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Holmes Tuttle, a Force in Reagan Political Rise, Dies

June 17, 1989| From a Times Staff Writer

Republican fund raiser Holmes Tuttle, who refused to take no for an answer when Ronald Reagan at first declined to run for governor of California in the mid-1960s, died Friday morning at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital. He would have been 84 today.

His son-in-law, Joseph J. Keon, said Tuttle, who had lived in Montecito for several years, suffered a stroke eight weeks ago.

Tuttle succeeded in persuading the reluctant Reagan that he should run for governor in 1966. Reagan won, was elected to a second term and then in 1980, with Tuttle's support, was elected President of the United States.

Tuttle's greatest ambition was realized when Reagan became President. Tuttle loved Reagan like a brother because their conservative political philosophies were identical. Reagan was his alter-ego, his idol.

A wealthy automobile dealer, Tuttle had been one of Reagan's closest friends and advisers since they met in 1946, when Tuttle sold Reagan a Ford coupe.

Tuttle had been the dominant force in Reagan's "kitchen cabinet"--the group of 10 or so wealthy financial backers whose advice Reagan respected and often followed--in Sacramento and later in Washington.

Tuttle was born in Tuttle, Okla. (a community named for his farm family) when it was still Indian territory, and started out as a stock boy in a Ford plant in Oklahoma City in 1923. He came to Los Angeles three years later.

A short profile on Tuttle published in 1980 had him riding into Los Angeles on a freight train. His son, Robert, believes instead that someone gave his father a ride to Los Angeles in an automobile.

Charles E. Cook, then a Ford dealer and later a wealthy Los Angeles investor, gave Tuttle a job as parts manager at his dealership. Tuttle and Cook remained lifelong friends and business associates.

Tuttle later opened his own Ford dealership in Los Angeles and then established, one after the other, Ford and Lincoln-Mercury dealerships in Beverly Hills; Spokane, Wash.; Irvine, and Tucson, Ariz. He became one of the most successful dealers in the nation.

As he became wealthy, Tuttle became active in conservative Republican politics. He never apparently aspired to political office himself but was always ready to raise money for any candidate who shared his views.

He was one of a number of prosperous Los Angeles businessmen active in Republican fund-raising. One of the others was Henry Salvatori, also a member of Reagan's kitchen cabinet. But there was a difference.

"If you need money," a Republican Party official once said, "Henry (Salvatori) will write you a $5,000 check. Holmes will go out and raise $50,000."

Tuttle got a lot of those contributions for Reagan in his gubernatorial and presidential races.

It was a speech Reagan made on behalf of Barry Goldwater's unsuccessful bid for President in 1964 that persuaded Tuttle that Reagan had the makings not only of a great governor but also of a great President.

The speech, in which Reagan eloquently outlined his conservative Republican position, was described by Washington columnist David S. Broder as "the most successful national political debut since William Jennings Bryan electrified the 1896 Democratic convention with his 'Cross of Gold' speech."

Reagan made the speech at Tuttle's request at a $1,000-a-plate Republican dinner in Los Angeles.

"We didn't have anybody, so I called up Ron and asked if he wouldn't give a 20-minute talk," Tuttle later recalled. "After the speech, we were swamped with requests from people who said these are the things Goldwater's been missing. We decided we had to get that speech on television."

Overwhelming Response

When Reagan's speech was televised on Oct. 27, shortly before the election, viewers were so impressed that they sent in an estimated $600,000 to $1 million in contributions for the Republican cause.

"Good gracious alive, after the speech was over, I was besieged," Tuttle told an interviewer. "This is what people wanted to hear, and poor Barry had gone on the defensive."

Tuttle said he "called Henry Salvatori and some others, and we went to Ron and discussed the idea of his running for governor."

Reagan begged off, explaining that he was too busy with television and other projects. The Republican businessmen withdrew, but Tuttle later went back.

"Holmes came up to the house specifically to see me," Reagan said later. "I gave him the usual thing about running for office."

Tuttle was persistent, though.

"Would you agree not to give us a flat no?" he asked Reagan. "Just kick it around in your mind."

Reagan relented and agreed to do that. Tuttle and his friends started a Friends of Reagan organization. The pressure and support became so great that Reagan agreed to run for governor.

Tuttle explained that it was more than just Reagan's ability as a speaker that persuaded him that the actor should run for public office.

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