The Magazine

The Candidate and the Briefing Book

From the February 5, 2001 issue: His enemies were not the only ones Ronald Reagan surprised.

Feb 5, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 20 • By JEFFREY BELL
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Editor's note: A look back at President Reagan, from the February 5, 2001 issue of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

Ronald Reagan, 1911 - 2004

IT WAS 1975, and I found myself in the middle of a struggle of wills between John Sears and Ronald Reagan. In retrospect, this may sound interesting, but at the time it was anything but enjoyable. Sears was the most brilliant political strategist I've ever known. Reagan was the greatest man I've ever known, though to be honest I had no inkling of this yet.

Not for the first or last time, Sears and Reagan were furious at each other, so furious that I didn't know what to do or what to make of it.

The issue was the briefing book Sears had instructed me to write for Reagan, to prepare him for his upcoming primary challenge to President Gerald Ford. I was writing it, but Reagan wasn't reading it. This was not a morale builder for me, but to Sears it was infuriating. Sears's everyday demeanor was droll and understated, but when he was angry, most people who knew him found him frightening, even on occasion Reagan, who normally seemed afraid of no one.

To Sears and to me, the gold standard of presidential politics was the Nixon campaign of 1968. Objectively speaking, that campaign and that candidate had made quite a few mistakes. But from the perspective of 1975, it was the only time in almost a half century that the Republican party had taken over the White House without running a war hero. And it was our formative experience.

In 1968, Sears at a precocious 27 was a top-level Nixon political operative. At 24, I was a lowly research assistant, just out of the Army, running errands for Pat Buchanan and a policy/issues team that included (a partial list) Alan Greenspan, Richard Allen, William Safire, Martin Anderson, Ray Price, Richard Whalen, plus (junior aides like me) John Lehman, Kevin Phillips, Ken Khachigian, and (following Nixon's defeat of Nelson Rockefeller) George Gilder and a handful of other liberal Republicans.

All of these staffers, and others, contributed to Nixon's briefing book, which was maintained and constantly updated by Buchanan. The briefing book, written in question-and-answer format, was enormous, of biblical proportions, growing and evolving as the campaign progressed. The reason so much effort was put into it is that Nixon wanted it that way. He spent countless hours poring over it, and knew it well, because he never wanted to be surprised by the nastiest question his worst enemy could think of. His writers were kept energized by Nixon's commitment to the briefing book, which meant that at any time, and without warning, they were likely to hear the former vice president using the exact words they had written to fend off somebody's question. Those words had better be accurate and defensible, or the writers knew they might find themselves invited into the crewcut, uncompassionate presence of campaign chief of staff H. R. Haldeman, Nixon's designated bad cop.

Now, eight years later, post-Watergate spending limits had arrived, and what Nixon's awe-inspiring stable of writers and policy advisers had labored to produce had fallen largely to me, as research director of Citizens for Reagan, with help from a corporal's guard of outside volunteers. Aside from a willingness to write in an authoritative tone about subjects I knew little or nothing about--a necessity in these matters--my main virtue in Sears's eyes was that I had watched Buchanan continually update Nixon's briefing book and therefore had some idea of how the process was supposed to work.

But Reagan seldom looked at the book. To Sears, this meant one thing: Reagan was intellectually lazy and would be unprepared for what awaited him in his challenge to Ford.

Sears had earlier been picked to manage the anticipated presidential campaign of Vice President Spiro Agnew, and I was hoping to work on the issues staff, when a scandal erupted that eventually forced Agnew to resign his office in October 1973 to avoid an indictment for bribery. Sears had therefore shot his way into the leadership of Reagan's campaign against Ford quite late, and now his worst fears about the aging Hollywood actor, the very fears that had caused him to prefer Agnew as the next conservative standard-bearer, seemed in danger of being realized. Reagan was too much a lightweight to bother to read his own briefing book. The liberal press and Ford strategist Stuart Spencer would combine to eat Reagan alive.