Thursday, December 15, 2005

Ronald Reagan and the Leaky Hotel Bathroom Sink: A Memoir

The other night I was asked to introduce State Sen. Bill Brady at a Christmas party for his governor’s campaign contributors and well wishers—and I told this story: in much less time than I’m devoting now or else I would have been thrown out. (Incidentally, if your Republican candidate holds a party and wants an introducer, I’m available—also for wedding toasts and bar mitzvahs). But in an elongated fashion, this is the story I told and it will have to be divulged in two parts.

This political year with many Republicans divided about whom they will support for governor seems a lot like the year 1979 when state Republicans were split up seven different ways in their presidential choices. As the government relations officer at Quaker, I worked for a man who was for John Connally, the silver-haired ex-treasury secretary, ex-navy secretary and survivor of the JFK assassination who was just cleared of a corruption charge and was hailed as a champion of big, decisive yet conservative (on foreign-military policy) government and pro-choice on abortion. The entire Republican establishment was for Connally, headed by the state Republican chairman, Harold Byron Smith, Jr. who was both enormously influential money-raiser and political activist.

Most of the big money and the big political influence, with Gov. Jim Thompson staying neutral, was for Connally. Others, however, were for George H. W. Bush who like Connally touted his resume: former Congressman, former UN ambassador, former CIA director, former representative to China, former RNC chairman. Bush was a moderate and pro-choice. Others supported Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.), the Senate minority leader who made his reputation at Watergate and had Illinois connections through his tie by marriage to Everett Dirksen’s daughter, Joy. He was pro-choice. Still others supported Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kansas), a moderate though discreetly and somewhat quietly pro-life. A group endorsed the most conservative of the lot, Rep. Phil Crane (R-Ill), a member of Ways and Means, an author and according to the women, devilishly handsome, who was pro-life. Another endorsed Rep. John B. Anderson (R-Ill.) of Rockford, chairman of the House Republican Conference, a decided liberal, author of a campaign finance reform law which was expected to drive all corruption from fund-raising—a pro-choicer.

That was a lot of people: Connally, Bush, Baker, Dole and Crane. And then we had some people for Reagan, headed by philanthropist Dan Terra, although Terra’s organization was, by no means, more than a few hundred names on a list. My boss, Bob Stuart, was for Connally but was the most tolerant chief executive I ever heard of before or since, in that if I wished to express my views in the papers or on the radio I could do so if I did not tie Quaker to it: a highly enlightened view that I cherished and still do. At any rate I hadn’t made up my own mind about who to back (not that my weight would add any importance). I knew Connally rather well, having hosted him at my Northwestern University seminar and spent many hours with him. I met Bush at a City Club event and heard lots from his campaign. I knew Baker, knew Dole, new Crane. Baker struck me as too flexible with malleable views. Crane was too rigid with a polarizing argumentative style. Anderson whom I knew the best and personally liked was the polar opposite to Crane, an oracular Old Testament prophet on liberal ideas. Dole was another ultra-flexible lawmaker with no set convictions who by his own words became a Republican because he lived in a Republican county and wanted to get elected its prosecutor. Reagan I had met once and while he was memorable at that time, we were surrounded by others and I couldn’t get over the view that he may have been an actor with a good script: possibly dumb, too dumb to be president.

It was about at that time that my phone rang with a call from John Sears. Sears and I were close friends, both having been booted out of our jobs in the Nixon administration at the same time and who toasted our good fortune occasionally in Washington. Sears was reputedly the world’s best delegate counter; he managed Nixon’s delegate count in 1968 and came very close as Reagan’s delegate counter to toppling President Ford in 1976.

Sears said that Reagan was coming to Chicago after having toured the south, would be coming into O’Hare alone and would have four hours or so to spare before he was to board a flight for Los Angeles. Reagan hated flying and needed the break, he said. And by the way, could you round up a group of business types for lunch as Reagan would be arriving about 11 a.m. at the O’Hare Hilton (we’ll pay the freight, he said) and see that he gets back on the plane for L.A. at 4:30? Sounded good to me so I called around only to be turned down by everybody of any financial worth in the Ilinois GOP. Dan Terra was Reagan’s fund-raiser and even he would be overseas. So in summary, I had nobody but myself. I called Sears and said that this might well be the first time I ever flopped on an assignment like this, but I had. Sears was not surprised, given the state of the Illinois GOP. He said, well what are you doing for lunch that day? I said nothing but Reagan wouldn’t want to eat with a punk like me. No, he said candidly, but Reagan’s got to eat with somebody and he’s an extrovert so you’re elected. Here’s what you do, he said. You hire a room at the O’Hare Hilton, order him a lean steak sandwich and take him over there. I asked: why a room for just us? He said there’s not going to be just you two, but two off-duty Chicago cops who volunteer to guard him. You don’t have to feed them but they’ll come along.

I said: why don’t we just go to the Seven Continents restaurant at O’Hare and save the trouble. I remember his reply: You don’t understand. This guy is the most recognizable of Americans, having been in the films beginning in the 1930s and on TV with “Death Valley Days” and having garnered media attention as governor. Why, he said, at Warner Brothers there was only one guy who got more fan mail than he and that was Errol Flynn. I was not impressed but said I’d do as he said so long as he paid the tab. So on a fall day in 1979 I went out to O’Hare, met the two off-duty cops and waited for the Allegheny airlines plane to come in. He was just about the last one down the ramp, carrying his own bags, looking very much as old as he was—69. I introduced myself and he put down his bags and said, “Mr. Ro—ser?” I asked him if he had had a good flight. He didn’t hear me very well and cocked his head to catch it. We chatted a bit and started off, me wondering what the two cops would do.

Very shortly, they were very busy. I met Reagan at Gate K8 and by the time we got to K5 we were having trouble getting through the crowd, with the cops gently leading the way. Somebody said, “that’s Reagan!” to which he bowed his head deferentially, smiled and we moved on. There was a ripple of shouts in the crowd, and he acknowledged it in the same way he did later with the press when he walked to the helicopter on the White House lawn. By the time we got to K1 we were pushing through the crowd. I was amazed. Some weeks before I had escorted Connally through O’Hare and while there was scattered recognition (being a survivor of the assassination at Dallas had some star-power), there was not the buoyant familiarity I saw here. As we went down the escalator there was a group at the topmost rail. . One guy shouted, “Hey, Ron! What was your name in `King’s Row’? I got a bet with this guy!” He heard it, looked up and smilingly said, “Drake McHugh!” The guy said to his chum, “See? I was right! You owe me $50!”

When we got to the room, the lunch was set. As we sat down I started to pop the questions about the country, foreign policy but he held up his hand and said, “Wait. Do you hear that?” I didn’t know what he was talking about. “The bathroom sink is running,” he said. “When I was an actor and traveling around I usually got the room with the running faucet.” The cops who evidently knew the drill said, watch this one. He got up, pealed off his suitcoat and opened up his suitcase, took out a cloth such as women wrap silverware in. Then he beckoned me to go with him. And so I tell my grandchildren, I entered the bathroom with the man who was to become the 40th president of the United States. He produced a wrench and expertly undid the faucet, tightened the screws and quickly replaced the faucet. Smiling he said to me: “There, that sonuvabitch won’t keep anybody else awake.”

That’s all I’ll write now. Tomorrow: I ask him how he plans to get elected when he’s the most conservative of Americans, espousing an ideology that was only duplicated by Phyllis Schlafly who could get elected to nothing.

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