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Rogan's Recollections

(And Occasional Historical Observations)

Fifty Years Ago Today: I Meet for the First Time Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, and Barry Goldwater

Here I am shaking hands with "Mr. Conservative," Senator Barry Goldwater, 50 years ago tonight, May 13, 1972

 

I was a freshman high school student in the San Francisco Bay Area when the California Republican Party held its annual state convention at the downtown St. Francis Hotel. A week earlier, and with youthful chutzpah, I played a longshot and called their office. When the press secretary came on the line, I told him that I wanted to cover the event for my school's FM radio station. (Although I had no connection to the station, I took the liberty of appointing myself a reporter to get both a press pass and the story.) To my surprise, he agreed. "No problem," he told me. "You can pick up your credentials at the hotel that morning. I'll put you on the media list." Sometimes, brashness pays off.

 

On Saturday, May 13, 1972, I arrived at the hotel in the early morning. Several hundred protesters had already assembled across the street in Union Square chanting profanities and slogans against the Republicans in general and the Vietnam War in particular. Their presence brought a ring of police encircling the hotel.  After picking up my press pass and meal tickets at the credentials desk (the Republicans paid for lunch and dinner! To a school kid, this largesse, standing alone, warranted serious consideration of my future partisan loyalty….), I walked over to Union Square to investigate the protest. I found myself in the middle of the throng just as the protest turned ugly. Radicals attacked police with rocks and bottles. Officers in full riot gear waded into the mob to restore order. I turned on my amateur home movie camera to shoot footage of the fracas, but before I could begin filming a rock thrown from the crowd bounced off my lens and knocked the camera out of my hands. My boldness at age 14 matched my stupidity—I picked up my camera to try shooting again. A policeman who noticed both my press pass and my age grabbed my arm and hustled me back to the safety of the hotel.

 

I made my way into the Grand Ballroom and took a seat at the press table in time to see Governor Reagan arrive for his opening remarks. The delegates jumped to their feet and cheered when he appeared. I positioned myself alongside the stage. From this angle, I witnessed Reagan's "trick" that his longtime press secretary Lyn Nofziger explained to me two decades later when we had become friends: "Reagan wore contact lenses. Just before he entered a ballroom for a speech, he'd pop out one of his contacts and leave in the other. He usually spoke from 4x6 index cards that he carried in his outer suit jacket pocket. When the emcee introduced him, he walked boldly to the stage and waved with both hands. He wanted everyone to see that he carried no speech. When he got behind the lectern where no one could see, he slid one hand into his outer coat pocket and retrieved the cards. Here was the trick: when he gave his speech, he looked at his notes with the one eye wearing the lens, and he looked at the audience with the other eye. It gave the illusion that he spoke extemporaneously and maintained complete eye contact with everyone. I've never known any other person who could do that."

 

After urging his fellow California Republicans to work hard for President Richard Nixon's reelection that year, he accused Democratic presidential candidate (and eventual Party nominee) George McGovern of being "quite explicit in his plans for regimenting all of us into the ranks of a social order where individuality will have no place…. The domination of our lives is presented to us as liberalism." He pulled out a document and said that the modern Democrat platform reads almost identically to what he held in his hands. He rattled off several key planks, such as nationalizing businesses and focusing less on the individual and more on the collective good. "What I have just read to you," he declared, "was the platform of Germany's Nazi Party." Then, referring to the rioters across the street, he added that their activities were "nothing more than a revival of Hitler's Storm Troopers."

 

When Reagan concluded his speech, a thicket of security agents moved in to whisk him out of the hotel. I had hoped to meet him, but given this heavy guard and the crush of fans around him, the odds appeared insurmountable. Resigned to missing my chance, I moved to the far side of the ballroom to avoid the people surging toward him.

 

As Reagan's detail made for the exit, the governor turned and reversed course suddenly. I looked up and saw him coming toward me. I don't recall if I stepped forward or someone shoved me, but I found myself bounced inside his security wedge and standing next to him. There stood Ronald Reagan, big as life, smiling and extending his hand toward me. I shook it and asked for an autograph.

