The First Reaganaut
Woodrow Wilson had his Col. Edward Mandell House—a professional campaign manager who never spent a day in uniform but got an honorary commission from a Texas governor—Franklin D. Roosevelt had Louis M. Howe and George W. Bush has Karl Rove.
In terms of a true believer who devoted years of his adult life to making him President, Ronald Reagan had Lyn Nofziger.
Like House and Rove, Nofziger was a shrewd campaign operative who knew hardball politics. Like Howe, Nofziger was a newspaperman (“Don’t you dare call me a journalist!”) who gave up a promising press career to work for a candidate in whom he sensed greatness.
Of his decision in January 1966 to leave the Copley newspaper chain to become press secretary for Reagan’s campaign for governor of California, Nofziger said: “It cost me a good, if not outstanding, reporting career, most of the rest of my hair, and hundreds of dollars for the purchase of antacids. The only reason it didn’t cost me my wife [Bonnie] was because she is more patient, more stubborn, and more forgiving, especially more forgiving, than many other political wives.”
He was only half-joking. World War II veteran Nofziger spent eight years as a reporter for two small Copley newspapers in Southern California, the Glendale News-Press and the Burbank Daily Review. He became editor of the Review (“which isn’t saying much because it was a really small paper”), and went on to Washington for eight years as White House correspondent and roving political reporter for Copley. But when he signed on with Reagan, Franklyn Curran Nofziger never looked back. He served on Reagan’s gubernatorial staff and worked on his presidential bids in 1968, ’76, and ’80. He ran Reagan’s political action committee from 1977-80, and then served on his White House staff.
It was there that the entire nation watched him when, following the attempt on Reagan’s life in 1981, the bear-like Nofziger appeared on national television to assure the nation that the President had survived and that he had even told his wife, “Honey, I forgot to duck,” and had asked if the doctors who operated on him were Republicans.
In all those many jobs, Nofziger remained a steadfast keeper of the conservative flame. He was the person, along with Ed Meese, whom Reagan’s friends on the right contacted in Sacramento and in Washington when they felt their hero was straying (or being misled by others) from the conservative course.
These days, conservatives who have dealt with Nofziger for years, or have just had passing acquaintance with him, are thinking a lot about the disheveled man with the soft voice, quick wit and signature Mickey Mouse ties as the 81-year-old Nofziger battles bladder cancer. With characteristic style, he rarely talks about his illness with his many friends. When they call on him, he reminisces, often remarking, “At my age, nostalgia sets in. The old days were indeed better.”
His Brother’s Keeper
Before he met Ronald Reagan, Nofziger knew the future President’s older brother, J. Neil “Moon” Reagan, an executive with the McCann-Erickson advertising firm and television adviser to Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign. It was Moon Reagan who helped convince Goldwater to OK brother Ron’s now-celebrated television address, “A Time for Choosing,” which brought in the largest amount of donations for the Republican ticket of any television speech up to that time and sparked the talk of Reagan as a candidate.
As the only other reporter covering Goldwater aside from Clark Mollenhoff of the Des Moines Register, who he knew would also vote for the Republican, Nofziger quickly hit it off with Moon Reagan. They became good friends and, at one point on the campaign plane, the adman, referring to his actor-brother, told Nofziger: “We’re going to run Ronnie against [liberal California Republican Sen. Thomas] Kuchel no matter what Kuchel runs for.” (Kuchel was considering running for governor in 1966 and was up for re-election to the Senate in 1968.)
Nofziger had met Ronald Reagan in June 1965 at an event in Ohio honoring then-GOP National Chairman Ray Bliss. “We talked briefly, but it was clear he was not greatly enamored of inebriated reporters,” recalled Nofziger. He saw Reagan speak in the evening but he never filed a story because “I was still not sober.”
When Moon Reagan took Nofziger and Ronald Reagan to lunch at the Brown Derby restaurant in Los Angeles two months later, the reporter told the soon-to-be-candidate, “You may not remember, but we’ve met before.” Reagan replied: “Yes, I do,” and Nofziger quickly changed the subject, but eventually filed a story predicting Reagan would run for governor.
In January 1966, at the urging of his bosses at Copley and Neil Reagan, Nofizger became Reagan’s campaign press secretary. Following his landslide election, Gov. Reagan named Nofziger his spokesman. Far more than a press secretary, Nofziger, behind the scenes, enthusiastically helped the many admirers of his boss who wanted him to be President. In 1968, when Reagan insisted, “The office seeks the man,” and said he would do no more than be California’s favorite son at the Republican National Convention, Nofziger and veteran campaign operative F. Clifton White were encouraging Republicans nationwide to back Reagan for the nomination. At the convention in Miami, Reagan finally declared he was a candidate, but he was so late that he came in third on the balloting behind Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller.
Triumph and Tragedy
In 1968, Nofziger took over the fall U.S. Senate campaign of conservative California Superintendent of Public Instruction Max Rafferty, who had beaten liberal Sen. Kuchel in the Republican primary. With Golden State Republicans bitterly divided, Rafferty lost a close race to Democrat Alan Cranston. Nofziger then went on to work in the Nixon White House, but left because he felt top aides Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman were “a bunch of [expletive deleted] Nazis.”
But his dream of Reagan as President still intrigued him. In 1976, he was press secretary for his old friend’s near-miss race for the Republican presidential nomination against Gerald Ford. With the late-arriving federal matching funds that left their campaign with a surplus, Reagan and Nofziger were able to finance Citizens for the Republic, a political action committee set up to help candidates for the U.S. Congress and local GOP campaigns. In 1980, with Nofziger on board (but no longer press secretary), Reagan was elected to the White House.
After a stint as Reagan’s first White House political director, Nofziger became a private consultant. After a few profitable years, his life was put on hold in 1986 when he was indicted for violating the Federal Ethics in Government Act, because he had supposedly lobbied a former colleague in the administration within one year of leaving government. It took 39 months and $1.8 million, but Nofziger and his partners were finally exonerated when the U.S. Court of Appeals struck down the indictment and voided three convictions in a lower court.
“Our business was destroyed,” wrote Nofziger, “we had been literally paralyzed for three years, [and] our families had undergone untold anguish and embarrassment.” In addition, Susie, one of Nofziger two daughters, died of cancer in 1989, not living to see her father vindicated.
Nofziger still works as a government consultant with the Carmen Group in Washington, D.C. He writes poetry, has produced an autobiography and has fulfilled a childhood dream of writing Western novels. Almost all the books and television programs about Reagan feature extensive interviews with Nofziger, Reagan’s old comrade and early presidential booster.
His never-say-die belief in Reagan is perhaps the best salute to Lyn Nofziger. Recalling 1968, Nofziger once wrote that he felt that “my dream of making Reagan President [was] in ashes. Fortunately, however, like the Phoenix bird, it kept rising, and a mere 12 years later, it hit pay dirt. Some dreams don’t die easily. Others don’t die at all.”
Sign up to the Human Events newsletter