Dick Schweiker died over the weekend. The former Pennsylvania senator had been recruited by John Sears, Ronald Reagan’s 1976 manager, and Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt, who chaired Reagan’s effort to unseat President Gerald Ford that year as Reagan’s running mate. Few of us in the campaign knew the man, but he was, based on his voting record in the Senate, and what everyone said, a “moderate” or even “liberal” senator who didn’t seem to many of us a very good fit.
The labels were never entirely accurate. In Congress and the Senate, Dick Schweiker had always been his own man. He was pro-labor, but opposed abortion and bussing while favoring prayer in the schools. He was also a staunch Second Amendment supporter who, when his Senate campaign manager urged him to support gun control, fired him. But to those who didn’t know him, the senator seemed far from the conservative one would expect a Ronald Reagan to pick.
But the Reagan campaign was in real trouble as we gathered one Saturday morning at Reagan’s Washington headquarters to figure out what might be done about the fact that Marty Plissner, CBS News’ political director, who had been keeping an accurate and very credible delegate count as the GOP’s National Convention approached, had informed higher-ups at the network that President Ford had the votes to win the nomination. If CBS made that call, the bottom would fall out of the Reagan challenge, so Sears believed we had to do something to, as he put it that morning, “throw the balls up in the air and make them do a recount.”
We could do that, Sears suggested, by convincing Reagan to announce Schweiker as his running mate. The senator’s best friend, Sears told us, was Drew Lewis, a Ford backer who was chairing the Pennsylvania delegation. Sears knew Lewis and thought naming Schweiker might allow us to pry him loose along with other Pennsylvania delegates then in the Ford camp. Even if the ploy failed, he said, it would buy us the time we so desperately needed to turn some other delegates around who were nominally committed to Ford but might switch to Reagan if they thought they could make the difference.
Lyn Nofziger finally asked, “What makes you think Schweiker would even consider such an offer?” Sears, a great reader of others, had an answer. “He’s a risk-taker. He got to the Senate by beating a supposedly unbeatable Democratic incumbent and no one will ever ask him again. Believe me,” Sears added, ” if we make the offer, he’ll accept.” Sears was right. Laxalt talked to the Pennsylvania senator, he met with our candidate and accepted the offer. He was announced as Reagan’s running mate. CBS had to go back for a recount and we got the time to either turn around some Pennsylvanians or look for support elsewhere. As it turned out, Lewis had given his word and in site of his friendship with Schweiker, proved unmovable, a trait that so impressed Reagan that he recruited him for a major role in his 1980 campaign and later made him secretary of transportation.
The selection resulted in a firestorm among many Southern delegates who considered him anathema or had him confused with the roundly despised Lowell Weicker. I was Reagan’s southern coordinator that year, so it fell to me to find a way to sell the Schweiker pick. The seriousness of the problem was immediately apparent. I had worked for months to get South Carolina Gov. Jim Edwards to free up some time to campaign for Reagan. He was in my office the morning we named Schweiker to discuss an upcoming campaign swing that was to begin the next morning. When I informed him of what we were about to announce, he looked at his watch and said, “I think I can still get a plane home.”
During the next few days, I accompanied Dick Schweiker and his wife Claire to Virginia, Mississippi and Alabama to meet with our most conservative delegates. He was charming, sincere and made more friends than one could count. He answered tough questions and emerged before it was over as something of a hero for his loyalty and willingness to go the extra mile for Reagan. Those who dismissed the ploy came to love the man. When Reagan finally made it to the White House four years later, he appointed his good friend Dick Schweiker secretary of health and human services. The former senator served Reagan and the cause he had embraced well and all who knew him will miss him.
• David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.