The venerable Republican consultant and conservative activist Charlie Black once said, "Ronald Reagan would not have become president had he not hired John Sears in 1976 —and fired John Sears in 1980."
There was great wisdom in this observation.
The Ronald Reagan campaign of 1976 came within an eyelash of defeating the incumbent Gerald Ford for the Republican Party nomination. It was, in essence, a rag tag operation manned by junior varsity operatives and a handful of conservative activists. Nobody in the GOP establishment thought much of Reagan at that time, dismissing him as the "George Wallace of the Republican Party."
The only establishment consultant in 1975 who thought Reagan had what it took to be president was John Patrick Sears. Sears, though a Nixon man, had escaped the Watergate brush.
As of 1976, all of the remaining talent of the GOP — and there wasn’t much — were supporting the moderate Gerald Ford. He was the accidental president by way of Richard Nixon’s resignation. The Watergate scandal took out Nixon and cleared out a whole crop of GOP consultants as a result.
Sears, having joined Team Reagan as campaign manager, gave the Californian immediate credibility with the East Coast political reporters who were drinking buddies and social friends of Sears’. Politics and political geography in 1976 was astonishingly different from today.
While the 1976 campaign was often bumbling and mismanaged, it also had flashes of brilliance, as in the North Carolina and Texas primaries, which Reagan won despite being heavily outspent by the Ford campaign. The choice of Senator Richard Schweiker was also brilliant.
A recent obituary in The New York Times said that Sears’ advice to Reagan to pick respected Senator Dick Schweiker of Pennsylvania as his running mate, prior to the August convention, was "dubious" and "presumptuous."
The Washington Post’s obituary of Sears also got the story wrong, erroneously saying the Schweiker stratagem and the effort to get Ford to name his running mate before the delegates voted "backfired."
This is the problem when liberals record conservative history and don’t bother to talk to the people who were there. First, they have built in biases, and second, they are flying through a cloud of ignorance.
Neither reporter bothered to speak to the people who actually were there working on the 1976 or 1980 campaigns with Sears.
The astute choice of Schweiker as engineered by Sears was in fact two fold; prying loose some delegates was only one potential outcome. The other was to keep Reagan’s hopes alive until the August GOP convention.
In early July of 1976, Sears learned that CBS was working on a story; the network was going to pronounce Ford as the nominee, weeks ahead of the convention. This announcement was coming after an arduous counting of almost 4,500 GOP delegates, including some 200 uncommitted delegates. "The CBS Evening News," as manned by the estimable Walter Cronkite, was a broadcasting juggernaut.
If "Uncle Walter" said something, you could bank on it.
And Reagan’s campaign would have been dead in July of 1976.
The choice of Schweiker was really about buying time for Reagan. When CBS learned that Reagan had made the audacious, revolutionary and creative choice of Schweiker — before the conventionthey killed the story. Picking Schweiker bought three precious weeks for the Reagan campaign.
Had Reagan’s campaign been proclaimed dead in the water, long before the convention, he would not have had the opportunity to carry the fight to Kansas City in a dramatic vote, which Reagan lost by the narrow margin of 1,180 to 1,069 or to give his extemporaneous speech: the speech which changed the GOP, leading delegates to question their choice of Ford and paving the way for Reagan to run and win in 1980.
The New York Times obituary also completely missed the importance Sears played in the now famous Nashua debate of 1980. Sears, along with Reagan’s New Hampshire chairman, Jerry Carmen, were the architects of the scene where George H. W. Bush froze, while Reagan responded forcefully. Sears once told me, bluntly, "Our job was to show that Bush was not capable of being president."
Charlie Black said, "We knew Bush would choke . . . " Carmen kept sticking it to Bush in the press any chance he got and pressuring Bush to agree to debate with Reagan.
The debate was supposed to be a one-on-one between Reagan and Bush but at the last moment, Sears decided that, under the guise of "fairness," the other candidates including Senators Bob Dole and Howard Baker along with other aspirants should be included. Bush balked but Reagan welcomed them. The moderator, Nashua Telegraph editor Jon Breen, also objected. But to avoid violating campaign rules at the time, the Reagan campaign ponied up the $2,000 to pay for the staging of the debate.
When Breen said the other candidates could not participate, and told the technician to turn off the Gipper’s microphone, Reagan stormed, "I paid for this microphone Mr. Green!!!!" setting him up to win the New Hampshire primary; propelled him to the 1980 nomination, the 1980 general election, and into the history books. The Post simply gave short shrift to the Nashua debate.
All this and more was due to John Sears. Reagan fired Sears on the day of the New Hampshire primary but John was always philosophical about it. He told me he’d accumulated too many enemies and was no longer an asset to Reagan. Sears was never suited to be a campaign manager. The 1976 and 1980 campaigns were sometimes poorly run because it simply wasn’t Sears’ strength. His strength was strategy, not managing people or money.
We got to become friends in later years as I wrote my books on the 1976 and 1980 campaigns and what surprised me about John was how shy he actually was. He enjoyed a drink, a good game of cards and politics, as befitting any good political operative, but there was also a side to him that craved privacy.
And there was never really good chemistry between him and Reagan although Sears and Nancy Reagan got along well. For a time.
Reagan once complained, "John doesn’t look you in the eye, he looks you in the tie."
But after his brilliance of the 1968 Nixon campaign and his sometimes cleverness of the 1976 and 1980 Reagan campaigns, John never worked in national politics again.
He once told me, "it’s nicer on the sidelines."
He also had a wry sense of humor. When the matter of picking a running mate for Reagan came up in 1976, someone floated the idea of picking Jim Rhodes, the odious and curmudgeonly and shady governor of Ohio. Rhodes could have potentially delivered enough delegates to Reagan to win the nomination, but Sears rejected the idea quipping, "You’ve got to have some responsibility in this business."
There are a number of men over the many years who aided Reagan at critical times when he needed it most: Paul Laxalt, Ed Meese, Lyn Nofziger, George Bush, Ken Khachigian, Jim Baker, Mike Deaver, Marty Anderson, Frank Donatelli, Ed Rollins, Fred Ryan, Bob Heckman, Ralph Galliano, Roger Stone, Jim Lake, Stu Spencer, Peter Hannaford, Dick Wirthlin and many others including his White House speechwriters. Each had his own season with Reagan. All were trusted Reaganites and all were trusted by Reagan.
John Sears — as much as any of these aforementioned men — helped Reagan change the world.
RIP John Sears.
Craig Shirley is a Ronald Reagan biographer and presidential historian. His books include, “Reagan’s Revolution, The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started it All,” “Rendezvous with Destiny, Ronald Reagan and the Campaign that Changed America,” "Reagan Rising: The Decisive Years," and “ Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan." He is also the author of the New York Times bestseller, “December, 1941” and his new 2019 book, “Mary Ball Washington,” a definitive biography of George Washington’s mother. Shirley lectures frequently at the Reagan Library and the Reagan Ranch. He has been named the First Reagan Scholar at Eureka College, Ronald Reagan’s alma mater and will teach a class this fall at the University of Virginia on Reagan. He appears regularly on Newsmax TV, Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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