Richard Schweiker, RIP

I neglected to note yesterday the passing of another significant figure, former Pennsylvania Senator and HHS Secretary Richard Schweiker. He became a person of special prominence in 1976 when Ronald Reagan announced he’d pick Schweiker—who had a reputation as a very liberal Republican—if he (Reagan) wrested the nomination away from Gerald Ford. Many conservatives were appalled, but when Schweiker became HHS Secretary in 1981, he turned out to be a true-blue (the color we used in those days before we started using red) conservative, and stalwart Reaganite. Reagan had that effect on people. Remember that Caspar Weinberger was a Rockefeller Republican in California who opposed Reagan’s gubernatorial ambitions in 1966, but he came around quickly.

Here’s my account of the Schweiker gambit in 1976 from Volume 1 of my Age of Reagan:

It was evident on the eve of the convention that neither man had enough delegates to assure nomination on the first ballot. Delegate counts varied, with the New York Times giving Ford 1,102 to Reagan’s 1,063, with 1,130 needed to win. This circumstance clearly favored Ford, though Ford’s people knew that if they didn’t win on the first ballot (presumably through the abstention of a handful of delegates), many wavering delegates would break for Reagan on the second. Reagan’s campaign knew it, too. Ford’s full court press was even succeeding in peeling away a few Reagan delegates on the eve of the convention. Reagan’s only chance to win was some kind of Hail Mary play to woo uncommitted delegates or extend the voting to a second ballot.

John Sears thought he had the answer. Reagan should name his running mate in advance of the convention. Since Reagan was strong in the south and the west, political calculus suggested that a running mate from the upper midwest or northeast would help Reagan most in a general election. Some weeks earlier Reagan had instructed his senior campaign staff to begin vetting potential running mates, so the campaign already had its “A” list underway. Sears own first choice was even more audacious than the tactic itself: Nelson Rockefeller! It is doubtful Rockefeller could have been persuaded, but the matter was moot. Sen. Paul Laxalt knew the idea would be a non-starter. Other names of political figures from the northeast were considered, including a young second-term congressman from Buffalo, Jack Kemp, and former Attorney General William Ruckelshaus. Kemp was rejected as too young and unknown. Rucklelshaus was not entirely ruled out, but Sears zeroed in on what he considered a better prospect: Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker. In addition to his geographical attractiveness, Sears thought Schweiker could peel away as many as 70 of Pennsylvania’s convention delegates (47 of Pennsylvania’s delegates were officially “uncommitted” at that point, though thought to be leaning to Ford)—enough to put Reagan over the top. Sears and Sen. Paul Laxalt arranged to meet Schweiker in Washington, where they popped the question. Schweiker, who didn’t even know how to pronounce Reagan’s name correctly (he kept referring to him as “Ree-gun”), accepted.

The next step was convincing Reagan to make the offer formally. Sears and Laxalt had gone to Schweiker and offered him the second spot without Reagan’s knowledge! The trouble with Schweiker is that he was known as a liberal Republican, siding so solidly with organized labor that he was the only Senator to receive a 100 percent rating from the AFL-CIO in 1975.   Schweiker was arguably as liberal as Jimmy Carter’s running mate, Sen. Walter Mondale. His vote rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), 89 percent, was identical to Sen. George McGovern. Like McGovern, Schweiker had opposed the Vietnam War, voted against Nixon’s missile defense plan, against two of Nixon’s Supreme Court appointments, and in favor of overriding all 14 of Nixon’s vetoes (for which he earned himself a place on Nixon’s infamous “enemies list”). He voted against Ford’s program to deregulate energy markets, and in favor of breaking up “big oil.” He was also a notorious big spender, having voted repeatedly to raise federal spending, and even co-sponsoring the original liberal Humphrey-Hawkins full employment act (the bill that Reagan had said a few weeks earlier was “a design for fascism”). No wonder McGovern was able to remark later that if Schweiker didn’t make it onto a Reagan-led GOP ticket, he could succeed McGovern as president of the ADA. A more incompatible running mate for Ronald Reagan could hardly be conceived if central casting had been asked to fill the spot with a total opposite. Murray Kempton summarized the problem memorably: “While Rockefeller groaned for pardon of his seldom ardent and long ago renounced traffickings with the liberals, Schweiker was writhing unashamedly at their orgies.”

But Schweiker opposed gun control, opposed abortion, and was always in the forefront of Captive Nations resolutions in Congress (which tacitly put him in the anti-Kissinger camp), which gave him just enough cultural conservative credentials, Sears and Laxalt thought, to be acceptable. But there was Reagan’s professed antipathy toward traditional notions of “ticket balancing.” “I do not believe,” Reagan had said during the primaries, “you choose someone of an opposite philosophy in hopes he’ll get you some votes you can’t get yourself, because that’s being false with the people who vote for you and your philosophy.” Just a few days before meeting Schweiker for the first time, Reagan had reiterated the point even more forcefully when asked by reporters what the reaction would be if Ford picked another northeastern liberal like Rockefeller to be his running mate. “It would be a foolish mistake,” Reagan said. “Ford would lose the South, and a lot of Republicans might not work for him.” Yet now Reagan was to contemplate the same maneuver.

