Hard liquor, hard news, orgies, and the Reagan Revolution

Lyn Nofziger, a self-admitted right-wing kook, offers more on his life as a hard-living Republican

Ronald Reagan, Lyn Nofziger
  • Ronald Reagan, Lyn Nofziger

Born, he says, “a right-wing kook” in Bakersfield in1924, Franklyn Curran Nofziger attended Canoga Park High School, where he worked on the school paper and quit the paper over a difference in political opinion with his liberal New Deal Democrat journalism teacher. He graduated in 1942, joined the Army, serving three years in England and France. In 1947, he married a former WAC who took a job with the telephone company so that Nofziger could attend college (45 years later, they are still married). After a semester at UCLA, Nofziger enrolled at San Jose State, where he was reporter for and then editor of the college newspaper, The Spartan Daily. He came to the conservative Republican Copley papers, who would be his employers for 16 years, through a senior-year internship at the Copley-owned Glendale News-Press, which hired him after graduation. From 1950 to 1956, Nofziger shuttled between the News-Press and the Burbank Daily Review. From 1956 to 1958 he was the Daily Review’s managing editor.

For the next eight years Nofziger was Washington correspondent for the Copley papers, at that time a chain of 16 papers in California and Illinois with headquarters in La Jolla. In his recently published book, Nofziger: A Reagan Insider and Spokesman in His Own Words (Regnery Gateway, Inc.), described by its New York Times reviewer as “no air-brushed memoir” and “invaluable for illuminating the tangle of Republican debts and double-crosses,” Nofziger writes about his first days as Copley’s Washington correspondent:

I arrived carrying one piece of advice from Hoyt Cater, the Burbank Daily Review publisher, regarding Robert Richards, the Copley bureau chief.

“Don’t,” he said,“try to drink with Bob Richards. He has a hollow leg.”

That was a scary piece of information because in those days the Copley people prided themselves not so much on the quality of their product as on their ability to hold their liquor. I fit right in. But as far as Bob Richards was concerned, I quickly learned that Cater was right. Richards, a little man with a loud, snarly voice to go with his hollow leg, owned a corner of the men’s bar in the National Press Club which, in those good old days, had no women members. Three drinks at lunch was minimum for Richards, but he always filed copy in the afternoon, even if it meant writing a new lead on a wire service story and filing the whole thing as his.

Five years after I arrived, Richards died from a massive stroke, but he died the way he would have wanted to. He was at a cocktail party and had just announced, “I think I’ll get another drink,” when he crumpled to the floor.

In those days the Copley bureau was on the 12th floor of the National Press Building, one floor down from the National Press Club, and therefore 30 seconds from a drink, less if you were really thirsty....

Nofziger covered the Kennedy-Nixon campaign, where, he told the Washington Post in 1981, as a conservative Republican, “I felt like an outsider. All those hot-shot names, whose bylines I had read out in California, were on the other side of the fence, acting like pseudo-sophisticates who loved to sit around in the bars and aboard the plane making superior comments about Nixon. And they thought my ideology was getting in the way.”

Nofziger suffered through Camelot and the Great Society. Then came what he describes in his book as “the telephone call that changed my life.”

The call came on a cold day in early January of 1966. The caller was Captain E. Robert Andersen, USN (ret.), the chief aide to James S. Copley, who owned the chain of newspapers for which I worked.

He came right to the point.“Jim, would you like to take a leave of absence and come out to California and be Ronald Reagan’s press secretary for his campaign for governor?”

Thus ended my career as a Republican politician.

After Reagan’s inauguration in 1967, Nofziger served as the governor’s communications director. Early in Reagan’s first term, what Nofziger perceived as a problem arose.

Ron and Nancy Reagan had spent much of their adult lives in Hollywood, where dwell and work a significant number of homosexuals. As a result, both were tolerant of this sort of aberrant sexual behavior. Indeed, when Reagan was president, Nancy’s interior decorator, Ted Graber, and his “significant other” were overnight guests in the White House.

But public attitudes in 1967 were not nearly so sexually liberal as in the 1980s; the closet was a lot more crowded then. Once, at a 1962 press conference, a reporter asked Reagan if he would approve of a homosexual group distributing flyers at a county fair. The usually verbose Reagan gave a curt no.

