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A not-so-mellow skeptic sees a GOP with no focus
Lyn Nofziger, at 81, is almost who he was at 41 — a plain-talking, slightly disheveled California skeptic. He’s a newspaperman who became the plain-talking, slightly disheveled top aide to Ronald Reagan, from the Gipper’s 1966 campaign for California governor through his first year in the White House 15 years later.
With shirt collar still unbuttoned and tie still loosened, the goateed Mr. Nofziger has been lobbying for a living and, on the side, writing opinion columns and authoring Western novels.
He has opinions aplenty, but they are not likely to be confused with Republican or conservative talking points. He is a Reaganite but not a Reagan worshipper, a Republican but not a party apologist, a conservative who thinks the word is largely meaningless.
Of Mr. Reagan, he says: “Our problem is we are trying to make a saint out of a man who certainly wasn’t perfect. But he was a unique president. He believed in three things: God, the American people and himself. And that’s kind of unique.”
The Nofziger take on what’s happened to Republicans in the post-Reagan era is not what anyone would expect from a Capitol Hill lobbyist, let alone one who was also the first political director in the Reagan White House and attended daily senior staff meetings with Mr. Reagan, Edwin Meese III, Judge William Clark, James A. Baker III, Martin Anderson, Richard Allen and other marquee names of the Reagan administration.
“They’ve been in power too long,” Mr. Nofziger says of Republicans. “Any time you put any political party in power for too long, it becomes corrupt. It loses its focus. It forgets why it came there.”
When it comes to the so-called neoconservatives surrounding the president, he says, “‘Conservative’ is a word that doesn’t mean anything. It can mean what you want it to mean.”
But then he serves up a definition that he says he and Mr. Reagan were using before they met each other in 1965.
“To me, conservative means believing in a minimum amount of government and a maximum amount of freedom — and keeping government out of people’s lives and business — and leaving people alone,” Mr. Nofziger says. “I recognize you have to have national defense and have to finance the government. But government does not have to be the be-all and end-all.”
White House battles
Mr. Nofziger served a highly ideological president in a White House that, in Mr. Nofziger’s assessment, was a remarkably mixed bag when it came to aides and advisers.
“I am and was ideological,” he says. “So was Ed Meese, in a different kind of way. And Bill Clark, and before he came in, Dick Allen. Martin Anderson was certainly ideological. But certainly not Baker, not Mike Deaver, not David Gergen, not — well when you come right down to it, the people who were really ideological were Martin Anderson and me and maybe somebody else who doesn’t come to mind.”
Feuding among White House factions was a favorite Beltway topic during the Reagan years, and has continued to fascinate historians. Mr. Nofziger’s take: “You split that senior staff into two parties: the Reagan people and the Baker people.”
When Mr. Nofziger departed the White House a year and two days into Mr. Reagan’s first term, the word on the street was that first lady Nancy Reagan had pushed him out. Another rumor had it that Mr. Deaver — intensely disliked by conservatives — and some other top Reagan aides forced him out and used Mrs. Reagan’s antipathy toward him as the cover story.
“Let me tell you, nobody could have gotten rid of me if I had wanted to stay,” Mr. Nofziger says. “I will guarantee you that, because Ronald Reagan would not have let them get rid of me.”
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