In my 60 years in Washington, D.C. I have crossed paths with many who have made a difference in public policy, law, politics, and the media. One of those who I met early on while at Georgetown Law School was John P. Sears. He came to live in a house that I shared with others when his wife went back to upstate New York in the later stage of her pregnancy. It was house half populated with some of his classmates from Notre Dame.
I was intrigued by John's take on life, his penetrating mind, his ability to engage you in deep thought about an issue, and his quick and sardonic wit. As young, soon to be, lawyers we talked around all sides of an issue. John had an uncanny mind and usually got quickly to the issue and its resolution while others postulated ad nauseam.
As his obituary notes (https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/john-sears-who-helped-guide-nixon-and-reagan-to-the-white-house-dies-at-79/2020/03/28/af31c832-7103-11ea-a3ec-70d7479d83f0_story.html), John went on to great things taking huge risks in the process. On his journey upward and downward, he shook things up along the way and had few regrets, never losing his sense of humor. It was a privilege and pleasure to have known him.
I share a story that appeared in my 2015 book, "Moments of Truth," of how, in 1976, John convinced Ronald Reagan, behind in the delegate count in his challenge for the Republican presidential nomination against the incumbent, President Gerald R. Ford, to undertake a risky strategy by naming Richard Schweiker to be his nominee for vice president months before the Republican convention.
Is He Catholic? No, He's a Schwenkfelder
Neal P. Gillen
In the 1976 Republican presidential primary, former California Governor Ronald Reagan challenged Gerald R. Ford, a popular, albeit accidental president who achieved the highest of U.S. offices when President Richard M. Nixon resigned in August 1974, following the release of incriminating tape recordings that would have resulted in his impeachment. By virtue of the 25th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, Ford as vice president succeeded Nixon.
Ford had come to the office of vice president following the resignation of Spiro Agnew, who had resigned after pleading nolo contendere to charges of taking illicit payments in various offices during his political career in Maryland and as vice president. Ford, a well-liked Michigan Republican representative, had been serving as the house minority leader, when Nixon, acting pursuant to Section 2 of the 25th Amendment, nominated Ford to succeed Agnew and both the House and Senate approved the nomination.
That Ford had become president without ever having been elected to the offices of president or vice president concerned many conservative Republicans.
John Sears, an old friend and housemate for part of a semester during our days at Georgetown Law School, was heading up the Reagan campaign operation. Sears was a brilliant lawyer and political strategist. Raised in Syracuse, New York, he graduated high school at 16, Notre Dame University at 20, and Georgetown Law at 23. He clerked for New York Court of Appeals judge Adrian Burke before he joined Nixon, Mudge, Rose, Alexander, Guthrie & Mitchell, the prominent Wall Street law firm where Richard M. Nixon and John Mitchell were partners. Nixon quickly recognized Sears' talent and the two traveled across the nation in 1966, when Nixon spoke at countless fund-raising events for Republican candidates. Sears played a key role in Nixon's 1968 campaign as a strategist during the primaries and the delegate-selection process and as a floor operative at the Republican Convention. Upon Nixon's election, Sears was named deputy White House counsel. Though only 27 at the time, he soon sensed that something was amiss. He also learned that John Mitchell, jealous over Sears' role, was maneuvering him out of the loop. As history revealed, Sears' intuitive instincts were spot on – he soon left the White House to begin a lucrative law practice in Washington.
From January 1976 through March, Ford had taken control of the primary process, winning the Iowa caucuses and the primaries in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, Florida, and Illinois. Reagan did not register a primary victory until March 23rd, when he beat Ford in North Carolina. Ford regained his traction, and, in early April, scored a convincing victory over Reagan in Wisconsin. Ford also won in Pennsylvania, but despite not being on the ballot or mounting a campaign there, Reagan received 42,500 write-in votes in in the Keystone State.
Ford, who was physically prone to losing his balance and tripping on his feet, stumbled in May losing by wide margins to Reagan in Texas and Georgia and by solid margins in Indiana and Nebraska. In mid-May, Ford got back on his feet. After winning in West Virginia, he rang up big wins in Maryland and his home state of Michigan. On May 25th, they each took three states, with Ford winning in Kentucky, Oregon, and Tennessee by narrow margins, while Reagan won big in Arkansas, Idaho, and Nevada. In the remaining primaries in June they each won three states, Ford besting Reagan in Rhode Island, New Jersey (Reagan was not on the ballot), and Ohio, while Reagan posted convincing victories in his home state of California and in Montana, and South Dakota.
Going into the convention, the pattern was clearly established – Ford had won the centrist states while Reagan had won the right-of-center states. Ford and Reagan then battled it out in the 21 non-primary states for the remaining delegates. It became an intense game of retail politics, with the candidates personally wooing the individual delegates. Ford used the White House and the funds of the various federal departments to his advantage. The social life of the Mississippi delegates was elevated to a higher level, with many of them attending state dinners at the White House, and a select few to more than one dinner. I met an undecided Mississippi delegate, a truck-stop operator, who also farmed cotton, who played it for all it was worth by attending four of the 13 White House dinners that Ford hosted from September 1975 up until two weeks prior to the convention.
