On Politics: The Republicans who made Reagan president mourn the party they once knew

Stuart K. Spencer spent decades as one of the most successful and admired consultants in the campaign business. He recently celebrated his 90th birthday with fellow GOP elders.
(Steve Lopez / Los Angeles Times)

It was a cool and rainy day when elders of the Republican tribe recently gathered to honor one of their own.

The honoree, Stuart K. Spencer, was unmistakable in his white duck pants and a lime-green sport coat so bright it almost hurt to see. A reformed chain-smoker, he snapped merrily away on a wad of chewing gum.

The event marked Spencer’s 90th birthday, but the mood beneath the surface conviviality was unsettled and gray, like the clouds fringing the mountains outside.


If the occasion was intended as a personal celebration, it also had the feel of a wake for a time in politics long passed.

Spencer — savvy, irreverent, profane — spent decades as one of the most successful and admired consultants in the campaign business. The hundreds, both Democrat and Republican, who paid homage at a desert country club included the alumni of several past GOP administrations, in both Washington and Sacramento.

Along with former Vice President Dick Cheney and former California Gov. Pete Wilson, veterans of the Reagan years turned out in force. It was Spencer, more than anyone, who took a political long shot and washed-up B-movie actor and helped transform him into the Reagan of legend.

“This is the gang that could actually shoot straight,” said one longtime GOP operative, peering at the largely silver-haired assembly.

Inevitably, private conversation turned to the current occupant of the White House, a member, nominally, of the same political party as those Republicans present.

Feelings ranged from horror to perplexity. Not from jealousy; most of those in attendance had long ago held the reins of power and were comfortably settled in their memories. Rather, it was the startling dysfunction of the fledgling Trump administration.


Yes, said one veteran of the Reagan White House, there was infighting and jockeying early on then too, but not the public knife-fighting of competing Trump factions.

“We weren’t going on the Sunday TV shows to grandstand,” he said, requesting anonymity, still finding it uncomfortable to criticize a fellow Republican on the record. “We were nose to the grindstone, focused on policy” — which grew out of Ronald Reagan’s deep-seated philosophy, not the whims of a blustery, seemingly improvisational president.

When the time came for testimonials, there was plenty of impertinent humor and fond reminiscing: about midnight phone calls from Nancy Reagan, drinking North Carolina moonshine, and the time Spencer dropped an F-bomb in the Oval Office to advise President Ford to stick to the Rose Garden and not try to out-campaign Jimmy Carter.

“Stu called them as he saw them,” said former Gov. Wilson, dryly.

Jerry Lewis, not the comedian but a former congressman from the Inland Empire, offered one of several elegies.

Today, half of America is holding its breath. I’m one of them.

— Veteran GOP strategist Stuart K. Spencer

Once among the most powerful members of Congress, he was known during 30-plus years representing Riverside and San Bernardino counties for a willingness to work across the partisan aisle, a facility — along with a desire to legislate and not just obstruct — that now seems almost quaint.

“I’d love to see us return to a time when people actually talked to each other,” Lewis said, to a ripple of applause.

Taking his turn at the microphone, Spencer was funny and poignant.

The thing he really likes about living a long life, he said, is that all of his enemies are now dead. Then he saluted some of them: liberals like Jesse Unruh, the legendary Assembly speaker, and Phillip Burton, the formidable San Francisco congressman, who fiercely battled Reagan and his policies. They were men of honor and principle, Spencer said, and he misses them.

His brand of Republicanism — support for legal abortion, certain gun controls and, most urgently, a need to reach out to voters who are not white or conservative — has grown largely out of fashion in the political party to which he devoted his life. He spent 70 years laboring on behalf of the GOP only to be called a RINO, or Republican In Name Only, Spencer said with wonder.

Among the behaviors he models is discretion — Spencer is one of the few insiders who didn’t cash in on his Reagan years — and an abiding respect for the political process and its practitioners. Though no fan of President Trump, he was measured in his critique.

“Today, half of America is holding its breath,” he said. “I’m one of them.”

He warned against lashing out in anger, or turning disappointment into hatred, even as he challenged some of Trump’s more preposterous claims, including the falsehood that he was victimized by millions of illegal votes cast for Democrat Hillary Clinton.


“You need to win with class and lose with class,” Spencer said.

He took particular umbrage at those wrapping Trump — another political amateur who improbably made his way to the White House — in the Reagan mantle. The late president “had class and a totally different belief system,” Spencer said.

He wished Trump well. But, he said, “he is President Trump, not President Reagan.”

There was no audible dissent.

The program ended with a Sinatra impersonator singing a customized version of “My Way.” Then the guest of honor quietly slipped out the sliding glass doors, riding past Gerald Ford Drive as he made his way home.

@markzbarabak on Twitter


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