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Reagan loses Republican nomination

Before we come to topic A, which is not so much the Republican convention as, with a constant with American politics, namely the struggle between the centre and the right-wing, I ought to add a footnote to the Chinese puzzle that I talked about a few weeks ago.

Some of you may recall that after the appalling earthquake in Tangshan, I brought up what to me was the most striking difference between the European editorials on the disaster and the American. Roughly the difference was between a man who is scientifically interested and a man who is shocked. The European editorials that I'd seen speculated on the rum habits of the earth's crust and began to wonder whether there isn't some historic change taking place in the frequency and location of earthquakes. 

Well, the Americans, I said, reacted with mixed horror and exasperation that the Chinese government had not immediately told us the scope of the disaster and the likely number of casualties. They still haven’t, by the way. And, last week, I read an equally exasperated British editorial in the same vein. 

At the time of the earthquake in Tangshan, an industrial city with a known population of a million, the New York Times was shocked first that the Chinese absolutely and immediately refused any help from the outside and, second, that they buttoned their lips about the casualties. We can only guess that it must have been one of the worst earthquakes, if not THE worst, in history. We're still guessing. 

Now, I think our natural response and by 'us' I mean any Westerner, whether he enjoys the Western systems of government or is free to deplore them aloud, our response is to think of the Chinese in this matter as being stiff-necked to the point of paranoia, proud to the point of cruelty. What we ended by saying was this, 'Is there anyone who believes that the less the world outside knows about the earthquake, the better it will be for the Chinese?' Well, the answer is, 'Yes!' The Chinese government believes it. I'm indebted for this startling discovery to a columnist for the New York Times, Mr William Safire who has just been in Hong Kong and learned something about how the government used its all-powerful propaganda machine to do an immensely impressive rescue job, but also to do something that sounds like a George Orwell invention, to underscore the villainy of opposition to the revolutionary line. 

First, Mr Safire reveals that the Chinese have in their language four characters to describe an earthquake which can be literally translated as, 'heaven crashes, earth cracks.' Well, the communists use that traditional phrase, substituting 'mountain' for 'heaven', since they know there's no such place in anybody's future, except the earthly heaven of life in communist China a generation, or two, or three, from now. 

What is a fascinating shock to me is to hear that the Chinese, since ancient times, have preserved the superstition that one of the tests of the prestige of a ruler is his ability to cope with any natural disaster. This, in itself, explains the traditional refusal to receive help from the outside, but Mr Safire points out that today self-reliance is the central issue of the Chinese government's dislike and distrust of the West. They want to prove to their people that they do not need Western technology in anything and that the Communist regime they most deplore, that of the Soviet Union, is only corrupted by aping the West. They believe it was proved, in Vietnam more than anywhere, that ten simple Chinese or North Vietnamese with ten bicycles can defeat any number of Americans with the most developed technological weapons. 

So what they did at once, after the earthquake, was to draft huge relief battalions to start repairing and rebuilding at once. They flew in thousands of what they call 'barefoot doctors', what we should call medical orderlies, lay helpers. Coal mines, which must have buried hundreds, at least, are already back at work. The government made a point in newspapers and over loudspeakers, made the deafening point that the earthquake was a great challenge to prove to the world that Chinese self-reliance – one man with a pickaxe, one woman with a stretcher – could do more than we can do with our most sophisticated medical equipment flown in in gleaming jets. In other words, they did not reject outside help out of pride, they did it to prove to their own people that they can survive and prosper better than the communist nations that import foreign arms and imitate capitalist technology. 

Also – and this brings up the seemingly far-fetched point about using the earthquake to prove the villainy of people who question the revolutionary line – the government seized on the earthquake as a golden opportunity to make the people familiar with their next leader. The central committee of the party must have had a tense and crucial session in choosing the man who, when the relief and repairing is all over, will be seen as the big man of China. Everybody knows, not least the Chinese, that Mao Tse-tung is a very sick man. Well, the central committee chose the fairly unknown premier, Hua Guofeng, to be in charge of the whole mighty operation and, once they picked him, they filmed his tour of all the stricken places and played up his importance in the press. 

