“Politics is never a science,” Stu Spencer likes to say. “It’s always an art.”
While Richard M. Nixon--the first Californian elected President--is credited with bringing the state into the political mainstream, it was Stuart K. Spencer who developed the modern California political campaign style, made it into an art form and exported it nationwide. As the dean of Western political consultants, Spencer helped make Ronald Reagan look engaged and informed, Gerald R. Ford appear deft and agile, and Nelson A. Rockefeller seem like just one of the boys.
Raised in Alhambra, Spencer, 67, worked his first campaign as a volunteer for Gov. Earl Warren’s reelection in 1950. By 1960, he decided to go professional and, with partner Bill Roberts, formed a full-service political-consulting firm-- the model for dozens of campaign-management-for-hire companies. Spencer-Roberts, working for Rockefeller, came within a few thousand votes of defeating Barry M. Goldwater in the 1964 California GOP presidential primary. Goldwater was so impressed he recommended the team to Reagan when the actor decided to run for governor. Spencer-Roberts helped Reagan win in 1966 and again in 1970--using a sophisticated and expensive media-driven campaign for the sometimes less-than-precise stump style of their candidate.
1976 found Reagan facing President Ford in the primary, and found Spencer working for Ford. Ford emerged as the GOP nominee, but was trailing his opponent, Jimmy Carter, by more than 30 points. With Spencer managing the general-election campaign, Ford closed the gap--Carter won by just two points. Four years later, Spencer-for-hire was back in the Reagan camp, and served as a trusted adviser to President Reagan through both his terms.
In 1988, Spencer had the unenviable task of being vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle’s handler--he’s credited with quashing attempts to drop Quayle from the ticket and with devising strategies that helped minimize Quayle’s proclivity toward gaffes.
Spencer is now semi-retired, living with his wife, Barbara, in Palm Desert, “handling a few commercial clients and playing a lot of golf.” His daughter, Karen, works as a political consultant. On the day Nixon was buried in Yorba Linda, Spencer talked about the man who inspired his interest in politics, and the role of Californians in the national GOP and the political life of the nation.
Question: You once talked about Ronald Reagan as being a one-of-a-kind President--how there was Reagan, and then there was everybody else. What about Richard Nixon?
Answer: He was a good politician. I’ve always maintained that he would have been a better manager than a candidate. He thought a lot about the campaign--what you had to do to get from here to there, all the tactics. He was very good at those things, and many candidates don’t even think about them, or concern themselves with them.
The difference between Reagan and Nixon is that Nixon had to work for everything he got, and he really had to work hard. He was a 24-hour-a-day politician, from day one. Ronald Reagan was more of a natural. He had another career as an actor. He was by far the superior candidate in terms of his ability to communicate.
But Nixon had this tremendous work ethic. There was no quit in him. And, of course, he had a brilliance in the area of foreign affairs. That was his pet, that was what he liked, that was what he spent most of his time thinking about, and he did quite well in that area. And when it came to campaigning, he was fully involved, and he worked hard.
Q: What do you remember about his early career as a young California Republican?
A: After World War II, there were all these veterans who got involved in the political process--many of them Republicans--and Nixon was definitely the leader of that group. His work in the Senate--his being chosen as vice president--meant we had a whole decade, or two decades, of young California Republicans who learned everything they knew in the Nixon school of politics.
Q: You tell a story about listening to the Nixon-Kennedy debates while driving in your VW bug, and thinking Nixon had won. How did that open your eyes to the power of television in political campaigns?
A: Going into the debate, Nixon was considered--and was--an excellent debater: good on his feet, quick, knew how to make his point. And Kennedy didn’t have near the experience in this arena that Nixon had. But when you saw them on the tube, it wasn’t what they were saying, it was what they looked like. So listening on the radio, I thought Nixon won. But everybody who saw it figured Kennedy was the winner. It was basically two things--body language and looks.
That was my first lesson about how powerful the medium was and how it has to be handled very carefully. Makeup, posture, all those cosmetic things are really important when you are on TV. So we started finding people who were on the cutting edge of television. We kept those people around, talking about new techniques, new ways to use the tube. Then with Ronald Reagan--he knew how to massage television--nobody had to tell him anything.
Q: What, if anything, is unique about California Republicans? And how have they contributed to the GOP as a whole?
A: The second question is easy. Just think of California as a nation. We are the sixth or seventh biggest economic power in the world. We have diversity, ethnically and politically. What other state would have elected Ronald Reagan governor for eight years, and then elect Jerry Brown? That’s diversity.
