In 1976, the Republican Party was at a familiar crossroads. Two years earlier, Richard Nixon had resigned in disgrace over the Watergate scandal, and a relatively moderate Republican congressman from Michigan, Gerald Ford, had tripped into the presidency, having been appointed vice president after Spiro Agnew copped a plea to tax evasion. The unelected incumbent was fending off a determined bid for the Republican presidential nomination by a charismatic former actor and California governor named Ronald Reagan, who had become the darling of what was then known as the Goldwater wing of the GOP and today would be called the Tea Party.
Reagan had the backing of unreconstructed Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina; nemesis of the Equal Rights Amendment for women Phyllis Schlafly; and evangelical mass-mail marketing maven Richard Viguerie. But Ford had his own crafty team of advisers, including campaign manager and then-Undersecretary of Commerce Jim Baker, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; and then-White House Chief of Staff Dick Cheney.
By the end of the primaries, Ford had won the popular vote by 53 percent to 46 percent and had slightly more delegates than Reagan, but not enough to seal the deal. So both candidates went to the convention early to woo about 150 uncommitted delegates — mostly elected and appointed party officials not bound by the outcomes of primaries and caucuses. Ford was accused of using the power of the incumbency to trade pork barrel projects for votes, along with trips on Air Force One, meetings in the Oval Office and invitations to state dinners. But if Reagan could pick off enough true believers to stop Ford from winning the nomination on the first ballot, all the delegates would be free to change their votes, and it was believed that many of them wanted to vote for Reagan.
It may have been the last contested political convention in American history, but at the time, I was a surly journalism student at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and couldn’t have cared less. Ford was right, Reagan was way right, and I was way left. But on a lark, a photographer friend, my girlfriend and I decided to crash the Republican National Convention in Kansas City. We arrived without credentials, but infiltrated the proceedings in ways that are probably impossible in a post-9/11 world. Looking for an angle that wasn’t being covered by anyone else, I focused on the role young people played in the process. I questioned whether party conventions were an appropriate venue for choosing presidential candidates, and I was surprised by my own conclusion…