Skip to comments.The Candidate and the Briefing Book (His enemies were not the only ones Ronald Reagan surprised)
Posted on 06/05/2004 5:24:14 PM PDT by RWR8189
Editor's note: A look back at President Reagan, from the February 5, 2001 issue of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.
Ronald Reagan, 1911 - 2004
IT WAS 1975, and I found myself in the middle of a struggle of wills between John Sears and Ronald Reagan. In retrospect, this may sound interesting, but at the time it was anything but enjoyable. Sears was the most brilliant political strategist I've ever known. Reagan was the greatest man I've ever known, though to be honest I had no inkling of this yet.
Not for the first or last time, Sears and Reagan were furious at each other, so furious that I didn't know what to do or what to make of it.
The issue was the briefing book Sears had instructed me to write for Reagan, to prepare him for his upcoming primary challenge to President Gerald Ford. I was writing it, but Reagan wasn't reading it. This was not a morale builder for me, but to Sears it was infuriating. Sears's everyday demeanor was droll and understated, but when he was angry, most people who knew him found him frightening, even on occasion Reagan, who normally seemed afraid of no one.
To Sears and to me, the gold standard of presidential politics was the Nixon campaign of 1968. Objectively speaking, that campaign and that candidate had made quite a few mistakes. But from the perspective of 1975, it was the only time in almost a half century that the Republican party had taken over the White House without running a war hero. And it was our formative experience.
In 1968, Sears at a precocious 27 was a top-level Nixon political operative. At 24, I was a lowly research assistant, just out of the Army, running errands for Pat Buchanan and a policy/issues team that included (a partial list) Alan Greenspan, Richard Allen, William Safire, Martin Anderson, Ray Price, Richard Whalen, plus (junior aides like me) John Lehman, Kevin Phillips, Ken Khachigian, and (following Nixon's defeat of Nelson Rockefeller) George Gilder and a handful of other liberal Republicans.
All of these staffers, and others, contributed to Nixon's briefing book, which was maintained and constantly updated by Buchanan. The briefing book, written in question-and-answer format, was enormous, of biblical proportions, growing and evolving as the campaign progressed. The reason so much effort was put into it is that Nixon wanted it that way. He spent countless hours poring over it, and knew it well, because he never wanted to be surprised by the nastiest question his worst enemy could think of. His writers were kept energized by Nixon's commitment to the briefing book, which meant that at any time, and without warning, they were likely to hear the former vice president using the exact words they had written to fend off somebody's question. Those words had better be accurate and defensible, or the writers knew they might find themselves invited into the crewcut, uncompassionate presence of campaign chief of staff H. R. Haldeman, Nixon's designated bad cop.
Now, eight years later, post-Watergate spending limits had arrived, and what Nixon's awe-inspiring stable of writers and policy advisers had labored to produce had fallen largely to me, as research director of Citizens for Reagan, with help from a corporal's guard of outside volunteers. Aside from a willingness to write in an authoritative tone about subjects I knew little or nothing about--a necessity in these matters--my main virtue in Sears's eyes was that I had watched Buchanan continually update Nixon's briefing book and therefore had some idea of how the process was supposed to work.
But Reagan seldom looked at the book. To Sears, this meant one thing: Reagan was intellectually lazy and would be unprepared for what awaited him in his challenge to Ford.
Sears had earlier been picked to manage the anticipated presidential campaign of Vice President Spiro Agnew, and I was hoping to work on the issues staff, when a scandal erupted that eventually forced Agnew to resign his office in October 1973 to avoid an indictment for bribery. Sears had therefore shot his way into the leadership of Reagan's campaign against Ford quite late, and now his worst fears about the aging Hollywood actor, the very fears that had caused him to prefer Agnew as the next conservative standard-bearer, seemed in danger of being realized. Reagan was too much a lightweight to bother to read his own briefing book. The liberal press and Ford strategist Stuart Spencer would combine to eat Reagan alive.
