Thomas F. Roeser 9 February 2011
Probably the most interesting thing I learned from Ronald Reagan in the four hours I spent with him before getting him to the plane to Santa Barbara in 1979 was not his Chicago abode or watching him fix the bathroom plumbing in the O’Hare Hilton room but his genius for soft theatricality in politics.
For the hard-arguments were not on his side.
You must remember the political conditions that existed then. A major conservative columnist was James J. Kilpatrick, 59, a syndicated columnist who tangled each Sunday for nine straight years as the crotchety rightwing voice paired against Shana Alexander every Sunday on CBS’s “60 Minutes.” This was before cable, before the Internet. There was only broadcast television and Kilpatrick…formidable and convincing (living down the fact that he had been a forceful even racist segregationist in the `50s) …syndicated to 172 papers…was the most prominent right-wing voice of the time—far more powerful than George Will has come to be. Or William F. Buckley for that matter. Buckley had an elite conservative magazine. Will was a bow-tied intellectual, a columnist, with the maddening proclivity to trace tax policy back to an offhand remark made by William the Conqueror to his mistress in 1066.
Kilpatrick was the average guy conservative.
Kilpatrick made all kinds of news in 1979 when he pronounced that for the upcoming election of 1980 “Ronald Reagan is a little long in the tooth,” saying he missed his chance by inches in losing the nomination to Jerry Ford—but the future demanded somebody more viable than a 68-year-old ex-movie actor and governor. Sixty-eight was then fearfully old to run for president, as medicine was not so advanced; there were no heart bypasses such as saved me from death in 2004; no operations for subdural hematoma, the delicate brain operation which spared me from certain death–after a four-hour surgery in 1985. People checked out regularly in their late `60s with no weeping or gnashing of teeth. For proof check the obits today. People are in their late `80s, mid-`90s.
So Kilpatrick’s sentence of Reagan as too old was devastating. Not only that but in January of 1979 Reagan’s longtime adversary, Nelson Rockefeller, died of a massive heart attack at 71. It did not assuage things that Rocky was engaged in a strenuously amorous physical pursuit at the apartment of a 27-year-old girl devotee research assistant who at his command did not call 911 but helped the old codger dress and cabbed him to his Manhattan office before she made the call whereby by the time the wagon came the billionaire philanthropist was dead. (She doesn’t have to worry about her old age now by the way—her finances are all taken care of. So long as she doesn’t write a book.)
I was far from a close Reagan operative in 1979…although the only Quaker officer to be for him—the remainder following the CEO and playing it safe by being for John Connally… but I was close enough that I could perceive the Reaganites were gravely shaken by Rocky’s death. Besides there were a whole younger crop—Connally who for the life of me I never saw the attraction although that year he graciously lectured at my Kellogg school class at Northwestern…Poppy Bush (GHW) former CIA director, UN ambassador and China emissary…white-thatched, self-righteous John B. Anderson later to bolt the party and run as an independent…the ever-present Bob Dole, then as ever unburdened by ideological conviction…Howard Baker who was a prominent Republican Senator…and Phil Crane who was running to Reagan’s right. And a host of little guys.
Social conservatives like me really had no choice but Reagan although intriguingly he had signed the most liberal abortion bill in the U. S. as California governor (almost but not quite tied by Rocky in New York). But Reagan had hit the sawdust trail and became an outstandingly articulate advocate for pro-life with an evangelist’s fervor. Connally was pro-abort as were Baker and Bush (known as “rubber George” because he urged the government to dispense far more condoms than they had been to developing nations). Anderson was an angry fire-eating patriarch about “a woman’s right to choose.”
Dole was on the issue as he was on everything else. He had beaten an abortionist doctor in a close race in Kansas where he became an instant pro-lifer but after being returned to the Senate had shut up about it. Crane…then probably the handsomest dog running with jet black hair and flashing smile… gave lip-service to it but he really was more of a libertarian and as with everything else in the House was inactive…”he comes down to take his meals” Henry Hyde said of him… being content to while away his time on frivolities…for which he ultimately whizzed away his solid district.
Reagan was not only the most viable pro-lifer and excepting Crane a sort of walking Cato Institute…to the right of everyone else. People were still rubbing their scabs about Vietnam and everybody was skittish of undue foreign entanglements…were talking détente… but Reagan was touting “why not victory?” Everybody was generally in favor of ERA (except Crane of course) but not Reagan. The Watergate scandal was still resonating and Republicans were flirting with more and more 1st amendment control over campaign donations—but not Reagan. He wanted unlimited campaign donations so long as they were made public right away.
Everybody was for gun control—but not Reagan.
When he finally fixed the plumbing in the room and sat down to the steak sandwich, I said this:
“I’m really for you but for the life of me I don’t see how you’re going to win. We have a lady in this state, Phyllis Schlafly…”
He said, “I know and like Phyllis very much.”
“So do I,” I said….”but she ran twice for Congress and couldn’t get elected.
Now when he was sensible and a conservative, I was very much for John Anderson…until he got goofy. He’s one hell of a debater. What I want to know is…you’re going to have to debate these guys. Your positions are the same as mine. And given the prevailing temper of this country for liberal ideas, how are you going to sound different than Phyllis Schlafly? The other thing is one guy who is just your age and who co-founded ADA with you when you were a Democrat, Hubert Humphrey is rat-a-tat a walking encyclopedia. You’re not.
“ What I’m getting at is this: Are you just a cult figure of the right…making great speeches…a movie actor who happened to hit it right in California with a vibrant Orange county conservatism and an inept governor in Pat Brown? In essence how do you sell this thing?”
The cops in the room were aghast at my frankness but this is what I did all the time. Fortunately for me, at Quaker they liked it and not only tolerated it but welcomed it…and even encouraged me to get on the radio and WTTW as a commentator and write for the Sun-Times—so long as I didn’t identify Quaker with my views.
Digression: I was usually identified on WBEZ as “a corporate executive.” Bruce DuMont almost upended me years down the road by identifying me as “a cereal executive with offices in Quaker Tower.” End of digression.
I added: “For example, Carter is a detail man….Connally is a former treasury secretary. He can talk debentures that sound persuasive even though most people think he’s talking dentures. John B. Anderson…a longshot… is a student of legislative policy. He talks about a bill and how it appeared in subcommittee …how it was changed in full House committee…how the Senate fooled around with it and changed it such-and-such…how the conference committee rectified this and that—adding a section saying this and that.
“Bush gives off a séance about national security stuff he can’t tell us about because he headed the CIA. Then when he talks about foreign policy it’s stuff he picked up at the UN. Ask about China and he’s been our emissary.
“ I guess I’ve only heard you give exhortatory speeches but how are you going to make out in the scuffle of debates in primaries leading up to the convention?”
This was too much for one cop who went to the bathroom and stayed there for awhile.
Reagan said: “I learned something when I did `Knute Rockne’. Did you ever see it?”
I said I see it regularly when I’m up at midnight every Saturday.
He said: “Let me tell you that I think the answer to your question I learned when I made the film.”
Inwardly I groaned. But he told me something that changed me from that time on…convincing me that I was munching steak with a political genius…one who could well change the dynamics of Republican politics from then on.
Tom Roeser is the Chairman of the Editorial Board of the Chicago Daily Observer