One night in 1962, the titans of Orange County industry sat around a dinner table, screening their wives' Christmas card lists.
Just days earlier, Richard Nixon, weakened after a vicious primary fight against right-wing members of the John Birch Society, had suffered a humiliating loss to Democrat Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Sr. in the gubernatorial election.
In an act of near desperation, these corporate leaders were looking for wealthy Republican men to bring a business-like order and moderation to local politics by funding their own candidates. Together they created what would soon be named the Lincoln Club of Orange County.
"Any of you know Joe so-and-so?" they asked around the table, according to Robert F. Beaver, who was there with familiar names such as Knott and Fluor. "You don't know anything bad about him, do you?"
Nearly 34 years later, the Lincoln Club is still trying to maintain political order by selecting and funding conservative Republican candidates. But internal squabbles that have put club members' money on opposing sides of political campaigns and the rise of wealthy and powerful Republicans who are not beholden to the club have reduced its clout considerably.
"I have a lot of friends in the Lincoln Club and have great respect for them," said Ken Khachigian, a former Reagan White House speech writer who now heads the Bob Dole for President campaign in California. "I also think that the stories about the Lincoln Club being the political boss in Orange County or that you have to have [its backing] to succeed--those are overdone."
Republican caucuses in the Legislature have strengthened their roles in raising money and recruiting candidates, eclipsing the Lincoln Club's influence. State Senate Republican Leader Rob Hurtt of Garden Grove--himself a wealthy backer of conservative candidates--was elected and became a legislative leader without the club's money. Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle, also of Garden Grove, had little support from the club.
The ability of Lincoln Club members to give money to political candidates--the main source of the organization's power as a forerunner of the political action committee--has declined, along with the fortunes of local land developers who were once the backbone of the group. Politicians say the Lincoln Club is now just another special interest group on their required list of rounds.
Lincoln Club members traditionally were counted on to give federal, state and local campaigns $1 million to $2 million every two years, in addition to their annual dues, which also go to political candidates and organizations.
But of the top 10 Orange County donors to federal campaigns from 1991 to 1995, only two were Lincoln Club members, according to a study conducted for The Times by the Virginia-based Campaign Study Group. They were businessman George Argyros, who gave only to Republican committees, and the Irvine Co., which contributes to Republican and Democratic candidates and owns a company membership in the club.
That is a dramatic change from past years, when Lincoln Club members dominated contributor lists. During the 1988 campaign, for example, five members belonged to an elite national group of Republicans who gave at least $100,000 toward the party's "Team 100," which supports GOP candidates for federal office. By 1995, only Argyros had maintained his membership.
Still, the Lincoln Club remains an influential force. With a less exclusive list of 350 members--five times its original roster--the organization now relies on a broader base of lawyers, auto dealers, small-business operators and others, instead of a handful of wealthy land developers.
Lincoln Club members are still among the top givers to state and local candidates, but land developers, hurt by sizable losses, have been overshadowed by religious conservative multimillionaire Howard F. Ahmanson Jr. and Hurtt, owner of a Garden Grove container company.
Earlier this year, Lincoln Club membership was expanded and annual dues were raised to $1,500 to maintain the club's role in campaign fund-raising, leaders said. Lincoln Club dues alone accounted for about $1 million in campaign contributions from 1991 to 1995.
Prominent county Republicans, such as Santa Ana businessman Doy Henley and Newport Beach developer William Buck Johns III, remain top club leaders. Instead of just giving money, the club now conducts polls, interviews candidates and takes positions on local issues.
As a result, the club is still seen as an important GOP player, even if it no longer lives up to the stature it once had.
"I think people gave us that clout. I don't think we ever aspired to it or felt we were deserving of it," said Beaver, who served as the club's treasurer for 28 years.
One Friday each month, 25 members of the club's board of directors sit at a horseshoe-shaped table behind the closed doors of the Santa Ana Country Club, consume a breakfast of eggs, bacon and toast and enjoy an equal fill of politics from an obliging officeholder or campaign strategist.
The Lincoln Club's founding president, industrialist Arnold O. Beckman, wanted members to join for the good of the club, not for ego or personal gain. He also wanted members to represent various viewpoints of the GOP, so that the club would not be ruled by one particular ideology.
The guiding tenet was free enterprise--important to club leaders who shared rags-to-riches stories.
Beckman, the son of a blacksmith who founded Beckman Instruments Inc. of Fullerton, grew up on a farm in Illinois, "the land of Lincoln," for which the club was named. Co-founder Walter Knott and his wife, Cordelia, sold chicken dinners on the farm that would later become one of Orange County's tourist attractions. The current president, Dale Dykema, whose firm handles foreclosures for mortgage companies, is the son of a Michigan bookkeeper who survived the Great Depression by working for an ice company.
For about two decades, the club they created was for gentlemen only. The first female member, Athalie Clark, the late Irvine Ranch heiress, joined about a dozen years ago. Today, there are 51 women in the 350-member club, and only a handful of minorities.
Except for John Wayne or a resigned former President Richard Nixon, applicants once languished on the waiting list before being accepted. Today, the club actively recruits new members.
Preachers and politicians were not welcome out of fear they would impose their moral or political ideology on the group. Today, Stephen Sheldon, who helps his father, the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, run the conservative Traditional Values Coalition, is a member in good standing, as is Irvine Councilwoman Christina Shea.
But one tradition endures: There is no tolerance for betrayal or for those who are not like-minded.