They didn't quite do that, but Ford did of course beat Reagan, and Sears and I (along with many others) thought Reagan's preparation on issues was a factor. A lot of people, it should be mentioned, blamed Reagan's loss on me, for persuading Reagan to advocate an overly ambitious $ 90 billion decentralization plan that he found difficult to defend. Part of my private defense was my contention that I and the others who worked on the plan had anticipated most of the attacks by the liberals and the Ford campaign, but that Reagan wouldn't read that part of his briefing book. (The only virtue of this defense is that it was so ineffective I soon gave up on it.)
Key to Ford's victory was his come-from-behind 49-48 percent win in New Hampshire, where he pounded on the $ 90 billion plan and on Reagan's long-standing advocacy of a voluntary Social Security system. Ford increased his margins in several subsequent primaries, and the Reagan campaign ran out of money. On Tuesday, March 23, Reagan completed his campaigning in North Carolina, and defeat was so universally expected that he and his traveling party took off in the campaign plane before any results were known, planning to concede the nomination to Ford a day or two later.
But two strong-willed and extremely stubborn Reagan backers from North Carolina, a freshman senator named Jesse Helms and his political manager, Tom Ellis, had raised enough money to buy local television time for a 30-minute speech by Reagan denouncing the Ford-Kissinger policy of detente with the Soviet Union. The speech had been taped weeks earlier in the studio of a Florida station that had offered all the presidential candidates a half hour of free time. Although there was widespread agreement that the foreign-policy theme was beginning to click, Reagan's national staff was skeptical that large numbers of voters would listen to 30 minutes of any politician, particularly a tape that had never been intended as professional advertising and looked it.
Helms and Ellis would not take no for an answer. Eventually, Ellis cut a deal with Sears dedicating all the money the North Carolina Reagan committee managed to raise to more air time for the Florida videotape.
Word came to the Reagan traveling party in mid-air that against every expectation, Reagan had defeated Ford in North Carolina. At first, Reagan himself refused to believe the news. But not only had he won, when he went on national television a week later to resurrect his campaign, so much money came in that the campaign couldn't spend it all.
EVERYONE COULD SEE the flaws in Reagan and his 1976 campaign, including mistakes made by Sears and me. Yet somehow it all added up to more than the sum of its parts. Reagan ended up defeating Ford in 12 primaries, and came within one or two delegations of winning the nomination at the Kansas City convention. When Jimmy Carter defeated Ford, Reagan emerged as the real GOP winner of 1976. He was well positioned to run again in 1980.
After a bloody series of power struggles with Reagan's California staff, Sears emerged as the campaign manager again. Reagan was such an overwhelming front-runner for the nomination going into 1980 that many of his advisers, including Sears, hoped he could avoid the kind of near-death experience he had lived through the night of North Carolina. This hope was not to be realized. Not surprisingly, the crisis of the 1980 nomination fight was triggered by a resumption of the tension between Reagan and Sears over the quality of Reagan's issue preparation: In a sense, the briefing book, again.
Sears's most fateful decision, the one that armed his many enemies in Reagan's orbit, was to keep Reagan out of the Des Moines Register debate right before the Iowa caucus in January 1980. At the time, this seemed reasonable. Reagan, who had been well known in Iowa since his days as a young sports announcer in the 1930s, seemed to have a solid lead over a field of challengers far less well known than he. More important, Sears feared Reagan wasn't ready to debate. He concluded that the risk of a Reagan embarrassment in the debate was greater than the risk of losing Iowa. Indeed, Sears thought Reagan might win Iowa and still see his campaign begin to unravel if he looked ill-prepared, out of touch, and therefore too old to be president.
So Reagan skipped the debate. Bush won Iowa, and was instantly transformed from an unknown, single-digit New Hampshire candidate to a solid front-runner. The closeness of Bush's win in Iowa made it appear that if Reagan had attended the debate, he would have at least edged Bush in the Iowa caucus and remained the front-runner in New Hampshire. In the Reagan camp, Sears got full blame for a possibly fatal blunder.