Every governor since Earl Warren has been somehow considered as a presidential or vice-presidential candidate. California is a big ingredient in the political recipe when you are running for President of the United States. So our politicians are players on the national scene--they’re consulted and considered.
The movement of the (presidential) primary--up to March from June--will affect the nominating process in both parties. We haven’t played a big role in that process in the past. You’re going to see more candidates here, more often. So that makes the state more important than ever before.
Q: But what about the idea of the uniqueness of California Republicans?
A: Oh, that’s vastly overplayed. California is a good reflection of the entire country. We have agriculture here, ethnic minorities, big cities--we have everything here. If you continue to think of it as a nation, it’s many states--you’ve got the Central Valley, the Southern Periphery--that’s everything outside of Los Angeles County--and the Bay Area. Each one of those can require a different campaign. And California is a media state. Just like everywhere else, you’ve got to be on television to make your case.
Q: Speaking of television, you’ve said Reagan was the perfect candidate for the “media state.” Tell me how you created his image--the citizen-politician.
A: After eight years of Pat Brown, there was a sense that people wanted change. Reagan had no political experience and we needed to make him believable, so people could see him making the transition from citizen to governor. That was the theme we stuck to in that campaign, because the big question was, “Does he know anything about governing?” He had to get past that point before he could even be considered as a candidate.
Q: You’re credited with developing a lot of scientific techniques and applying them to campaigning--use of data bases and computers, new polling techniques. Yet, you always stress that campaigning is art, not science.
A: Yes. You have to master the modern techniques, but those are not the things that always help you make the decision to go left, right, north or south in a campaign. The art comes in making decisions about what your issues will be, and what your basic strategies will be. You can’t just sit back, read polling data and say, “We gotta be for this, we gotta be for that.” People change overnight. The best candidates I’ve ever seen are people who have a firm belief in something. That’s what you have to work off, and it’s an instinctive business. You’ve got to have those political instincts, and that’s what makes it an art form.
Q: Jim Baker claims you mapped out the entire 1976 Ford campaign on a matchbook. Is that true?
A: They rib me all the time--I’m not a paper person. In essence, he’s right, but it wasn’t a matchbook, it was a few scraps of paper. The point is, it’s not all that complicated, plus you don’t need all that paper floating around out there when you’re involved in a presidential campaign in a city like Washington.
Q: You’ve always avoided Washington. You’ve turned down jobs in government, you go to the city, do your job and get out. What is it about that town?
A: I enjoy Washington; it’s a fascinating town. But I do not want to be involved in the day-to-day machinations of the city, which, to a great degree, are phony. They worry about things there that the rest of the country doesn’t even think about. Whatever the Washington Post says that morning is the topic of the day, and I don’t see what’s in the Washington Post that morning in any other paper in America. So you can quickly lose touch with what’s going on in the country. I tell all my younger peers, “When you get your job done, get out of town, go back to where you came from and keep your roots.”
Q: OK, let’s talk about California then. In 1989, you made a now-famous comment to Pete Wilson--advising him to stay in the Senate, because California’s problems were so overwhelming no one could govern it. Just last year, Gov. Wilson seemed to have little chance of reelection, but these days his boat’s floating a little higher in the water. Are you willing to amend your assessment?
A: It’s still a tough state to govern, and I think Pete Wilson has done a hell of a job under tough circumstances. He’s a man of tremendous tenacity--he’s a fighter. Luckily, the economy is getting better. Plus, he’s isolated a few themes--crime and immigration--which are very front-burner issues with the people of California. He’s taking strong stands on those issues, and that helps him in terms of his perception as a leader. I think last year was more crucial for him than 1994. He could have lost the governorship in 1993--couldn’t have won it, but could have lost it. But he stayed alive, he fought and he stayed in the race.
That, in itself, is a victory. If he’s reelected, he will become a very big player on the national scene.
Q: Dan Quayle is beginning a new offensive--writing a book and now giving interviews and showing up on TV. What’s his political future?
A: I don’t think it’s good at all. I think his future is in Indiana. I think he could run for anything in Indiana, and win. But I don’t like his chances for the presidency.
Q: What’s the state of the GOP?
A: I think both parties are weaker than they have been in years because of the ability of candidates to go around them, by using the media. But I think in terms of basic, physical conservatism, and what people expect from the Republican Party, I think it’s pretty stable.
Q: As former President Nixon is laid to rest, what personal thoughts do you have?
A: He got me interested in politics. He encouraged me to get involved in the process. He and his people introduced me to a profession that is probably one of the only things I was ever good at in my life. So speaking from a personal level, I have him to thank for that--for giving me a career.*