As the mid-August convention neared, Sears' analysis calculated that Reagan would come up short of the necessary 1,130 votes needed for the nomination. Something had to be done – otherwise it would become a game of smoke and mirrors, which it already was to a certain degree.
The situation dictated a bold strategy that Sears revealed to Regan in a visit to Rancho del Cielo, his 688-acre ranch atop the Santa Ynez Mountain range above Santa Barbara. As Sears explained it to me, in a Washington restaurant in March 1978, he had laid out the delegate situation to Reagan state by state. Reagan was silent for a while before he asked Sears if there was anything they could do to move things in his direction. Sears smiled and revealed his strategy or gambit. Simply put, Reagan had to announce his choice of vice president prior to the convention in order to either switch the allegiance of committed delegates or pick up the votes of the few delegates who were still uncommitted.
While announcing the VP choice before the convention is now a routine practice, it was a radical idea in 1976. Since then, while most, if not all, party nominees announce their selection prior to the convention, all had cinched the nomination. Other than Reagan, no presidential contender has named his running mate prior to securing the necessary delegates for the nomination. Ironically, in 1980, when Reagan had secured the nomination, he waited until the Republican Convention convened in Detroit before he announced that George H.W. Bush was his choice.
Reagan was silent in thought for a few moments before he agreed that it was a good idea. But was there a person capable of doing that, he asked Sears, who had just the person in mind. In fact, that very moment he had him waiting in a hotel in Santa Barbara. Richard Schweiker, a moderate Republican senator from Pennsylvania was such a person, Sears told Reagan.
"Is he Catholic?" Regan asked.
"No, he's a Schwenkfelder."
Reagan was puzzled. "Schwenkfelder?"
Sears explained that is was a religion, founded in southern Germany in the 1600s by Caspar Schwenkfeld von Ossig, based on the teachings of the Protestant Reformation. Since that part of Germany was predominantly Catholic, the Schwenkfelders were persecuted for their beliefs and fled to America, settling in the Philadelphia area, where they still remain.
Reagan said he had never heard of such a group and asked Sears how many of them there were. About 2,000, Sears told him, but more importantly, one of them is Schweiker's close friend, Drew Lewis, the chairman of the Pennsylvania delegation. Complicating the situation was Reagan's passing on the Pennsylvania primary, but after conferring with Schweiker, Sears told Reagan that by naming him there was a chance that Lewis might turn from Ford to Reagan.
"When can I see him?" Reagan asked.
"I can have him here tomorrow," Sears said.
It is presumed that former Nevada Governor and U.S. Senator Paul Laxalt (R-NV) was somehow involved in the process. Other than his wife Nancy, Laxalt was Reagan's closest confidant. Laxalt believed a moderate Republican would provide good ticket balance. If Laxalt was not present at the meeting with Sears and Reagan, it is presumed it took place with his blessings and that Reagan had discussed it by telephone with Laxalt.
Sears drove down through the mountains back to Santa Barbara and told Schweiker that if he hit it off with Reagan he could be named as his running mate. At the meeting the next day, Reagan immediately took a liking to Schweiker, asked him to be his running mate, and Schweiker accepted.
Now, for the hard part – getting Drew Lewis to renege on his public and personal commitment to President Ford. If Lewis flipped, as Sears hoped he would, the Pennsylvania votes would be enough to secure Reagan the nomination and a probable victory over Jimmy Carter in the general election.
Lewis, however, was a man of strong character. He was resolute in his commitment to President Ford. He considered Reagan's naming of Schweiker to be a cynical ploy. Schweiker's selection also angered a number of conservative delegates who thought that he was too far to the left of the center citing his perfect AFL-CIO voting record and his liberal Americans for Democrat Action (ADA) rating of 89 percent. In the end, it might have cost Reagan votes, but the political experts thought it was a gambit worth taking.
Invited to participate in a panel to discuss political action committees, which were then in their infancy, I attended my first Republican convention. I visited with Sears in the Reagan campaign trailer parked outside of the Kemper Arena, the convention hall in Kansas City, on Tuesday, the second day of the convention. He was in good spirits and laughed when I told him he was running on empty. "You might be surprised, Neal," he said. "You're underestimating Governor Reagan. Believe me – this isn't over yet by any means." I visited for a few more minutes and went on my way. I didn't believe him, but as it turned out Reagan still seemed to have a chance right up until the delegates began voting on Thursday evening.
The dramatic vote count was in doubt at the outset, and Ford struggled to reach the necessary 1,130 votes. In the end, Ford received 1,187 votes, narrowly defeating Reagan's 1,070 votes. Everyone agreed that had Sears turned Drew Lewis, Reagan would have won the nomination.
When it was over, according to Sears, Ford offered Reagan the choice of being his running mate, which Reagan declined. Ford chose Senator Robert J. Dole (R-KS), and after Ford's acceptance speech, he asked Reagan to address the convention, which he did, and did well. His congenial manner and the substance of his remarks clearly overshadowed Ford that night. Reagan actually won in losing the nomination. Ford did poorly in the debates and went on to lose to former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter in a close election.
Reagan remembered Drew Lewis' loyalty to President Ford and in 1980, made him his campaign chairman in Pennsylvania, and after he defeated President Carter, Reagan named Lewis to be his secretary of transportation. He also nominated Richard Schweiker to be secretary of health and humans services.