It was clear to Reagan and those close to him that Sears's decision to bypass the Iowa debate was a vote of no confidence in Reagan's issue preparation. Moreover, issue preparation was a subtext of Sears's factional wars against Reagan's California veterans. Sears earlier had forced Martin Anderson, Lyn Nofziger, and (most shockingly) Mike Deaver to leave the campaign staff. And he and his allies increasingly blamed Reagan's only surviving California adviser, Ed Meese, for inadequate preparation of the candidate.
Following Iowa, the 69-year-old Reagan was counted out by many in the national press. The view that Reagan was just too old and too right-wing to become president was back in full force. George Bush, now a nationally known figure, exulted about the "Big Mo" and flew confidently to New Hampshire with a lead in the nation's first primary of 10 points or more. Poor cash-flow management had left the Reagan campaign perilously close to its legal spending limits not just in New Hampshire, but in the nomination fight as a whole. This would make it difficult if not impossible for Reagan to make a stand in a subsequent state should he lose New Hampshire.
Reagan needed a North Carolina-style resurrection, but this time the roles of Jesse Helms and Tom Ellis would have to be played by two men who now were barely on speaking terms--Ronald Reagan and John Sears. Amazingly, they both proved equal to the occasion. In their utterly different ways, they began operating in a kind of political overdrive I've never seen equaled before or since.
This was the last political cycle in which there was a five-week interval between Iowa and New Hampshire. Reagan set himself a dawn-to-late-night schedule, and kept it. He performed well in press interviews and candidate debates, seeming to relish the role of underdog. He gave greater emphasis to New York congressman Jack Kemp's tax cut proposal as a defining issue against Bush, who opposed the tax cut.
Sears, for his part, probed relentlessly for weaknesses in Bush's disciplined, risk-averse team. After a couple of weeks, Sears began an elaborate series of ploys revolving around a candidate debate scheduled for the Friday before primary day and sponsored by the Nashua Telegraph. First, the Reagan campaign proposed a debate involving only the two front-runners. The Telegraph and the Bush campaign eagerly accepted. Then, when the other four candidates actively campaigning in New Hampshire protested, Sears executed a sudden reversal, positioning Reagan as the candidate of inclusion, while the Bush campaign and the newspaper attempted to stick to the earlier agreement. All of the other candidates, together with much of the press, began attacking Bush as a snob and elitist for--what? For having accepted Sears's original proposal for a two-man debate and sticking to it.
I was not on the 1980 campaign staff, but in late 1979 Sears and his chief deputy, Charlie Black, fired Reagan's Madison Avenue advertising firm. Black called me and asked me to supervise the making of new commercials centering around Reagan's advocacy of an across-the-board 30 percent cut in federal income tax rates, modeled on advertising themes I had used in a Senate run two years earlier in New Jersey. By the time I flew to Los Angeles with Philadelphia ad man Elliot Curson in late January to make the new spots, Reagan had lost Iowa.
Reagan had been attracted to supply-side arguments long before they bore that label, and had praised Jack Kemp's proposed tax cut from the time it was unveiled in 1977. But more than anyone else, it was Sears who pushed the tax cut as a centerpiece of 1980 strategy and had promoted Kemp's increasing prominence among Reagan's advisers, over considerable opposition from Sears's critics in California and elsewhere.
I arrived in North Andover, Massachusetts, the site of the hotel being used by the Reagan traveling party, on the weekend before the primary to take part in the final drilling of Reagan for the Nashua debate. I was unaware of much that had been happening. In quick succession, I learned that the campaign's private polling showed that the tax-cut spots were working; that Reagan had retaken the lead over Bush in the state by about 10 points; and that Sears, Black, and Lake had something else up their sleeve which they couldn't or wouldn't tell me about. This was underlined by their absence from the briefing session with Reagan.