 

"Sure," he said. "Walk with me while I sign it." As we moved through the hotel lobby, a phalanx of press photographers kept their cameras trained on us. Although I never saw a picture of us taken together from that day, in a newspaper morgue file somewhere is a picture depicting my first meeting with the man who went on to change the destiny of the world, and who also had a profound impact on my own calling as I described in my book, "And Then I Met…."

 

I walked with Reagan to his waiting motorcade where he handed back the autograph, shook my hand again, wished me luck in school, and then he climbed into his limousine. Throughout the rest of the day, convention delegates kept asking in awe, "Aren't you the boy that I saw walking with the governor this morning?"

 

• • •

 

The next scheduled event was the luncheon speech of Senator Bob Dole (R-KS), who at the time also served as chairman of the Republican National Committee. With an hour to kill before Dole's appearance, I returned to Union Square and watched the mob's antics. When another scuffle broke out with police and more rocks began flying, I didn't need another police officer to push me back inside the hotel. I retreated on my own.

 

Workers had decorated the Grand Ballroom for the luncheon with flags, bunting, and elephant centerpieces on each table.  Dole arrived as lunch ended. He acknowledged the standing ovation as he moved to the dais, and then began brief remarks that mirrored Reagan's earlier comments by attacking the Democrats and extolling the Nixon Administration, His greatest applause came when he blasted the New York Times for their daily "attempted media sabotage" of Nixon's Vietnam policies.

 

I met Dole at the end of the luncheon. He asked me how I liked his speech.  Impressed with his fiery presentation, I said, "Senator, if you keep making speeches like that you'll be president someday."

 

"No danger of that!" he said.

 

A few minutes later, I wandered into the hotel lobby where vendors set up tables filled with Nixon campaign items for sale.  As a collector of political campaign memorabilia, I was inspecting swag when Dole joined me. I told him about my collection and that I planned to add to it with some of these things. He picked up a cigarette lighter emblazoned with a GOP elephant on the side, examined it, and then put it back. "I was going to buy this for you," he quipped, "but I don't want you to take up smoking!"

 

After saying goodbye, I watched as Dole exited the hotel unescorted. He walked by the demonstrators across the street.

 

Not one of them recognized him.

 

• • •

 

U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) didn't invent the modern conservative political movement, but his presidential campaign brought it out of the shadows and started its march to the mainstream. As the 1964 Republican presidential nominee, he railed against socialism, communism, New Deal liberalism, and the welfare state while arguing for a return to constitutional principles of individual liberty and self-government. Although he led the GOP that year to a landslide defeat against President Lyndon B. Johnson, his army of young conservative warriors in that race learned how to organize, fight, and win. The DNA of Barry Goldwater's 1964 loss ran through the 1980 victory of his ideological heir, Ronald Reagan. Eight years before Reagan's triumphant march to the White House, at this 1972 GOP cavalcade, he remained the warm-up act; Goldwater came as the headliner.

 

I received an unexpected treat that evening when I returned to the ballroom for the Goldwater dinner and recognized the evening's emcee, Edgar Bergen, seated alone at the head table. Born in 1903, the ventriloquist toured the vaudeville circuits with his dummy, Charlie McCarthy. Moving to radio in the 1930s, he and Charlie starred in one of the top-rated comedy shows for 20 years. His stage, radio, television, and motion picture career stretched over 60 years, and he co-starred alongside Hollywood luminaries ranging from W.C. Fields to Marilyn Monroe.

 

When I introduced myself to Bergen, he said that he was surprised to have a fan recognize him who was born long after his heyday. I told him that I was a longtime aficionado of the Golden Age of Radio, and I asked if he had a favorite memory from those days.

