Pennsylvania Republican Richard S. Schweiker, who died Friday at age 89, was a U.S. representative, U.S. senator, secretary of Health and Human Services under President Reagan — and Reagan's first vice presidential running mate.
It happened in 1976, when Reagan lost a heartbreakingly close bid for the Republican nomination to incumbent President Gerald Ford.
Narrowly trailing in the crucial count for delegates to the Republican National Convention in Kansas City, Mo., Reagan stunned the party and the press July 26 by announcing that moderate-to-liberal Sen. Schweiker would be his vice presidential choice if he became the nominee for president.
In a last-minute tactical move crafted by campaign manager John Sears, Team Reagan also announced that it would pursue adoption of Rule 16-C. Under 16-C, convention rules would be changed to require any presidential candidate to name his vice presidential choice prior to the balloting for president.
Reagan did not know Schweiker and Sears did not know him well. Nevada Senator and Reagan campaign chairman Paul Laxalt was charged with sounding out his seatmate from Pennsylvania.
Laxalt met Schweiker over the July Fourth holiday, and as he wrote in his memoirs, "Dick was surprised, to put it mildly, but quickly recovered as most good politicians do when confronted with a dramatic change in circumstances."
After discussing joining Reagan's ticket with wife Claire and their five children, Schweiker called Laxalt to say he was accepting pending a discussion with Reagan himself. The two soon met and, in Laxalt's words, "the chemistry couldn't be better."
Tom Winter, then-editor and co-owner of the national conservative weekly Human Events, recalled to Newsmax: "Reagan called me to let me know he was naming Schweiker shortly before the announcement. I told him, 'Governor, I don't think he's one of us.' Reagan insisted: 'He's really warm to us on a lot of issues.'"
Rated 89 percent by the liberal Americans for Democratic Action and 47 percent by the American Conservative Union, Schweiker had been a vigorous opponent of the Vietnam War, and two years before became the first Pennsylvania senator ever to win the endorsement for re-election from the AFL-CIO.
A member of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, he backed greater federal spending on health research and education.
"You have to remember that while Dick Schweiker was for the most part moderate and even liberal on some things, there were other issues on which he was as conservative as Reagan," former U.S. Attorney David Marston, Schweiker’s onetime legislative counsel, told us. He noted that the senator was always strongly pro-life, supported school prayer, and the right to keep and bear arms.
"And let's face it" he said, "Reagan was behind Ford in delegates and needed to throw a 'Hail Mary' pass to keep any chance he had of nomination alive."
Arriving in Kansas City, Laxalt wrote, "We knew the Schweiker strategy had worked. Ron Reagan came to the convention with his candidacy very much alive. The Ford momentum had been stopped. The national media were excited about the prospect of a dramatic, perhaps historic convention."
For the first time since 1952, Republicans came to a convention unsure of who their nominee for president would be.
The vote on Rule 16-C came down to Mississippi.
Although stalwart conservatives from Mississippi such as state Sen. Charles Pickering and former State Party Chairman Wirt Yerger had no problems with a Reagan-Schweiker ticket, another former State Party Chairman, Clarke Reed, felt otherwise.
"The big issue with Ford [among Southern Republicans] was his choice of [liberal New York Gov.] Nelson Rockefeller for vice president," Reed told us. "Reagan always told us, 'I won’t have a philosophically different vice president.' But after he picked Schweiker, I said, 'Reagan is not someone to be trusted.' Of course, I was eventually proven wrong on that."
Reed and slightly over half the Mississippi delegation (31-28) voted against Rule 16-C in what was considered the "dress rehearsal" for the nomination vote.
Drew Lewis, close friend and longtime political backer of Schweiker, was furious with the senator for not giving him advance notice about joining Reagan and helped keep all but a handful of the Pennsylvania delegation in line for Ford. The rules change was beaten on the convention floor.
Laxalt remembered Schweiker coming to Reagan's hotel suite the following morning and telling his campaign command "that he felt very badly about what had happened. He said he felt he was the problem with the Mississippi delegation, many of whom thought he was 'too liberal.' He wanted to call an immediate press conference to announce his withdrawal from the ticket in the hopes this would change votes from Mississippi."
Reagan would have none of it, immediately telling Schweiker, "Dick, we came into this together and we’re going out together."
Their mutual friend, Laxalt, later wrote: "I wondered how many politicians would have reacted the same way. It would have been easy for Ron to say 'circumstances have changed' and 'perhaps Schweiker should step aside.' But he didn't."
That night, Ford defeated Reagan for the nomination by a vote of 1,187-1,070. Four years later, without making his choice of George H.W. Bush for vice president known until he was nominated, Reagan became president. Schweiker served in his Cabinet, then went on to spend 12 years as head of the American Council of Life Insurance.
"Although he may have differed with Ronald Reagan on some issues, Dick Schweiker was cut from the same cloth in that he had strong values and always put his country first," Dave Marston told us. "He was a patriot, a gentleman, and a Penn State grad, right to the end."
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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