Already encouraged by what I had heard, I was elated by Reagan's performance in the debate drill. He was at the top of his game, confident and well-versed on the issues, foreign and domestic, that had been thrown at him by the 20 or so staff members and outside advisers sitting around a large conference table.
I sought out Sears to tell him how impressive the candidate had been. Sears fixed me with a withering, almost angry smile, and said with unmistakable sarcasm, "Is that right?" He walked away without another word. Only then did it hit me that Sears was so alienated from Reagan that he seemed incapable of accepting good news about him.
At the Nashua debate that night, Sears sprang his final trap on Bush by orchestrating the appearance of the four also-ran candidates. As is well remembered, Reagan uttered the legendary line, "I paid for this microphone, Mr. Green," while Bush froze. Though it wasn't televised and New Hampshire voters saw no more than a few sound bites, Reagan devastated Bush in the debate.
On primary day, the tense, tight Reagan-Bush primary collapsed into a rout, 50 to 23 percent in favor of Reagan. The nomination fight was effectively over. Before the polls closed, Reagan called in Sears and his top lieutenants, Black and Lake, and fired them on the spot. William Casey was named the new campaign manager, and Reagan's California team returned, one by one, to the inner circle.
Sears's stormy partnership with Reagan was at an end, ironically at the absolute peak of its success, yet irreparable. But the fundamental question between them--was Reagan adequately preparing himself to run for president and, ultimately, to be president?--was to continue in one form or another, without Sears, for the rest of that campaign, indeed for the rest of Reagan's career.
That October, most of Reagan's advisers vehemently opposed allowing him to debate one-on-one with President Jimmy Carter, fearing the worst. James Baker, who had been the campaign manager for Reagan's principal opponents in the nomination fights of 1976 and 1980, argued that Reagan should debate Carter. He was right and wound up as Reagan's White House chief of staff. In 1984, White House aide Richard Darman was attacked for "overbriefing" Reagan for his first debate with Walter Mondale, on the unstated assumption that Reagan, by then at 73 the oldest president ever, was not up to absorbing much if any information. And prior to almost every G-7 or superpower summit Reagan attended, State Department and other officials were invariably heard to complain that Reagan would be taken to the cleaners if he didn't pay more attention to their briefing books.
AT THIS REMOVE, it is easier to understand why Nixon needed and used his briefing book than why Reagan had so little interest in his. Nixon had a gift for absorbing details but no overarching belief system. To him each question was independent of every other and--given his view of his enemies--a potential land mine. He had a hunger to know and think through, as a discrete matter, every question that he and his advisers thought might arise. He lacked an ideological organizing principle to help him do this, so he needed the briefing book.
By contrast, Reagan held an intense, compelling vision of America and the world that did not seem to depend on detailed knowledge. The puzzle was famously summed up in eight words by one of his national security advisers, Robert McFarlane: "He knows so little and accomplishes so much."
Reagan's detractors have always put their emphasis on the first part of the sentence, his admirers on the second. But each side knows that the full McFarlane sentence has weight, as does the paradox at its heart.
What accounts for the paradox of Reagan? Isaiah Berlin's metaphor of the fox and the hedgehog--based on Archilochus' dictum that the fox knows many things and the hedgehog one big thing--offers one possible solution. Some politicians--Bill Clinton comes to mind--are clearly in the fox category. Reagan seems more like a hedgehog--until you try to figure out what was the one big thing he knew. Was it that tax rates must come down? Or was it that the Soviet Union was far more fragile, far more vulnerable to outside pressure than anyone else realized? Or was it that Americans are still capable of seeing their country as a shining city on a hill, capable of changing the world by force of example and advocacy? It's hard to say.
What does seem to be the case is that Reagan had an extraordinarily high batting average on the judgment calls that came across his desk. He never seemed to know as much as his advisers about any one thing, but this didn't stop him from being right again and again, including on issues where all his advisers thought he was just this side of insane.
