Monday, February 7, 2011
Thirty-two years ago…on a Spring morning in 1979…my phone rang at the Merchandise Mart HQ of Quaker Oats (where I was veep-government relations aka lobbyist). On the line was John Sears, lawyer, former top staffer to John Mitchell in the Nixon Justice Department. I always held John in the highest regard, ever since he and I were canned in 1970 for different reasons by the Nixonians…I returning to Quaker and he to a lucrative law practice.
John had run the Reagan challenge to Jerry Ford at the convention of 1976 and had come within inches of dislodging the 38th president with a spirited challenge from the former governor of California. I had told him I’d like to help in the general election of 1976 but Ford made the cut.
“What are you doing next Tuesday?” Sears asked in his soft, unpretentious voice.
Nothing. Why? You coming to town?
“No. Better than that. Reagan is going to spend a few hours in Chicago, changing planes….flying in from Charlotte, will arrive at 11:35 a.m. and will have to wait for a change of planes before he goes out at 4:30 p.m. for Santa Barbara. That gives you a few hours to get your boss and a few other CEOs together to grab lunch with him….maybe at the O’Hare Hilton….and you seeing him on the plane to California afterward. Can you pull something like that together?”
I said I thought I could. Reagan hadn’t announced yet for 1980 but it was very much in the cards.
Repeat: I said I thought I could. But I found to my dismay I couldn’t. The year before, Big Jim Thompson had been elected governor (with George Ryan for lieutenant governor) and had committed the state GOP to mushy, non-Reagan accommodationist politics—meaning that the party’s leaders were supportive of anyone but…for ideological reasons… Reagan. Big Jimbo saw himself as having potential for president and so he had his emissaries “joining” various campaigns as moles. The biggest chunk signed up for John Connally, the former Texas governor: that included George Ryan and the Illinois Tool Works crowd—headed by Harold Byron Smith, Jr., prodigious fund-raiser and GOP leader extraordinary: former state chairman, national committeeman, fund-raiser for the Republican state senate and House,
Connally was the decided favorite. The next biggest group was for George H.W. Bush. Still other moles went to Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee…Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas with one lonely outcast sent to help Rep. Phil Crane. Later as Reagan grew in popularity one mole was dispatched to his campaign—Sam Skinner. God’s angry progressive was running as well—Congressman John B. Anderson but of course Big Jimbo wasn’t interested in him because they were both liberals but still two moles were sent in hope that if Anderson were to be elected somehow there might be a cabinet office open for Big Jimbo. The only prominent Illinoisan for Reagan was Dan Terra, a billionaire head of a printing ink company.
Normally it should have been an easy trick to line up guys to have lunch with a leading though unannounced presidential candidate but the CEOs were all so timid they felt they didn’t want to jeopardize their standing.
So I reluctantly called Sears after a few days of futility and said I struck out.
I expected I’d be chewed out but instead Sears said: “Not surprising. Just what I thought. “
Then there was a long pause as he thought.
“Well,” he said, “how would you like to have lunch with the old man. Cripes, somebody has to see he gets on the plane for Santa Barbara!”
I said: Well, John, he doesn’t want to have lunch with a punk like me.
“Of course he doesn’t. But he likes to tell stories and you like to tell stories and I can’t let him just sit around in the Admirals Club of American Airlines alone for four hours! I tell you, he’s one of the most recognizable of Americans. People go to him like flies to honey! He’s so damn nice he’ll have some guy bending his ear in the Admirals’ Club about whether or not he ever met Clark Gable. So I’m deputizing you to see that doesn’t happen. See, you’ll be his aide for four hours. I can’t pay you anything but I figure your payment will be in talking with him. He’s a great guy. You’ll be surprised to know that he’ll talk your ear off about old time Hollywood. Is it a deal?”
That was the start of the most fascinating lunch I ever had…with, as it turns out, one of the great presidents of the 20thcentury.