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THE REAGAN LEGACY

They underestimated him

A friend and advisor to the president recalls his keen instincts and his ability to reach out to people.

June 07, 2004|Stuart K. Spencer

My political consulting firm, Spencer-Roberts & Associates, was hired by Ronald Reagan in 1965 to help him win the 1966 California gubernatorial election and, in doing so, defeat the sitting governor, Edmund G. "Pat" Brown. From that first campaign job with Ronald and Nancy Reagan evolved a friendship that I have treasured dearly. Because it was politics that brought us together, it was Reagan the politician whom I knew best.

If there was one factor that helped propel Reagan's political career from the outset, it was an intangible that neither he nor we could control -- the consistent and repeated tendency of his political opponents to underestimate him. Although he had no influence in his adversaries' miscalculations, he certainly knew instinctively how to capitalize on their missteps. The following are but a few of the most telling tales.

* In the 1966 statewide race, Gov. Brown was convinced that of the two Republicans vying to challenge him -- popular San Francisco Mayor George Christopher or neophyte actor Reagan -- he wanted to face Reagan.

Accordingly, the Brown organization verbally attacked Christopher. The strategy paid off and Brown got his wish when Reagan won the Republican primary.

That November, when Reagan toppled Brown in the general election, a startled Democratic party awoke in disbelief. Though most thought the Reagan win a fluke, I had believed all along that he had that special something. It was maybe being in the right place with the right beliefs that allowed him to connect with people in a way no other politician had exhibited since FDR.

* Once in the governor's office in Sacramento, his opponents continued to try to defeat Reagan and his legislative requests on a daily basis. Jesse M. Unruh was the Assembly speaker at the time and a strong political figure himself. He and his partisans fought Reagan at every turn. The governor would circumvent Unruh by taking his case directly to the Californians by using television. One of Reagan's favorite cliches was more than a cliche: "If you can't make them see the light, make them feel the heat!"

It took a while, but Unruh learned the hard way not to underestimate Reagan. It was this period of success, against a contentious Legislature in a contentious time, that moved Reagan further into the national limelight.

* In 1976, when Reagan sought the presidency, he challenged a fellow Republican, then-President Ford. I had parted company with Ron and Nancy in this election cycle and was advising Ford on how best to prevail over my old California friend and client. I warned the president not to underestimate Reagan, telling him that I had never known a politician who could stay on message better, or motivate and enthrall an audience as well as Reagan could. Nevertheless, Ford's people and most of the Washington, D.C., establishment took Reagan too lightly.

* In the next presidential campaign, I had rejoined the Reagan team, and President Carter's vulnerabilities were multiplying with each month that passed. Yet, as they prepared for their own reelection bid, Carter and his confidants were more worried about the likes of moderate Republican Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee or former Texas Gov. John Connolly and his money-harvesting machine than they were about Reagan. What did Reagan know about foreign policy? He was nothing more than an old gadfly carping about giving away the Panama Canal. But he sure knew more about how to move the needle than they anticipated.

In the spring of 1980, in keeping with my professional need to stay in touch with the pulse of the people, I stopped at a Boston VFW lodge. What I saw startled me. There were a bunch of beer-and-a-shot kind of guys whooping and hollering and cheering on candidate Reagan, who was being interviewed on the TV above the bar. I won't go on with my rehash; the Carter Administration underestimation of Reagan is in the record books.

Over the years, and from my vivid personal recollections, I could understand his political opponents and old-school establishment miscalculating Reagan once, maybe twice, but not four times.

It's been said time and again that my friend Reagan was the best communicator since FDR, and it was true. He was tremendously skilled as a politician. He truly wanted to do what was right. He had a value system that grounded him. Once on the campaign trail, his ability to read an audience was absolutely fabulous, and his skills, honed in his prior career, were evident. His best speeches were the ones he penned himself -- he wrote every one of his speeches back in the first 1966 campaign.

He had some basic beliefs from which he never strayed.

* He was against big government.

* He wanted to solve the campus unrest problems of that era.

* He loathed communism, but saw the perils of a nuclear world.

* He wanted to give hope and revitalize a land of opportunity.

* He wanted our country to balance its checkbook.

* And he always played to win.

I can remember, one late evening midway through the 1966 campaign for governor, talking with Reagan and Nancy about the next day's events and campaign stops. When we were wrapping up, Reagan looked at me and said, "Stu, I've got this campaigning figured out."

"How is that?"

"Well, it's just like show biz," he said. "You need one hell of an opening, then you coast for a while, then you have one hell of a close!"

Despite my consternation, given my "expertise" as a consultant, I told the man who would become president of the United States: "You nailed it."

Stuart K. Spencer worked on the presidential campaigns of Gerald Ford and Nelson Rockefeller, but the semi-retired political consultant is best known for his work on Ronald Reagan's gubernatorial and presidential campaigns.

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