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Remembering John P. Sears: Political Savvy and Stormy Petrol Wherever He Went

Remembering John P. Sears: Political Savvy and Stormy Petrol Wherever He Went
John P. Sears (Getty Images)

By Monday, 30 March 2020 09:11 PM Current | Bio | Archive

When I heard Monday morning that John Sears died at age 79, I recalled the last time I spoke to the veteran Republican strategist.  It was September of 2015, and we were discussing whether Joe Biden would make a bid for president the following year.

Recalling his stint as campaign manager of Ronald Reagan’s challenge to President Gerald Ford in 1976 and his plan in which the conservative Reagan named moderate Sen. Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania as his running mate—weeks before the national convention—Sears told me Biden should follow that example and name Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren as his running mate and do it early.

““It was a good idea when we did it [the Schweiker maneuver] and it would be a good idea for Biden to turn to [Massachusetts Sen.] Elizabeth Warren early,” Sears told me. “A move like that would suddenly raise tremendous speculation as to whether Hillary Clinton could hold onto the support of liberal activists.”

Unmentioned was that Reagan gained few if any delegates from the naming Schweiker and narrowly lost the nomination to Ford.  Reagan historian Craig Shirley felt that “his audacious selection of Schweiker kept the Gipper’s campaign fragile campaign alive.”

The late conservative columnist M. Stanton Evans, however, said “if Sears had done a better job as campaign manager — like remembering to file full delegate slates in Ohio or putting Reagan on TV in New Hampshire — he might have come to the convention with enough delegates to win.”

There never was unanimity of opinion on John Sears.  People remembered his Irish wit, his brilliance, and his knowledge of Republican politicians down to the county and precinct level.  But they also disliked what they considered his way of talking down to people and tendency toward self-promotion.

Sears was a delegate hunter for Nixon in his 1968 campaign and White House staffer and Reagan’s campaign manager — all before he was 40.  After Reagan fired him in 1980, he never worked in another campaign. 

(After signing on Sears to manage his 1980 campaign, Reagan grew upset with Sears trying to fire old California supporters such as adviser Ed Meese and press secretary Lyn Nofziger.  Before firing Sears on the day of the New Hampshire primary, Reagan told a friend: “He never looks me in the eye, but in the tie!” After Reagan fired Sears, the two never saw each other again.)

John Patrick Sears initially studied to be a psychiatrist at the University Of Notre Dame.  But after managing a friend’s campaign for class president, he got the political “bug” and changed directions.  He earned his B.A, at 20 and then graduated from Georgetown Law School.

Having joined the New York law firm of Richard Nixon, the young Sears was soon doing advance work and writing speeches for the former vice president’s embryonic bid for the White House in 1968.

“Sears was a born political analyst,” wrote Pat Buchanan, also with Nixon in the early stages of his ’68 campaign, “He had a savvy about people, motives, and strategies most professional politicians do not acquire in a lifetime. …He would call the candidates and their campaign managers…find out everything going on in the district—including conflicts, rumors, and scandals—and phone it to me on the road.”

But, he quickly added, “Sears had a trait, however, that would prove costly to his career.”

“He did not tolerate fools gladly and was constantly discovering them right in front of him,” wrote Buchanan, “Where manners had been hammered into me from childhood — to call men ‘sir’ and women ‘ma’am’ when introduced or answering a phone — Sears would use the first names of people twice his age and many times as important.  When Nixon once asked Sears to call [Republican National Chairman] Ray Bliss, I heard Sears talking to ‘Ray’ like he was ordering burgers from a kid who couldn’t get the order straight.”

Nixon won and Sears went to work at the White House handling political affairs.  Syndicated columnists Evans and Novak characterized him as “tough, bright, and gregarious” and noted that he had become “well-known and well-liked among the party pros.”

But they also pointed out that Sears made the “fatal error of crossing the man that younger Nixon workers had come to call El Supremo: John Mitchell, Nixon’s law partner, campaign manager, and attorney general.  In the White House, the two increasingly clashed over matters ranging from appointment of U.S. Attorneys to the Republican Party itself.  Sears was never fired but increasingly given little to do.  He resigned from the White House in October, 1969.

In the late 1970’s, John Sears admitted to friends he had a drinking problem and, assisted by his strong Roman Catholic faith, he swore off alcohol for life. Several years later, he finally jettisoned his ever-present pack of Viceroy Cigarettes.

John Sears brought brilliance and controversy wherever he went.  He’ll be remembered for both, as well as for being a political operative who always had time for reporters and made their days and jobs a little more interesting and fun. 

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
 

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When I heard Monday morning that John Sears died at age 79, I recalled the last time I spoke to the veteran Republican strategist. It was September of 2015, and we were discussing whether Joe Biden would make a bid for president the following year....
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2020-11-30
Monday, 30 March 2020 09:11 PM
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