Reagan, for a political leader, had a unique way of looking at politics. Most politicians love political gossip. Reagan had no interest in it. He didn't care who the chairman of the Ohio GOP was, or what he thought, or who he was sleeping with. Instead, Reagan would spend endless hours reading and answering his personal mail. When I was on his staff, I thought this was a waste of time. I now believe it was at the heart of his populism. It gave him a vivid window on how voters think. This may explain some of his success. But again and again, Reagan made the right call on subjects he never got mail about.
There are other theories about Reagan that verge on the mystical. The secular version is that he had extraordinary intuition, or luck. Reagan himself appeared to have genuine humility about his success, whether it was due to luck or something deeper. After his shooting in 1981, he seemed to feel that his life had been spared to do the will of God.
I believe Reagan's religious beliefs gave him an extraordinary inner peace, and theology teaches us that God can use human beings to work his will. But even if true, what was it about Reagan that made this so difficult to see while it was happening? The other indisputable world-historical figure of the era, Pope John Paul II, has no less humility and no less willingness to serve God. But I have never met anyone who was in the immediate presence of the pope who doubted that he was in the presence of greatness. And I doubt many people who saw Winston Churchill at close range between 1940 and 1945 were oblivious to his extraordinary political gifts. What gave the seemingly far less gifted, far less sophisticated Reagan his political edge?
I find myself going back to Reagan's political ideology, which was post-World War II American conservatism. Is there a possibility that this belief system gave Reagan an effective tool, a framework that enabled him to make good decisions without a lot of particular knowledge--without a detailed briefing book?
At first glance this seems absurd, especially in view of the widespread suspicion that this ideology has cracked up, has run its course, however well it may have been suited to its time. After all, if ideology was key, shouldn't Reagan have had more in the way of imitators and successors? But none of the major politicians who succeeded, or attempted to succeed, Reagan on the national scene has had his combination of beliefs. Those who shared his economics have almost always played down his social conservatism. Those who shared his social beliefs have tended to lack his optimism about America's role in the world.
Perhaps that is more the fault of his successors than of his ideology. It is striking that the unfinished parts of Reagan's agenda have an odd way of bubbling back to the surface. Consider: Today's major debate in foreign and defense policy is deployment of the Strategic Defense Initiative. And if Reagan's reduction of the top tax rate from 70 to 28 percent was the greatest policy event of the 1980s, the repeal of the federal welfare entitlement will almost certainly be remembered as the biggest (and most surprising) policy event of the 1990s. The second event has as much a Reaganite stamp as the first.
At a national governors' conference in the early 1970s, a motion was offered to have Washington completely take over Aid to Families with Dependent Children. The motion carried, 49 to 1. Reagan, of course, was the no vote. He argued that, instead, the program should be returned completely to the states. When this more or less happened, more than two decades later under President Bill Clinton, the prime legislative strategist for the decentralizers was Robert Carleson--the man who had served as Reagan's commissioner of welfare in California.
Is this all simple happenstance? Or is it possible Reagan operated from an ideological framework that is deeply relevant and persuasive--and that is, or could be, as alive today as it was in the 1980s, when he came to dominate the politics of the nation and the world?
Beginning in the 1950s and continuing through his presidency, Reagan was a voracious consumer of conservative ideas, often through his subscriptions to Human Events and National Review. He was a follower of classical economics and supported the gold standard. He scoffed at the mythical "trust fund" often claimed for Social Security and favored a voluntary system. He was always attracted to a simple, low-rate tax system and to decentralization of programs being handled badly by Washington.
Reagan had no interest in the isolationist strain that dominated postwar conservatism in the 1940s and early 1950s. He never lost the Wilsonian commitment to the spreading of American democracy he held in his years as an active Democrat. As an alumnus of the (anti-Communist) Hollywood left, he resonated to the view of the world held by former Communists like Frank Meyer, men and women whose messianic devotion to saving the world through revolution had been transferred to a commitment to America as an idea. Needless to say, this ambitious, optimistic brand of conservatism is a polar opposite to the older strain of pessimistic, quasi-aristocratic European conservatism exemplified by thinkers like Russell Kirk.
