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Devotion of 'Reaganauts' Undiminished

Forty-six Republican members of Congress who were first elected in the 1980s are still on the Hill. For some, the ties are especially close.

June 07, 2004|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — They have dwindled in number but grown in stature and seniority since their political hero left the White House 15 years ago. Their ranks include the House speaker and majority leader, the Senate majority whip and several powerful committee chairmen on Capitol Hill.

They are the "Reaganauts," members of Congress first elected in the 1980s. Critics sometimes called them the "Reagan robots" because of their devotion to the president's principles. This week, they will pay their final respects to the 40th president as his body lies in state Wednesday evening and Thursday in the Capitol rotunda.

On Sunday, Republican lawmakers whose careers in Washington began under President Reagan reflected on his life a day after his death.

"Ronald Reagan ... gave America and Americans the belief that we could do great things and we could become relevant in the world," House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) told CNN's "Late Edition."

The speaker, first elected to the House in 1986, said he addressed a Ronald Reagan Day dinner this year in Dixon, Ill., where the late president was raised.

"Ronald Reagan allowed millions of people to walk in freedom today because he had the ability to challenge," Hastert said. "And when the rest of the world stepped back, he stepped forward and challenged the Soviet Union."

Hastert's second in command, Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), was first elected to the House in 1984, the year of Reagan's landslide reelection, as was Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Nine current Republican senators won their seats during the 1980s, when Reagan dominated his party and the American political landscape. Thirty-seven current Republican representatives first came to the House in that decade.

For some Californians, ties to the late president were especially close. Reps. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) were elected in 1988 after working in the Reagan White House.

"Reagan influenced a whole generation of people here," Rohrabacher said Sunday. "I'm 56, and my whole life has been influenced by the man."

Rohrabacher worked as an assistant press secretary to Reagan during his 1976 and 1980 presidential runs. His job was to track the candidate's every public utterance. Rohrabacher recalled that what struck him about Reagan was his unchanging persona in public and private.

"When the door shut, you didn't see a new personality emerge," Rohrabacher said. "Reagan was always very kind. What you saw on the stage was Ronald Reagan. I never heard him say nasty words about anybody. He was just a very benevolent soul. He showed me that you could be very principled and idealistic and philosophical while still being a pleasant person."

When Rohrabacher left his job as a White House speechwriter to run for Congress, he carried with him a glowing letter of praise from the president. He reprinted it for a mailed advertisement during a hard-fought 1988 Republican primary, and it helped Rohrabacher to vic- tory.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, recalled what helped him win a 1980 Republican primary: a photo with Reagan. Hunter said his politically connected father arranged a meeting with Reagan advisors and a photo with the presidential candidate in Los Angeles to boost the candidacy of the 32-year-old congressional hopeful.

Hunter won the primary and then ousted a Democratic incumbent in San Diego as Reagan won the presidency.

Hunter, like Reagan an advocate for increased defense spending, said Reagan's long fight against communist tyranny had inspired his own career. "The great thing about Ronald Reagan's presidency was it proved that conservatism worked," Hunter said. "It was a validation of the principles of conservatism."

Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), chairman of the House Rules Committee, rode Reagan's coattails to victory over a Democratic incumbent in 1980.

Dreier and Hunter were two of 53 Republicans first elected to the House that year, Dreier said, an astounding 33 of whom beat incumbent Democrats. It was one of the largest Republican gains in the last half of the 20th century.

Dreier's first two bills, to abolish the departments of Energy and Education, were lifted from the Reagan platform, though they never were enacted.

Now just six members from the House Republican class of 1980 remain, plus two who moved over to the Senate.

But Dreier said Reagan's legacy extended to almost all of the Republicans now in Congress, whether first elected before or after his presidency. That, he said, has been true of both the House, led by Republicans since 1995, and the Senate, in GOP control for most of that time.

"When we won the majority, we all said we were standing on Ronald Reagan's shoulders," Dreier said.

"I've always described myself as a Reagan Republican. I did then, and I'm happy 24 years later to do so today. It's an upbeat ... glass-half-full view of the world."

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