 

"Well," he said, "I once caused a national panic by taking a commercial break during a 1938 broadcast." He explained that his top-rated NBC show competed for the 8:00 p.m. time slot with CBS's "Mercury Theatre on the Air" starring Orson Welles. During Bergen's broadcast, he broke for a commercial midway through the program. Many in his radio audience turned the dial during the lull. Those listeners that tuned to CBS heard Welles's adaptation of "The War of the Worlds" already in progress. Because Welles presented the drama in a modern "breaking news" format, thousands believed the fictional bulletins reporting that an invading army of Martians had landed in New Jersey. As one writer noted, latecomers to the Welles broadcast "greatly misinterpreted what they heard. The next day, newspapers nationwide reported that thousands of people across the country had taken the fake news to be true and fled their homes in terror—grabbing firearms, putting on gas masks, and clogging the highways in a mad rush to escape imaginary Martians."[1] "War of the Worlds" remains one of the most famous radio broadcasts in history, and by cutting to a scheduled commercial break, Bergen added to his already substantial contribution to radio history.

 

Just as I returned to the press table, people in the rear of the ballroom started shouting and cheering. Barry Goldwater had arrived, and the audience reception equaled that given to a conquering military hero. He walked to the head table, greeted Bergen, waved to the crowd, and then motioned for everyone to take their seats.

 

While the waiters served dinner, Bergen caught my eye and beckoned me to the head table. He introduced me to Goldwater, who said how pleased he was to see a young person attending the GOP conference. I told him that when I was a small boy, his presidential campaign was the first political race of which I became aware. "Well," he laughed, "I'm sorry that's the race that introduced you to politics!"

 

Taking a sip from his water glass, he continued, "I didn't plan it to go the way it went. In 1964, I had planned to run against Jack Kennedy. Kennedy and I understood each other. We even talked about traveling the country together on the same plane and debating at various cities. We would have run a hell of a campaign."

 

He said that he had known Lyndon Johnson since their days together in the Senate, but his fondness for President Kennedy did not extend to JFK's successor. He called Johnson a contemptable politician who would do whatever it took to win: "He had no principles. He wrapped himself in Kennedy's martyrdom and the voters bought it. I don't think Abe Lincoln could have won in 1964 if he had run against Johnson—especially running less than a year after the assassination. Once Kennedy died, I knew I had no chance of winning."

 

I asked if he might ever try again for the White House. "No," he said, "I'm too old now."

 

After savoring these few uninterrupted minutes with Goldwater, I noticed that other people now lined up behind me to meet him. Before saying goodbye, I asked a final question: What was it was like to be the presidential nominee of his Party?

 

He grinned. "Son," he replied, "the main lesson I learned from the experience is this—you've never been beaten in your life until you've been beaten for the presidency of the United States."

 

• • •

 

Ronald Reagan served as the 40th president of the United States from 1981 to 1989. After leaving office, he wrote his memoirs, oversaw the construction of his presidential library, and maintained an active speaking and travel schedule until doctors diagnosed him with Alzheimer's disease in 1994. Over the next decade, he faded gracefully from the public scene. When he died at age 93 on June 5, 2004, the world mourned the passing of one of that generation's most consequential leaders.

 

After his 1964 presidential campaign defeat, Barry Goldwater returned to the Senate in 1968, where he continued serving until his retirement in 1987. He remained involved politically until sidelined by a massive stroke in 1996, which was followed by an Alzheimer's diagnosis. He died at age 89 on May 29, 1998.

 

When I met Bob Dole in 1972, I told him about my campaign button collection. A quarter-century later, our images appeared on a "Dole for President-Rogan for Congress" campaign button. He campaigned for me in each of my three congressional races, and he became a treasured friend. My prediction that one day he would be president fell short, but he did become his Party's standard bearer in the 1996 presidential campaign. In his post-political years, he enjoyed a varied career, which included lobbyist, author, and television commercial pitchman. The man who didn't want me to start smoking as a kid died of lung cancer at age 98 on December 5, 2021.

 

On September 21, 1978, comedian and ventriloquist Edgar Bergen announced his retirement after 60 years in show business. Nine days later, he played his farewell engagement at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas and received six standing ovations during his performance. Before taking his final bow, he closed his career by telling the audience, "Every vaudeville act must have an opening and a closing, so I'll pack up my jokes and my little friends and now say goodbye." Later that evening, he died in his sleep at age 75. His wooden sidekick for over five decades, Charlie McCarthy, now sits on display at the Smithsonian Institution.

 

 [1] A. Brad Schwartz, Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles's War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News (2015), 7.

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