But Reagan had been in the governor’s office barely six months when a problem, that later became a scandal, arose involving alleged homosexuals in high places on his staff. Reagan’s first executive secretary (Ed Meese later changed the title to “chief of staff ”) was Phil Battaglia, a pudgy, balding six-footer in his early 30s who chewed his fingernails to the quick. He was married and the father of two toddlers, both adopted.

Shortly into the Reagan administration, Battaglia began to view himself as more than just the chief of staff. At the very least he considered himself the deputy governor and, as such, often made decisions for the governor without bothering to consult him. His egotism and aggressiveness paralleled in many ways that of a much later Reagan chief of staff, Don Regan. But whereas Regan stuck close to Reagan’s side, Battaglia moved out in front, seeking, perhaps subconsciously, to outshine his boss.

As far as I could tell, Reagan was not put off by Battaglia’s executive style until his alleged homosexuality was brought to his attention. Battaglia was forced to resign, but in truth, he would have had to go anyway, for in trying to control the governor’s office he had lost control of himself, as well as the respect of his peers in the administration.

An innocent victim of the almost hysterical way that Battaglia performed was a young man working as an intern in the governor’s office. His name was Jack Kemp, and in the fall and winter he was a professional football player, starring as a quarterback for the Buffalo Bills in the National Football League. Before being traded to the Buffalo Bills, Kemp had been the quarterback of the San Diego Chargers. When not playing football he worked for the

San Diego Union, the flagship of the Copley newspapers, as a public relations representative.

Kemp also was a friend of the Union ’s editor, Herb Klein, and a conservative Republican already looking down the road to a career in politics. In 1964, when I was covering the California presidential primary race between Goldwater and Rockefeller, Klein sent him to travel with me for a few days so he could get a close-up view of what a political campaign was all about. But in 1967 Klein, a part of Nixon’s inner circle, didn’t have much direct clout in the Reagan organization, so it was another San Diegan, Gordon Luce, Reagan’s secretary of business and transportation, who arranged for Kemp to intern in the governor’s office in the spring of 1967.

Battaglia was immediately taken by the intelligent, articulate, and handsome football hero. He took Kemp under his wing and had him accompany him whenever he left Sacramento, which was frequently.

Kemp and I later discussed the situation; he had been, he admitted, naive. He was excited, understandably so, when Battaglia made him a kind of personal aide and, in doing so, gave him an inside look at the inner workings of the governor’s office in the biggest, richest, and most complex state. The two became friends, but nothing more. At times Battaglia cried on his shoulder, disclosing his fears and frustrations, but not his desires, if he had any.

Kemp accepted the trips to Washington and elsewhere as a learning experience, unaware that Battaglia was attempting to keep his presence secret; unaware, too, that the close relationship was causing talk and breeding suspicion in the governor’s office. And he compounded his mistakes by going in with Battaglia at Lake Tahoe. Later, he sold his half back to Battaglia, but not before the Washington political gossip columnist Drew Pearson had written a completely false column charging that members of Reagan’s staff had used it for a homosexual orgy.

This seemed to confirm rumors that Battaglia and a third young man named Richard (Sandy) Quinn, Reagan’s scheduling aide, were involved in homosexual activities. The talk had centered around Quinn before Battaglia; ironically, I had discussed the Quinn rumors with Battaglia — which he pooh-poohed.

I am not a homophobe, though I would not want my daughter to marry one, nor my son either, if I had one, but I had two serious concerns about the possible pres- ence of homosexuals or a homosexual ring within the governor’s office. To repeat, in 1967 most homosexuals were still in the closet and for good reason. Those on the inside were pretty thoroughly ostracized, except in the arts and entertainment....

My concerns were purely political, and they had to do with Reagan. I wanted him to be elected president, and I was certain it would hurt his chances if the voters, especially conservatives, who were his base, thought he had surrounded himself with “queers.” Because he came out of the Hollywood scene, where homosexuality was almost the norm, I also feared that rumors would insinuate that he, too, was one. In those days that would have killed him politically.

