Lyn Nofziger, 81; Key Aide Helped Groom Reagan for the White House

Times Staff Writer

Lyn Nofziger, the irascible and outspoken aide who served Ronald Reagan most prominently as communications director during his two terms as California governor, died Monday. He was 81.

Nofziger died at his home in Falls Church, Va., family members said. For the last year, he was battling kidney cancer that had spread throughout his body. Until his health took a turn late last year, Nofziger was working as a political consultant and contributing to his blog Lynnofziger.com.

A former Washington correspondent for the Copley News Service, Nofziger joined Reagan's campaign for governor during the summer of 1965 and advised him through the rest of his political career.

"He understood the press and how to weed out the important things with the press," said Stu Spencer, the campaign manager of Reagan's gubernatorial race. "He was a very important cog in the original Reagan effort."

Nofziger went with Reagan to Sacramento, serving as communications director. One of his lasting contributions to the Reagan effort, according to reporters who covered the capital at the time, was his success in getting Reagan to hold a weekly televised news conference.

Years later, he speculated about the impact of those forums.

The voters "see Reagan on television," Nofziger said. "They identify with him. He comes across to them as a nice man and a decent man. And they just don't believe that he's capable of doing [bad] things. And I think, maybe if there were no television, there could well be no Ronald Reagan."

A raucous man who often sported Mickey Mouse ties and other colorful apparel, Nofziger was so irreverent at times that he was considered ill-suited for the role of White House press secretary after Reagan was elected president in 1980. Nofziger became assistant to the president for political affairs instead.

He confessed later that he was a bad fit even for that job. When he left the White House after only two years to become a lobbyist, he declared that he was tired of attending staff meetings and remarked, "I don't like government. Some do. Some don't. It's like spinach."

But Nofziger's finest hour, Spencer told The Times on Monday, was after the president and his press secretary, James Brady, were shot outside a Washington hotel a little over two months after Reagan took office. Nofziger stepped into the breach for the fallen Brady and served as press spokesman during the early days of the crisis.

In a statement Monday, former First Lady Nancy Reagan said she was deeply saddened by Nofziger's death.

"Lyn was with us from the gubernatorial campaign in 1965 through the early White House days, and Ronnie valued his advice -- and good humor -- as much as anyone's," she said. "I spoke with him just days ago and even though he knew the end was near, Lyn was hopeful and still in good spirits."

Franklyn Curran Nofziger was born in Bakersfield on June 8, 1924. He served in the Army during World War II. After the war, he enrolled at UCLA but quit after one semester over the university's foreign language requirement and transferred to San Jose State.

"Hell, if people want to talk to me they can speak English," he explained, having already developed a reputation for rough manners, quick wit and a disheveled appearance.

During the 1964 presidential campaign, while working as the Washington correspondent for Copley newspapers, Nofziger regularly passed out buttons reading either "Western Tory Press" or "Eastern Liberal Press," depending on how he interpreted the views of his colleagues.

After joining Reagan in 1965, Nofziger became convinced the former actor would one day become president, and he sought to prepare him to run, encouraging a first, abortive bid for the GOP nomination in 1968.

"Back there when Reagan first became governor, I had to rid him of four basic misconceptions," he later told the National Review. "That right will always triumph in the end; that there is such a thing as a presidential draft; that the cavalry will arrive at the last minute and save the day; and that God cares who is president of the United States."

Despite his loyalty, Nofziger's service to Reagan was occasionally broken up by misunderstandings or his sometimes exceeding the bounds of his authority.

He was forced out of the governor's office, for example, in 1968 after, apparently without permission, leaking the news to political reporters that Reagan had fired two top aides who had been discovered to be homosexuals.

After a brief stint as manager of the unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid of conservative state Supt. of Public Instruction Max Rafferty, Nofziger in 1969 joined President Nixon's administration as deputy assistant for congressional relations.

In 1972, he directed Nixon's California campaign for reelection. Although he later acknowledged helping Nixon prepare his infamous "enemies list," Nofziger was not directly involved in the Watergate scandal.

Nofziger was back with Reagan as press secretary in his campaign for president as early as 1975 and later set up Citizens for the Republic as Reagan's political action committee. During Reagan's campaigns, Nofziger was devoted to providing all the creature comforts for the press, and some reporters felt the luggage and food service were the best of any campaign.

"More than most flacks, he understood the press," Times columnist George Skelton, who covered Reagan as governor and as president, said Monday. "He wasn't fearful or intimidated by them. He knew you basically had to be honest to have credibility, and he had a lot of credibility."

But, Skelton added, Nofziger wasn't beyond spinning when the need arose.

Skelton cited the assassination attempt on Reagan. He recalled that while Nofziger was characterizing the president's wounds as less than life-threatening, Reagan was in fact in far more serious shape. "That was a little spin," Skelton said. "I don't know if Lyn knew that, but he did a bang-up job that night."

After leaving the White House, Nofziger had his share of ups and downs.

In what he described later as the lowest point of his life, Nofziger was convicted of three felony counts of illegal lobbying for the Wedtech Corp. and two other firms under a law prohibiting former high government officials from lobbying ex-colleagues for a year on matters of direct and substantial interest to their former agencies.

The 1988 conviction was later reversed in the U.S. Court of Appeals, but Nofziger had run up more than $1.5 million in legal fees defending himself, and during the process lost most of his prestigious business clients.

Asked by interviewer Ken Adelman what he had learned, Nofziger replied:

"You have to be more careful than I was to avoid becoming a victim. Since Watergate, Washington has become a meaner town. It now has a generation of reporters who think it's their job to try to get people."

But that didn't keep him out of the political arena. He was a political consultant to George H.W. Bush in his unsuccessful 1992 run for reelection. In 2000, Nofziger lent his political expertise to the campaign of magazine publisher Steve Forbes instead of supporting then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

He turned to writing western fiction in the tradition of Louis L'Amour. He also took up the cause of legalization of medical marijuana after his 38-year-old daughter Lindy died of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma some years ago.

To the end, he never blunted his outspokenness. In an interview with The Times' Mark Z. Barabak in 2002, he discounted Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon's chances against incumbent Democrat Gray Davis.

"Californians are now going to have a clear choice when they go to the polls to elect a governor this November," Nofziger wrote in an opinion piece on his website. "They can elect an inept, corrupt incumbent Democrat named Gray Davis. Or they can elect an inept, weak and not very bright Republican named Bill Simon. Take your pick. But be smart. Bet on Davis. Simon is too dumb to win."

Davis won the election.

Nofziger is survived by his wife, Bonnie; daughter Glenda; and two grandsons.

Funeral services are pending.

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Former Times staff writer Kenneth Reich contributed to this report.

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