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Weinberger and Nofziger Made Rise of Reagan Possible

Few people are indispensable, but at least two were for Ronald Reagan. It’s unlikely that Reagan would have become the successful governor he did without the early, vital help of Caspar W. Weinberger and Lyn Nofziger.

And without an impressive record to brag about -- welfare reform, truly balancing the budget, protecting the environment, launching an anti-tax revolt -- Reagan never could have been elected president.

Other early hands also played important roles: political consultants Stu Spencer and the late Bill Roberts, plus three gubernatorial advisors who followed Reagan to Washington: Michael Deaver, Edwin Meese III and William P. Clark.

But Weinberger and Nofziger -- who died within a day of each other this week, at ages 88 and 81 respectively -- both filled critical niches and had substantial impact on Reagan’s first term, while staying less than two years in Sacramento.

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Specifically:

* Weinberger rescued the Reagan regime from ridicule after joining it as finance director one year into the administration. A seasoned, savvy politician and policy wonk, Weinberger gave the Reagan operation credibility and the neophyte governor astute counsel.

* Nofziger persuaded Reagan to hold weekly news conferences that honed his communication skills with the media and helped develop a rapport with reporters. No governor has been as accessible since.

Weinberger and Nofziger were opposites in background and manner.

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Weinberger, raised in San Francisco and educated at Harvard, was sophisticated, sharp-dressing and even-tempered, with a perpetual slight grin.

“He talked in paragraphs -- very articulate and always thinking,” recalls former Assemblyman Bill Bagley of San Rafael, who was inspired by Weinberger to enter politics.

Nofziger, raised in Bakersfield and educated at San Jose State, was a character: disheveled in his loosened Mickey Mouse tie, ambling around the governor’s office -- even later the White House -- in his stocking feet, variously gruff or guffawing, often reeling off puns.

“Lyn was a rebel,” says a longtime younger friend, political consultant Sal Russo. “In the White House, he wouldn’t wear his security [credential]. His attitude was, as he always told me, ‘If they don’t know who I am, they shouldn’t be working here.’ ”

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Weinberger earned his national reputation as President Reagan’s defense secretary, aggressively advocating and overseeing the biggest U.S. military buildup in peacetime history, an arms race the Soviets concluded they couldn’t compete against.

But long before he went to Washington for three different presidents, Weinberger had become a force in his native state.

As an assemblyman in the 1950s, he showed the trait that would make him a success: taking a job and performing it to the utmost.

While chairman of the Government Organization Committee, Weinberger held hearings around California that led to his bill creating the Department of Water Resources, a necessary step toward development of the huge state water project.

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As chairman of an obscure subcommittee -- “Nobody else would take it,” he later wrote -- Weinberger became a crime-buster, cleaning up the scandal-ridden Board of Equalization, where liquor licenses and lax regulation were peddled for campaign donations. Weinberger’s hearings led to convictions and a bill creating the Alcoholic Beverage Control Department.

Later, he wrote a semiweekly newspaper column and hosted a popular public-affairs television show.

But in 1966, he endorsed his hometown former mayor, George Christopher, in the gubernatorial primary against actor Reagan. Weinberger already had been considered a liberal by right-wingers. Now this made him seem dangerous.

The upshot was that when Reagan got elected, his “kitchen cabinet” of rich donors talked the rookie governor into rejecting the advice of political pros, including the conservative Nofziger, to appoint Weinberger as finance director.

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It was a disastrous decision. Reagan picked a dud, a management consultant with no experience in government or politics. Legislators ridiculed him, often to his face. The Finance Department, powerful and respected under Gov. Pat Brown, lost credibility with lawmakers and business. The administration was in disarray.

Within a year, Reagan turned to Weinberger. And what Bagley and other moderates found was that this centrist -- whom they’d considered a philosophical soul mate -- was fiercely loyal to the boss. Reagan was conservative; so would be Weinberger. He became the program-paring “Cap the Knife” that Washington later would witness.

“Cap was really tenacious,” recalls George Steffes, then a Reagan legislative liaison and later a lobbyist. “You didn’t mess with him.”

Nofziger, a career political writer for Copley newspapers, was recruited by consultant Spencer to be Reagan’s campaign press secretary.

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“He did a great job,” Spencer recalls. “He met all our criteria: He understood the press. Had good political judgment. He developed a good rapport with Reagan.”

Nofziger insisted that he be “at the table” whenever strategy was decided. That gave him credibility with reporters.

His biggest contribution was persuading Reagan to hold weekly Capitol news conferences.

“Ronald Reagan as president didn’t hold nearly enough press conferences,” Nofziger wrote in his memoir, “Nofziger.”

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“If the public figure handles the press well, handles the questions well ... appears knowledgeable and keeps his cool, the media will come to respect him -- or her -- and that respect will show up in the ways they write or air their stories.”

Reagan evolved into a media master.

He may well have become president without the help of Weinberger and Nofziger. But it’s hard to imagine.

*

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George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at george.skelton@latimes.com.


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