And finally, the government used the earthquake to drive home to their people a lesson that I think we can only call 'sombre.' If they can survive, if they could survive and prosper after the burial of hundreds of thousands of people in a natural disaster, they had proved that they can survive, better than we can, a nuclear attack. 

Mr Safire’s conclusion is that, whereas communism in China has rejected the ancient superstition that a ruler has a mandate from heaven, it still retains the superstition that a ruler is proved by his ability to cope with disaster. And in this instance, he says, its impressive response to a calamity has strengthened its hold on 900 million Chinese. 

Well, I hope you find this as fascinating as I do, enough so anyway to delay our absorption with the equally exotic political process that was going on in Kansas City. Until last Monday, the hundreds, maybe the thousands, of reporters assembled in Kansas City were saying and writing that the nomination was safely in the hands of President Ford, but in the anticipated brawl on the convention floor, Mr Reagan might, at the last minute, triumph. Well, as we all know, he didn't. He began his campaign with a lot of dash and a resounding clanger when he suggested that American troops might help bring stability to Rhodesia and then quickly amended this wild proposal to say that maybe Britain and America together might do it. 

Along the campaign trail, Mr Reagan dropped several other heavy bricks, but nothing he did along the way equalled the brilliant ineptitude of his last two moves. The first was to pick a liberal senator from Pennsylvania as his running mate, with the foxy aim of winning over the Pennsylvania delegation. In the result he lost Pennsylvania and alienated his one powerful state in the south, Mississippi, which plumped solidly for Ford. The last act was right in character. He decided to force to the convention floor – that's to say to a vote of all the delegations – a resolution requiring any present candidate, or any Republican candidate in the future, to choose his running mate before the balloting for president. As he had done. This must have seemed to the Reagan team a bold and clever ruse saying in effect: 'we've shown our hand, we are prepared to bind the party together by uniting the right-wing and the left. President Ford, on the contrary, is playing the old, shifty game of getting in there and then dictating his partner with the convention having no say in the choice.' 

By the way, the conventions never do have a say in the choice of a vice president. And when Adlai Stevenson in 1956 said it would be only democratic to throw the choice to the floor, which he did, old Sam Rayburn, the veteran Democrat, decided there and then that Stevenson was the naivest politician he'd ever encountered. 

Well, Reagan's clever move was instant checkmated by Ford's floor manager. Senator Robert Griffin got up and said what a terribly unfair thing it would be if a presidential nominee had to announce his running mate ahead of time, 'Because', he said, in marvellously mock alarm, 'the resolution would automatically exclude Mr Reagan since the president would have had to announce his choice in advance of the nomination. 'I believe,' the senator said with deadpan gravity, 'that Mr Reagan should be in a position to change his mind on Thursday morning.' A huge howl of pain from the skewered Reaganites. The resolution failed and it served as a dry-run of Reagan's defeat in the main ballot – the balloting for the presidential candidate. 

Reagan maintained his usual elegance, his good humour and his actor's neat timing when he said farewell to his flock. I don't believe he was calculating a sinister note. He's not, as he's proved over and over again, he's not a calculating man. He thinks he is, but his stratagems and clever ploys are floated like bright balloons and drop immediately like lead. But under the stress of great emotion of what can only have been a wounding disappointment, and with his wife standing by and close to tears, he urged his followers not to give up, not to grow cynical, not to compromise. 'The individuals may change,' he said, 'but the cause goes on.' 

Well, 'the cause' can only mean the cause of the new American conservative which detests all liberals and is irritated by the moderates. There were some frightening types waving Reagan banners – people about as far to the jingoist right as you can go in America. They were subdued in the election of 1964, they were humiliated in the convention of 1976 but they came awfully close to carrying the day and their day, a lot of them believe, is not over. It has been postponed. 

One more inept or corrupt administration and I fear they could be heard from.

This transcript was typed from a recording of the original BBC broadcast (© BBC) and not copied from an original script. Because of the risk of mishearing, the BBC cannot vouch for its complete accuracy.

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