Influenced though he was by libertarian thought in economics, Reagan in political office was a strong supporter of state and police power on behalf of the social order. Legalization of narcotics, and the guaranteed annual income as a substitute for welfare--proposals flirted with by many libertarian-leaning conservatives--held no appeal for him.
On social issues, Reagan was firmly on the side of traditional values. He felt he had been sold a bill of goods when he signed what proved to be a permissive abortion law in his first year as governor in 1967, and he became fervently pro-life in the years following Roe v. Wade in 1973. He caused the first strongly pro-life plank to be inserted in the Republican platform in 1980, and as president even published a pro-life book, Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation, in 1984. A few days before he left office, Reagan told the New York Times that his greatest regret about his presidency was that he was unable to do more to protect the unborn, and said that America will not be "completely civilized" as long as abortion is legal.
Reagan was quite capable of using the bully pulpit, and often spoke of the need for cultural renewal, but I agree with one of his biographers, Dinesh D'Souza, that "he would not have endorsed the right's effort to achieve this end by abjuring the use of state power. . . . Reagan understood that the way to change the culture is to change law and public policy."
While the view of Reagan as a great communicator is incontestable, I have come to believe that it is profoundly misleading. The picture we are invited to have is that Reagan was such a superb speaker that he could get people to believe virtually anything. Once he left the political scene, this logic goes, his views resumed their status as bizarre or extreme, losing their relevance to serious political debate.
I believe the truth is very different. The striking thing to me, thinking back about what it was like to work with Reagan when he was making political decisions, is not how persuasive he was at the time, but how often he proved to be right in retrospect. His judgment on matters of substance was astoundingly good, including and perhaps especially on matters where his advisers and others around him were completely unpersuaded, in not a few cases completely baffled.
Impressive as Reagan's communications skills were, in other words, his decisions about what to communicate were even better. This most certainly included his leadership of the diverse, inchoate movement of revolt against the left that we have come to know as the postwar conservative movement. Reagan invariably gravitated toward the aspects of American conservatism that were optimistic not cynical, populist not elitist, egalitarian not hierarchical, moral not relativistic--in short, toward what is distinctively American in American conservatism.
At the end of this road was the vision that moved Ronald Reagan most of all: America as a shining city on a hill, exerting magnetic power on the rest of the world. As D'Souza puts it, "his American exceptionalism was inextricably united with American universalism." And as a Washington Post editorial once noted in a rare moment of bemused respect, when Reagan ventured abroad he found not just the nation but the world was his oyster.
As we observe Reagan's 90th birthday on February 6, then, we should avoid nostalgia for what it was like to serve under a great leader: Most of us didn't know he was at the time. Or for the unity of purpose Reagan's leadership supposedly provided: Many of us on Team Reagan often found ourselves at each other's throats.
Above all, we should put to rest the idea of the Great Communicator: What Reagan told the American people about who we are, or who we should be, resonated far more deeply than any inflection of his voice. And we should therefore stop assuming that his success is unrepeatable. If we, American conservatives, take his belief system seriously, as a guide to the challenges of the present as well as the past, the greatest successes of the Reagan era may still lie ahead of us.
Jeffrey Bell is a principal of Capital City Partners, a Washington-based consulting firm.
I'll bump this for you. It may be long, but it's the best insight on President Reagan I've read today.
I find most of the articles misguided; they all have this overriding theme that Reagan was somehow unintelligent by not over-indulging in the details. That was his genius. Reagan's vision of the big picture, his ability to create his desired outcome both in his own presidential years as well as decades later, show that he was far more brilliant than every one else.
Reagan was truly blessed by God, and through him, all of America was blessed. BUMP.
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.