Reagan Tribute ExclusiveLaxalt: Nice Guys Can Finish First

From Former U.S. Sen. Paul Laxalt:

I first met Ron Reagan during the Barry Goldwater presidential campaign in 1964. Goldwater lost in a landslide, but Ronald Reagan catapulted himself into the political spotlight with a masterful, nationally-televised speech shortly before election day.

We became good friends after we were elected Governors of our neighboring states in 1966. As philosophic soulmates, Governor Reagan and I worked together on several issues, including the protection of majestic Lake Tahoe. Eventually, we agreed on a bi-state compact that helped to preserve the lake.

I was deeply impressed with how Governor Reagan, who had no previous elective office experience – he was and remained the quintessential citizen-politician – tackled the severe problems that were afflicting California in the mid-1960s. Whether it was campus unrest, a bloated bureaucracy, a partisan legislature or dealing with one of the world’s largest economies, Ron met these challenges in a forthright and aggressive manner.

Later, I had the honor of serving as the national chairman of his three campaigns for President. Although the first effort in 1976 was unsuccessful, it was the most exciting. Ron faced enormous obstacles, the most obvious of which was taking on a sitting Republican President, Gerald Ford. But he turned the conventional wisdom on its head and came within an eyelash of winning the Republican nomination. Starting with an unforgettable “do-or-die” win in the North Carolina primary, Ron, with Nancy constantly by his side, showed the country the determination, style and character that would eventually catapult him to the White House and make him one of America’s most revered political figures.

We went to the convention in Kansas City with the nomination still up for grabs. Something that happened in Kansas City told me all I needed to know about Ron Reagan. Just before the convention, Ron had shocked the political world (and many of his conservative friends) by announcing that his running mate would be Pennsylvania Sen. Richard Schweiker, who had a moderate to liberal voting record.

In Kansas City, we were in a pitched battled with the Ford campaign for every undecided delegate. After the very conservative Mississippi delegation sided with Ford on an important procedural vote, Schweiker met with Ron and offered to withdraw from the ticket, contending that such a move might placate the conservatives. Without hesitating, Ron replied, “Dick, we came into this together, and we’re going out together.” I’ve often wondered how many politicians, under similar circumstances, would have reacted as Ron did. Not too many, I suspect. Ron ended up losing to President Ford by a razor-thin margin.

Most pundits thought that this was his last realistic shot at the Presidency, the conventional wisdom being that he was too old to run again in 1980. But shortly after Jimmy Carter was elected, I joined a group of western Senators in a meeting at the White House. It was clear that Carter was a smart and decent individual, but I came away from the meeting with serious doubts about Carter’s ability to handle the job. As soon as I got back to the office, I called Ron in California and said, “Keep your powder dry, I think I just met a one-term President.” He laughed but otherwise was noncommittal. Yet, as we all know, he not only ran but won a landslide victory over President Carter in 1980.

Where he ranks among American Presidents, I’ll leave to the historians. But one thing is for sure: Ron Reagan proved that even in politics, nice guys can finish first.

–Mr. Laxalt, Reagan’s closest political friend,
served as governor of Nevada (1966-70)
and U.S. senator (1974-86).
He was also general chairman of the
Republican National Committee under Reagan.