Robert H. Finch, the well-regarded former lieutenant governor of California, U.S. secretary of health, education and welfare and special counselor to President Richard Nixon, died early Tuesday of a heart attack at his Pasadena home. Monday was his 70th birthday.
Sue Schechter, Finch's sister, said he had been in excellent health and had celebrated his birthday with a family surprise party Sunday night and another surprise party given Monday by his law firm, Fleming, Anderson & Salisbury. He had suffered a heart attack and undergone triple bypass surgery 10 years ago.
Finch had continued to practice law part time and was writing his memoirs, his sister said.
Once considered an up-and-coming young Republican leader, Finch was the party's biggest California vote-getter when he was elected lieutenant governor to Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1966. Finch also was credited with unifying the Republican Party in California and establishing it as a strong national political base later used by Nixon and Reagan.
But Finch left his promising political future in California in 1969 when his old friend and mentor Nixon named him to the Cabinet. He served two years at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and then switched Cabinet chairs to serve as Nixon's counselor in the troubled Watergate White House dominated by H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman.
Finch resigned Dec. 15, 1972, to return to Southern California to practice law, more than a year before the Watergate scandal forced Nixon to leave the presidency in disgrace. Although Finch had no personal involvement in Watergate, the debacle fatally clouded his once-bright political prospects.
"I couldn't run for dogcatcher without it turning into a referendum on Watergate," Finch told The Times in a 1974 interview. "But at least I don't have any trouble sleeping at night."
He ran for U.S. senator from California in 1976 but was defeated in the Republican primary by S. I. Hayakawa.
"The only mark I ever wanted was the Senate seat, and Hayakawa nosed me out there [by a margin of about 4 to 3]," he reflected in 1988. "[But] I'm at peace with myself."
Finch eventually renewed his friendship with Nixon, talking frequently with the ousted President until Nixon's death. He re-encountered some of his White House colleagues 15 years after Watergate at a four-day Nixon retrospective conference at Hofstra University.
"We circled wagons and came together in collegiality on the second day," he reported, "and the critics came around on the third."
His long association with Nixon began after the two met in Washington when the youthful Finch worked for Rep. Norris Poulson, whom he helped to elect in 1946. Finch wrote a pamphlet, "The Amazing Richard Nixon," for Nixon's reelection as a representative in 1948 and began his influential advisory service to Nixon by persuading him to vote for the Marshall Plan to aid economically strapped postwar Europe.
Finch later returned to Washington to serve two years as administrative assistant to Vice President Nixon during the Eisenhower Administration. He became manager of Nixon's ill-fated 1960 presidential campaign against John F. Kennedy.
"Throughout our father's long political career, he depended upon the counsel, wisdom and friendship of Bob Finch," Nixon's daughters, Tricia Cox and Julie Eisenhower, said in a statement Tuesday. "Bob was known to everyone as a person of tremendous courage and integrity. In the Nixon White House, Bob was an important voice and trusted colleague."
After his government service, Finch remained involved in education and health. He served as trustee of his alma mater, Occidental College, for more than two decades and was board chairman from 1986 to 1988. He also was a regent of the University of California, a trustee of Cal State University, a trustee of the American Assembly and Columbia University, a member of the President's Commission on White House Fellows and a past president of the Citizens Research Foundation.
He also was a director of Huntington Memorial Hospital; ICN Pharmaceuticals Inc., which developed the antiviral drug Virazole or ribavirin; Viratek Inc., Nationwide Health Properties Inc. and the Hospital Council of Southern California.
Finch served as president of the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce and was a trustee of the Richard Nixon Presidential Archives Foundation, helping to select the Yorba Linda site of the Nixon Library.
Born in Tempe, Ariz., on Oct. 9, 1925, Robert Hutchinson Finch learned the art of shrewd campaigning from his father, a Republican who won election to the heavily Democratic Arizona Legislature. The family moved to Inglewood when he was 7.
At Occidental, he majored in political science and won election as student body president in his senior year. He organized Young Republican clubs at Occidental and on 12 other campuses.
Partly on the advice of Nixon, Finch earned a law degree at USC. A Marine during World War II, he was recalled to active duty during the Korean War.