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Henry Salvatori, GOP Kingmaker, Dies

Politics: Oil company founder was contributor to Republicans, confidant to three presidents.

July 08, 1997|KENNETH REICH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Henry Salvatori, an Italian immigrant who became a confidant and major contributor to the nation's most powerful and successful Republicans, including three U.S. presidents, has died. He was 96.

Salvatori, remembered as a key figure in Ronald Reagan's "kitchen cabinet" of advisors, died Sunday at St. John's Medical Center in Santa Monica.

A champion of conservative causes for decades, Salvatori used proceeds from the sale of his highly profitable oil company, Western Geophysical Corp., to become an important contributor and influence in the presidential campaigns of Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Gerald R. Ford.

The oil company Salvatori founded in 1933 now operates as Western Atlas, a division of Litton Industries. Despite his innovative seismic instrument that lent accuracy to prospecting for oil, Salvatori was more famous as a behind-the-scenes politician.

He became so well known as an eminence of the Republican conservative hierarchy that when Democrat Jesse Unruh launched his fall gubernatorial campaign against Reagan on Labor Day in 1970, he chose to do so in front of Salvatori's Bel-Air home.

As Unruh told a host of reporters that Salvatori stood to get a $4,113 property tax break if a tax-shift bill proposed by the then-governor became law, Salvatori, fresh from his tennis court, yelled through the gate: "Oh, you ass, you."

The next day, Reagan assailed Unruh for "harassing" Salvatori.

Salvatori was not one to accept such conduct quietly. He said later that he was pleased the tactic had apparently not done Unruh any political good, and he continued to complain that Unruh "had the gall to come into my driveway."

Salvatori, unlike many other insider Republican advisors, seldom attempted to stay out of the limelight. He readily made himself accessible to reporters and others, and he never was apologetic or secretive about his views.

He was a conservative long associated with highly conservative candidates, buthe sometimes displayed a streak of independence. He once said that despite being an avid anti-Communist, he could accept a socialist government as long as it respected individual freedoms. And after directing then-Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty's drive for reelection in 1969, he tried, in a speech at the maverick conservative Democrat's inaugural, to hold out an olive branch to blacks who had been offended by the racial nature of Yorty's campaign against challenger Tom Bradley.

A few years later, Salvatori temporarily broke with Reagan, supporting the more moderate incumbent, Ford, for the 1976 presidential nomination. Later, however, his ties with Reagan were restored and he was a supporter of Reagan in 1980 and 1984.

Salvatori was born in Rome on March 28, 1901. He came to the United States as a child and grew up in New Jersey, where his father was a wholesale grocer.

Educated at Pennsylvania and Columbia universities, he became an expert in the science of prospecting for oil by seismic methods. By the late 1950s, his company was the world's largest offshore seismic contractor.

But it was as a political advisor, campaign director and big contributor that Salvatori became best known. San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto, in fact, once charged that Salvatori, not Reagan, was the real governor of California, through all the money he raised for Reagan and the influence he wielded.

Salvatori usually acted with a strong hand. As finance chairman of the Goldwater presidential campaign in 1964, he was accused in a book written later by the two men who handled the campaign's public relations with almost strangling the effort by holding back on money for staff so that it could be saved for television advertising. Salvatori's "most ineluctable fault," said the book by Herbert M. Baus and William B. Ross, was that he "could not keep his hands off the nuts and bolts of the campaign."

Characteristically, a year after the book appeared, when he was brought in as campaign director on an emergency basis to save Yorty from defeat by Bradley, the first step Salvatori took was to hire Ross as his chief assistant.

Salvatori and his late wife, Grace, gave a reported $90,000 to the Republican Party in 1968, and contributed $100,000 to Nixon's reelection campaign in 1972.

Besides their political contributions, they gave major gifts to USC, Stanford University, Caltech, Pepperdine University, Claremont McKenna College, the University of Pennsylvania, Howard University and the Marlborough School in Los Angeles, among others. Schools are named after Salvatori at USC and Stanford. The Salvatoris also contributed greatly to hospitals, children's clubs, civic groups and the arts.

Politically most active during the period in the 1960s and early '70s when anti-Vietnam War fervor and campus dissidence were at their height, Salvatori was unabashedly opposed to the protesters.

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