- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 9, 2015

It was early 1965. Barry Goldwater had lost to Lyndon Johnson the November before in a landslide that prompted the established media to declare the conservative movement dead in its cradle and the Republican establishment turned its attention once again to moderates. In California, an all-but-washed-up actor had emerged as the star of the Goldwater campaign. Ronald Reagan was being courted by conservatives in the state to run against the incumbent Democratic governor, but as he delayed making a decision, many California Republicans convinced that victory required a moderate, experienced pol were lining up behind San Francisco Mayor George Christopher.

Among them were Mike Deaver and Peter Hannaford, two young activists who had yet to meet, but would play a major role in the former actor’s future. Mr. Hannaford, a California-born PR man, cast his first vote not for a Republican, but for Adlai Stevenson in 1956 because he was impressed by the man’s facility with words. Within a few years, however, he became an avid reader of Bill Buckley’s National Review, attracted not just by Buckley’s facility with the language but with the ideas he championed, and counted himself a conservative. He voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964,

Mr. Hannaford had never met the former actor in whose life he was destined to play such an important role until February when he ran into Reagan at a county Republican event, spent a few minutes talking to him and went away thinking, as Mr. Hannaford later put it, “A nice man. It’s too bad he can’t be elected to anything.” Mr. Hannaford was already committed to Christopher, but when Reagan won the primary both he and Deaver signed on and neither ever looked back.

Mr. Hannaford served Reagan when governor, wrote or collaborated on many of his newspaper columns, speeches and radio commentaries, served as his issues and research director in 1976, and took on any assignment the governor, private citizen and president tossed his way. Without Mr. Hannaford’s talent and calm counsel, one wonders if the former actor would have gone as far as he did. The two remained friends until Reagan’s death.

Prior to his 1976 challenge to then-President Gerald Ford, the late Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina asked Reagan how he felt about the negotiations underway to transfer ownership of the Panama Canal to the government of Panama. Reagan wasn’t familiar with the issue, but Mr. Hannaford dug into it for him and his opposition to the transfer eventually became a rallying call of his campaign. At first, as he talked about it, it evoked little real response and at several points early in his 1976 effort, he considered dropping it from his stump speech. Mr. Hannaford, however, kept convincing him to leave it in until one day in Florida as he delivered his speech and came to the section on the canal, the crowd went wild. Reagan already knew the applause lines in his speech and was so taken aback by the reaction to the issue that he stumbled for a few seconds as he went on. The issue fast became a symbolic reaction to the complicated foreign policy debates of the day and had a huge impact on domestic politics even though the treaty was eventually ratified by the Senate.

When most men would have simply retired, Mr. Hannaford left Washington after the Reagan years to buy and edit a small-town paper in Eureka, Calif., to continue servicing a few longtime clients and to write op-ed articles for this paper and others. He was always a delight to work with and his ideas were always sound.

Ronald Reagan’s impact on the GOP, the conservative movement of which he was a part and the generation of conservatives he energized remain with us, but many of those who stood at his side as he fought to reduce the size of the federal government, defeat the Soviet Empire and restore pride in the nation he loved are gone.

Peter Hannaford died unexpectedly over the weekend, and he will be missed by all who knew him.

David A. Keene is opinion editor at The Washington Times.

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