick and tired of liberal politicians as I am? Force children to be bused, it read. Force your children to study from schoolbooks that are anti-God, anti-American. The letter linked the anti-immigration protests and the textbook protests. And then it asked for money. A coalition was coming together.

ALAN CRAWFORD: The belief seemed to be that there was a vast untapped electorate that would respond to these appeals.

BRADFORD: Alan Crawford worked for a new magazine called Conservative Digest. His magazine, the letters, the outside groups, the protests were all connected. They were like a forest of aspen trees. On the surface, they all looked individual, but they all shared the same DNA. The same names overlapped on their org charts.

CRAWFORD: So you saw these organizations that were deliberately training young activists and polemicists and publicists - very successful.

BRADFORD: Most crucially, nearly all of these groups relied on that nondescript office building outside D.C. Behind a locked door, guarded by multiple security systems, the printer buzzed as computers read millions and millions of names and addresses off of magnetic tape. It was all controlled by Richard Viguerie.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: He helped birth a lot of these conservative organizations.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Richard Viguerie, conservative ideologue, direct mail genius.

BRADFORD: This was not a secret.

DAVID KEENE: Richard plays a crucial role during that period of political history.

BRADFORD: David Keene was a Reagan campaign aide and a director of another right-wing organization, perhaps the largest tree in this forest, the American Conservative Union. Richard Viguerie raised the money. He had mastered collecting and exploiting electronic data. He understood how people who'd supported one cause might give to another, how someone who opposed textbooks might be mobilized to join the fight against busing or abortion. And Keene says Viguerie's letters with their mentions of anti-God politicians and cannibalism served a second purpose. They were a new form of media. In the mid-1970s, these groups and their movement became known as the new right.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: The New Right Conservatism.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Richard Viguerie, his organization's under his New Right movement.

DAVID STOCKMAN: New Right emphasizes the social issue and kind of inflaming passions.

BRADFORD: The New Right incited people around the nation who were angry about changes to society and culture. They were building a coalition based on backlash, on grievance, on what today we might call a culture war. And they were doing it with a very clear and explicit goal. The New Right wanted to take over the Republican Party.

CRAWFORD: The nature of American conservatism was being deliberately changed. They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

BRADFORD: In the 1976 presidential race, the New Right aligned behind one candidate who shared its goals and values. He could help them win control of the Republican Party - Ronald Reagan. When Reagan announced his 1976 run against Gerald Ford, New Right activists flocked to his campaign as staff and volunteers. But by the spring of 1976, Reagan's bid looked like a failure. He lost five straight primaries. He was on the verge of conceding. What followed was one of the most remarkable, consequential comebacks in American political history. The New Right swept in and jolted Reagan's campaign and political career back to life. But first, you have to understand just how dire the situation was.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #4: Ronald Reagan fighting to stay alive in the race for the Republican nomination. He has now lost every one of his head-to-head contests with the president.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #5: No matter what Reagan does, Ford has been one step ahead.

BRADFORD: Reagan lost and lost - five primaries in a row. It looked over. His campaign manager quietly called a meeting with Ford's to discuss conceding. There was no choice. Frank Tortelli, an outside adviser, says the campaign was broke.

FRANK DONATELLI: The campaign was badly underfunded, I mean, virtually no money available.

BRADFORD: They poured everything into trying to beat Ford early, but it wasn't just that. A new campaign finance law had just gone to effect for this election, 1976, and it radically changed how campaigns raised money and has ever since.

DONATELLI: And he created the Federal Election Commission and a wide range of changes.

BRADFORD: The new law was designed as a reaction to Watergate. It put limits for the first time on how much any one individual could contribute.

DONATELLI: So the big donors just of years previous in the Nixon campaign could not happen.

BRADFORD: So the campaign only had one option.

DONATELLI: Small donations were the coin of the realm.

BRADFORD: But gathering small donations was time consuming. What would you need? Computers, printers and lists of names - to a degree the campaign didn't have. So Reagan shuttered offices. He laid off staff, except for a skeleton crew who worked without pay. One more primary and it would finally be over.

DONATELLI: So the next primary up is in North Carolina. I mean, this is your last shot. You know, you're throwing the kitchen sink in there. North Carolina is it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRINTER BUZZING)

BRADFORD: Down in North Carolina, a printer buzzed.

DETROW: That was the start of a comeback in North Carolina by Ronald Reagan facing Gerald Ford. It ultimately became the closest presidential primary race in American history. And we were listening to a portion of the podcast Landslide from NuancedTales and WFAE, which you can find on all podcast platforms. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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