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Sal Russo is a conservative activist and Republican political consultant who also serves as the chief strategist for the Tea Party Express. He was a Special Assistant and personal aide to Ronald Reagan for the first three years as Governor. Russo recently wrote this piece for the California Political Review. With his permission, I’m reprinting it here.
REAGAN SAW THE BEST IN EVERYONE AND IN AMERICA
Ronald Reagan had tremendous faith in people, especially the American people as a whole. He firmly believed our country was the shining city on a hill made special because we were of every race, religion and creed, united together in a belief in freedom and opportunity for all. He looked at everyone as a friend or at least a potential friend, even as some of his most conservative friends looked with jaundiced eyes at his efforts to include people.
As the youngest member of the Governor’s staff in those first early years of his Administration, having just turned 20 years old days before the election, I witnessed his faith in people many times in that first campaign and in the Governor’s Office. Even though I was a somewhat precocious young aide, Reagan seemed to enjoy my forthright comments about what was going on. He would painstakingly try to explain to me what he believed and why.
One of the favorites of conservatives in the Reagan Administration was our Director of Finance – a key part of the Administration as we faced a deficit left over from the previous Governor. The rocky first year only fueled efforts to have Reagan remove the Director and replace him. Rumors surfaced that Caspar Weinberger, a former Republican legislator and GOP Party Chairman would be coming in. That seemed to us conservatives as a classic case of admitting the fox into the hen house. Cap had been a liberal Republican in the legislature and had displayed open disdain for conservatives during his stint as party chairman.
As the rumors took root, I decided to confront the Governor and pray that this senseless rumor would never come to pass. When I had my opportunity to get alone with the Governor, which I usually had when he was packing up and heading home for the night, I gave it my best shot and pleaded with the Governor that this horrible rumor could not possibly be true.
Reagan laughed at my obvious concern and tried to reassure me over the situation. He said that he saw California as a big ranch. He had been hired by the owners, the people of California, to run the ranch as the new foreman and replace the other fellow who had not done such a good job over the preceding eight years. The new foreman had to find good people to help him run the ranch.
He said that this fellow, Cap Weinberger, had come to him and said that he wanted to help the foreman run the ranch. Then Reagan asked me the big question, “Don’t you think someone who would come to me like that is interested in carrying out my policies for the ranch and wouldn’t be interested in going his own way?” Boldly, I told the Governor that most decent people would be that way, but there was no evidence Weinberger could be trusted to work on a conservative agenda.
Reagan laughed again at my skepticism. Then he delivered the stunning words, “Well maybe we should give him a chance and see which one of us is right.” Yikes! I knew then that my friend was doomed and Cap Weinberger would soon be walking the halls of the corner office. Sure enough, only a few days later, the official announcement came out that Caspar Weinberger would take over as the next Director of Finance.
Reagan never liked any staff turmoil, even if it involved his youngest aide. I never found out if this was true, but suspected that Reagan told Cap that there was this young man on the staff who was a little suspicious of him and Reagan encouraged him to win me over. I believe that something must have been said because every morning thereafter, Cap would stop by my office as he came into work and say, grinning ear to ear, “Good morning, Sal.” I would grit my teeth and reciprocate the greeting, but dismayed we had a liberal in our midst.
Of course the rest is history. I slowly began to warm up to Cap and eventually accepted him as a true Reaganite. He was a fantastic Director of Finance. Later, his tenure as Secretary of Defense in the Reagan presidential administration was historic as he designed and implemented the military strategy to destroy the Soviet Union. Reagan had been right. This fellow Cap did want to help the foreman out at the ranch, and he became one of the great American heroes in our victory in the Cold War.
That Reagan. He had a good way of accepting people as they were and finding the best in them, just like he always found the best in America.
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