Sears, Laxalt, and Schweiker quickly arranged to see Reagan in Los Angeles. Schweiker flew out incognito under the name of one of his Senate office staff members. As Schweiker waited in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, Sears and Laxalt made the case to Reagan at his Pacific Palisades home. Reagan liked the sound of the idea, and wanted to meet Schweiker immediately.

Schweiker and Reagan talked for six hours the following day. Reagan took an instant liking to Schweiker, especially his religious convictions (Schweiker was a Catholic) and his family values. (Schweiker was the father of five.) Schweiker assured Reagan that he could support Reagan’s positions in the campaign and as Vice President. He further assured Reagan that he was not at heart a big spender, and favored private sector solutions to social problems. “You know, I have a strong feeling,” Reagan told Schweiker, “that I’m looking at myself some years ago” (apparently referring to his own liberal past). Schweiker said, “Well, I’m no knee-jerk liberal.” Reagan replied: “And I’m no knee-jerk extremist.” At that point Reagan formally offered Schweiker the Vice Presidential nomination.

Reagan publicly announced his selection of Schweiker a week later, just days before the GOP convention opened in Kansas City. As expected, all hell broke loose, but mostly against Reagan. Time magazine described the move as “one of the most astonishing and bizarre turnabouts in a campaign full of surprises.” Ford didn’t believe the news when he first heard it. “I thought someone was pulling my leg,” Ford said later. Reagan’s campaign was startled by the vehemence with which conservatives reacted against Schweiker, and Reagan was on the defensive. “I am not going to pretend, nor is he, that in every area we are in complete agreement,” Reagan said on August 6. “He has represented a blue collar constituency, essentially a labor constituency, but I have found that when principle dictated going counter to that he was not a rubber stamp for them.” How was Reagan’s selection of Schweiker any different that Ford’s selection of Rockefeller? Or of Carter’s selection of Walter Mondale? The latter comparison did the most damage, and the Reagan campaign hastily composed memos to show that Schweiker’s Senate voting record was not indistinguishable from Mondale’s.

The whole point of the conservative movement starting with Goldwater was to purge the northeastern wing of the Republican Party, and here was Reagan giving the liberal wing a seat near the head of the table. Furthermore, the Schweiker pick would give Ford more latitude to select a liberal running mate—perhaps even to bring back the dreaded Rockefeller. Angry letters from Reagan supporters flooded the campaign office in Los Angeles. One letter, written with the thick script of a black marker, simply said, “Dear Governor Reagan: Schweiker?!?! For God’s sake!!!” Conservatives leaders were no less harsh. Howard Phillips of the Conservative Caucus blasted Reagan, saying Reagan had “betrayed the trust of those who look to him for leadership.” Sen. Jesse Helms swallowed hard and stuck with Reagan, calling the Schweiker pick “a coalition with the widest wingspan in all history.” George Will was less charitable, writing that Mondale’s liberalism “is a sliver more or less advanced than Schweiker’s (more or less, depending on whose micrometer does the measuring). . . If the Reagan-Schweiker ticket is a political coalition, then sauerkraut ice cream is a culinary coalition.” Illinois Congressman Henry Hyde likened the move to “a farmer selling his last cow to buy a milking machine,” while Mississippi Congressman Trent Lott switched from Reagan to Ford in anger over the Schweiker pick. “It’s the dumbest thing I ever heard of,” said Congressman John Ashbrook. James Jackson Kilkpatrick wrote in National Review: “In that last misjudgment, no matter how plausible it seemed in conception, Reagan lost his purity; he was no longer Galahad in quest of the Holy Grail, but Lancelot panting for Guinevere.” It didn’t help that Jimmy Carter said “I think he [Schweiker] is a good man.” And the Washington Post praised Schweiker’s pick, calling the move “dazzling” and “wise.” How could Reagan square this pick with his aforementioned attacks on “ticket-balancing”? “I got in this to win an election,” Reagan replied tersely. “It was time to reach our hands across the border.”

Reagan’s strategists thought it was possible they might lose some southern delegates, and sure enough, the Mississippi delegation, hitherto tenuously pledged to Reagan, seized upon the Schweiker pick to defect to Ford, which its leader, Clarke Reed, had wanted to do anyway. Meanwhile, the expected gains among northeastern delegations failed to materialize. Schweiker couldn’t budge any Pennsylvania delegates, despite four telephone conversations the leader of the delegation, Drew Lewis, who was a close friend of Schweiker’s. (Both Schweiker and Lewis would serve in President Reagan’s cabinet in 1981.) Despite his friendship with Schweiker, Lewis stuck firmly with Ford and lost only one delegate to Reagan.

The Schweiker gambit was widely perceived for what it was—an act of desperation. Although it failed to break the delegate hunt in Reagan’s favor, it nonetheless kept the drama of the convention alive when otherwise it might have been over before it began.