Therefore, with the help of Art Van Court, who was then in charge of the governor’s security, an investigation was begun. I discovered shortly that Bill Clark, the cabinet secretary, had heard the rumors and that he and Tom Reed, back in civil life, were also looking into them. We decided to hold a meeting of Reagan aides we knew were heterosexual, trustworthy, and loyal to Reagan. Attending were Clark, Reed, Meese, Van Court, Curtis Patrick, who worked with Van Court, Gordon Luce, and Ed Gillenwaters, who represented California in Washington. I had known Gillenwaters, who initially informed me of the situation, for several years when he was administrative assistant to Representative Bob Wilson of San Diego and, in fact, had persuaded Reagan to appoint him to his current position.

We agreed to investigate. We did. And we made the Keystone Cops look good. When Van Court went to investigate Quinn’s apartment, he couldn’t get in. We tried and failed to bug Battaglia’s office. We sent a man to tail Battaglia and Kemp, and he lost them even though they didn’t know they were being followed. We searched out their room arrangements in a hotel in San Francisco and discovered they took separate nonadjoining roams and slept in them all night. Despite Drew Pearson’s columns to the contrary, we never took pictures — we could find none to take — and we never taped the sounds and sighs of an orgy — we heard nothing to tape.

But still, we were convinced. We knew in our minds, though no place else for sure, that there was hanky-panky; we just couldn’t prove it. In August, we decided that we would approach the governor with our suspicions. I drafted a report outlining what we thought we knew and what we suspected and what we had heard. Put together, they made a convincing case. Even more convincing, as far as Reagan was concerned, was the fact that the report was presented by men in whom, for the most part, he had developed a great deal of confidence.

The Reagans were staying at the Hotel del Coronado on Coronado Island in San Diego Bay. They had gone there to let the governor recuperate from a prostate operation he’d undergone two weeks before. Eleven of us barged in unannounced. Nancy, who had just finished showering, at our insistence joined us wearing a terry cloth robe with a towel wrapped around her head. Naturally, the Reagans were curious.

I handed each of them a copy of our report. We waited silently as they sat side by side on the sofa in the living room and read. Nancy finished first and gave us a quizzical look. In a moment he too had finished.

Looking up, he quietly asked the old question,“What do we do now?”

The discussion lasted for nearly an hour. At the end Reagan agreed that Battaglia and Quinn would have to go. Kemp, the victim of circumstances, had already left to begin football practice. He would not return....

After our meeting with the Reagans, those of us who headed back to Sacramento celebrated by getting drunk at the airport and drunker on the airplane, or at least trying to. I know I succeeded pretty well.

Nofziger quit Sacramento to run the Senate campaign of California’s anti-conservative Max Rafferty.

The first time I quit Ronald Reagan’s staff was on October 1, 1968. I had worked for him for 32 months all told, including the 1966 campaign, the transitional phase between his victory over Pat Brown and his inauguration, and close to two years while he was in office. It was long enough.

I walked out of the governor’s office and into Max Rafferty’s dying campaign for the United States Senate. Rafferty was an easy man to dislike. For one thing, he was not only a demagogue at heart, but an effective one. For another, like a lot of overly bright people, his judgment wasn’t on a par with his intellect. Finally, if you hadn’t got- ten to know and understand him, he appeared arrogant and sometimes even rude. He was, in fact, both a good deal of the time.

But I liked him. Most of the time. And at one time I had high hopes that he could be elected a United States Senator. Not that I thought he’d be a great senator. He was too much a maverick for that and too outspoken. And then, as I said, there was the matter of his judgment.

But Rafferty was the best rabble-rouser I have ever known, better than Reagan, better than most television evangelists. He could bring an audience to its feet cheering.... I visualized him not as a statesman in the Senate but as a great Republican money raiser.

Nofziger concludes his chapter “The Reagan White House: Policy and People” with this:

The great political adventure that began with Reagan’s speech for Barry Goldwater in 1964 and reached its peak with Reagan’s election as president in 1980 is now consigned to the archives and the history books. Reagan’s handpicked successor, George Bush, has dashed whatever hopes many of us had that he would carry on the Reagan legacy. He has proved that eight years of personal loyalty are not enough, that no man, including George Bush, can carry out another man’s dream if he doesn’t share it.

And the men who did share it — Ed Meese, Bill Clark, Martin Andersen, John Herrington, and others of us — leaderless and in many ways abandoned, have gone on to other things. The Reagan revolution has ended where it began, with the pragmatists and mercenaries in full control. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, as the sun sets over the Pacific, it is plain that Ronald Reagan doesn’t know it, doesn’t believe it, or no longer cares.

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