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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."

He says that he and Mrs. Reagan had their "ups and downs" but that he "wasn't having any particular problems with her or with Deaver. The guy I had problems with was Baker."

Mr. Nofziger says Mr. Reagan's greatest failure was "trusting people he should not have trusted. Ronald Reagan always thought if people worked for him, they would be loyal to him. But there were people who were more loyal to themselves than to Ronald Reagan."

Mr. Baker was a friend of fellow Texan former President George Bush and was Mr. Reagan's first White House chief of staff and then served as Treasury secretary in the second Reagan administration.

"He's a guy who's arrogant, who thought he knew better than the president," Mr. Nofziger says of Mr. Baker. "I don't think he's an honorable man. And you can quote me."

No visionary

Mr. Nofziger was that rarity of rarities -- a newspaper reporter and a card-carrying Republican -- when his publisher, Jim Copley, persuaded him to take a leave of absence from his newspaper job to help get Mr. Reagan elected governor of California.

Mr. Nofziger never fancied himself a theoretician of the American right, but saw the political potential in Mr. Reagan and devoted himself full time to making the former Hollywood star into a conservative force, first in California and then nationally. Thus, Mr. Nofziger was present at the key battles of conservatism's long march, first for control of the Republican Party, and then for the White House.

Yet he scoffs at the idea that he or anyone else in his generation of conservatives had a vision of where the United States should be in the 21st century.

"Was I looking down the road and saying I want America to be thus-and-so in 2001? Of course not. Neither was anybody else," he says.

Nor did he imagine when he became Mr. Reagan's communications director in Sacramento, Calif., in the 1960s that the Republican Party, within a few decades, would control the White House, both houses of Congress, a majority of governorships and a majority of state legislatures.

"I wasn't even thinking about that," he says. "All I wanted to do was make Ronald Reagan president."

In the decades since the Reagan years, Mr. Nofziger has walked a fine line between party loyalty and conservative-movement principles, managing to help candidates running to the right of the party establishment without rupturing relations with the GOP.

During Mr. Bush's 1992 re-election campaign, Mr. Nofziger agreed to campaign for Mr. Bush in New Hampshire but not to attack his Republican challenger, Pat Buchanan.

Mr. Buchanan is "a friend of mine," Mr. Nofziger says. "But I don't think Pat is as libertarian as I am. I don't think he wants more government; he just wants different government. ... He's a protectionist."

In 2000, Mr. Nofziger helped magazine publisher Steve Forbes' campaign for the Republican presidential nomination campaign instead of aligning with the current President Bush.

"Steve was more conservative and I liked his approach to government better," Mr. Nofziger says. "I always assumed George W. would be a moderate Republican because his old man was a moderate Republican, and I'm not a moderate Republican."

Did the younger Mr. Bush turn out to be something else? "Oh, he's more conservative than his father, " Mr. Nofziger says.

He defends Mr. Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq, saying faulty intelligence -- and not the president -- was to blame for misconstruing the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's weapons programs.

But Mr. Nofziger parts company with Vice President Dick Cheney's stated desire to get Saddam out of power in order to spread democracy in the Middle East.

"I'm not a great believer in spreading democracy, because I don't think you can spread democracy," Mr. Nofziger says. "People have to want it themselves."

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