One board member was expelled for criticizing Nixon's historic trip to China. "When I told him he was no longer a member, he gave all of our records to the press," recalled Beaver, who has written an account of the club's history.
By 1968, when Nixon captured the White House, the Lincoln Club came to rule local politics. It helped elect--and reelect--Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi, most of the county supervisors for the last 20 years, and Gov. Pete Wilson. It supported Measure M, the 1990 increase in the county sales tax devoted to transportation projects.
During the Orange County development boom, which lasted until the early 1990s recession, land barons and builders were the county's "new money." In the late 1960s, for example, the club, led by builders, wrote a $5,000 check to the bankrupt California Republican Party to jump-start a campaign to gain control of the Legislature.
GOP "stars" seeking access to the moneyed class would fly in for private, catered fund-raisers. U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas), who frequently raises money from Lincoln Club members, once remarked: "I wish Orange County were in Texas."
In 1987 and 1988, Lincoln Club members gave about $4 million above their dues to local, state and federal campaigns, said Gus Owen, who was club president at the time.
"Lincoln Clubs" were formed in other areas, but only Orange County's had the reputation for massive power and wealth.
Gazing at the Pacific Ocean outside the living room window of his Laguna Beach home, Roger W. Johnson recalls the day he decided to quit the Lincoln Club. It was in 1990, the day the club hosted then-White House Chief of Staff John Sununu and then-national GOP Chairman Lee Atwater.
"The issue was abortion . . . and I said, 'Why can't the party just open that issue up and let people choose? We are a party that's in favor of keeping government out of things. Isn't that contradictory?' " Johnson remembers asking.
"They came at me like I was in the Dark Ages."
The ultra-conservatism that the club had been created to temper after the Nixon-John Birch Society battle was creeping back in, Johnson believed, suffocating the club's promise of free and open discussion. No longer were the views of moderates welcome, he said.
"I kept getting ideology, that it's about winners and losers," said Johnson, who in 1993 left his chairmanship at Western Digital Corp. in Irvine to run the General Services Administration, becoming the highest-ranking Republican appointed by President Clinton. "That's what happens when you have a group of people involved and in control for so long."
Johnson was not alone in his feelings. Other moderates came to believe the club had been taken over by conservatives and began dropping out or reducing their participation in its activities. The result, many say, was a shrinking of the Lincoln Club's sphere of influence.
In another high-profile defection, Lincoln Club board member Kathryn G. Thompson, a developer and wife of then-club president Owen, endorsed Clinton for president in 1992 and was forced to resign.
"When Kathryn Thompson backed Clinton, you had to administer oxygen to the people at the table," said another former member.
The defection to Clinton also marked a turning point: Open, public embarrassment of the club needed to be squelched. Owen was replaced as president by conservative Santa Ana businessman Doy Henley.
Henley, however, plunged the club into the divisive fight over the proposed development of a commercial airport at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station when he ordered a public opinion poll without board approval.
The club also split on Measure R, the unsuccessful 1995 ballot initiative to raise the sales tax as a way to help the county recover from bankruptcy. The Orange County Business Council, which included moderate-to-conservative Lincoln Club members, such as Irvine Co. Vice President Gary Hunt, had championed the recovery plan.
Johns, who moves in the circle of state legislators now seen as having the real money and clout to decide which candidates the party will back, grins ear-to-ear when he thinks of the $15,000 the club spent to recall Assemblywoman Doris Allen (R-Cypress), the first major funding for the recall from any GOP organization in the state. Allen drew the GOP's hatred when she cut a deal with Democrats to become Assembly speaker for a few months last year.
"I loved that," Johns said, his voice ratcheting up with excitement. "That makes a big, bold statement to the rest of California that in Orange County, we're not going to tolerate that kind of stuff if we can have any impact on that."
But the campaign to replace Allen also split the Lincoln Club between two candidates vying to replace her in a special election last November. Part of the organization favored the eventual winner, attorney Scott Baugh of Huntington Beach, while some backed businesswoman Haydee V. Tillotson.
"It was a good lesson for the Lincoln Club," Dykema said. "The next time we have a special election, I'm going to make darn sure we have communication going between the various individual entities who have influence on the various candidates."
Though members say they don't engage in debates on social issues, the candidates picked by core leaders have tended to be strong conservatives who oppose abortion.
"Most Republican women I know have real heartburn with" those positions, one club member conceded privately. "Having men take care of morality sometimes causes them problems. People take such hard positions on that, and they say, 'Here's the line and don't cross that line. And by the way, if you cross that line, I'll shoot you.' "
Some wonder whether Dykema, an abortion-rights supporter who took over as club president in February, will be a moderating influence. Regardless of his own political views, Dykema vows to restore order and heal some of the club's divisions.
As long as the club has money to give, all agree, it will remain a player.
Some months ago, according to several members, Capizzi was called before the club's board to explain his investigation of Baugh, who faces trial on charges of campaign finance violations. That Capizzi even subjected himself to the questioning suggests the ongoing perception of the club's power.
Beaver, now 88, and the rest of the Lincoln Club understand the power of that perception.
"I live in fear that one day the media will stop referring to the [club] as that prestigious group of Orange County millionaires, who live in walled compounds with guarded gates, wall-to-wall yachts and stables of ponies, and who while away their time counting money and racing their yachts and horses," Beaver once wrote in his historical account.
"Once we lose the mystique of being a secret organization engaged in all sorts of activities--some perhaps not even legal--then that will signal the beginning of the end for the powerful [club], which terrorizes politicians and makes strong men cry."