Richard Schweiker: At History's Fulcrum

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Richard Schweiker’s place in history is secure—at least it should be. Without him, Ronald Reagan might never have been president, eventually changing the Republican Party, changing the country, and finally, changing the world.

Thoreau said most men live lives “of quiet desperation.” Not Dick Schweicker. He was a gambler, and a good one, who won far more often than he lost. He lived a life at the fulcrum of history.

It was July of 1976 and Reagan’s transformational challenge of incumbent Gerald Ford was faltering. Ford did not have the necessary delegate ballots to secure a first ballot nomination, but he was close, very close. Something needed to be done to shake things up and shake loose a few wavering delegates from The Gipper.

Reagan was also close, though trailing Ford in the delegate count. John Sears, Reagan’s campaign manager, came up with a revolutionary idea. Have Reagan choose a running mate before the convention—before the actual nomination. 

Schweiker, a second-term Republican senator from Pennsylvania, was not a movement conservative, although he was more conservative than people gave him credit for at the time. He was for a strong national defense, was a leader in the Captive Nations movement, held pro-life views on abortion, and was a strong supporter of the Second Amendment. He’d been a Navy hero in World War II and was elected to the House of Representatives and later, the U.S. Senate. In 1974, he was the first Pennsylvania Republican senatorial candidate ever endorsed by the state’s AFL-CIO. The endorsement was a precursor of the phenomenon that would come to be known as “Reagan Democrats.”

Schweiker was a Republican, of course, but he was no toady to the party’s establishment. A tough and independent man, he'd ended up on Richard Nixon’s “Enemies List” after being one of the first Republicans to call for his resignation. Schweiker came up through the rough and tumble politics of Pennsylvania and yet at no time in his personal or professional life was he ever regarded as anything less than a gentleman—and he was an honorable one at that.

He met his beloved wife Claire in a curious way. His mother saw Claire’s picture in the local newspaper, cut it out and told her son he should marry a woman like that. So he did. Beautiful and talented, she hosted a popular children’s show in Philadelphia. 

Reagan met with Schweiker and liked him tremendously. He remarked at the time that he thought he was seeing a younger version of himself. For his part, when Schweiker agreed to go on the ticket, he quipped that he'd be there for the takeoff and a crash, as long as he got to control the plane.

The announcement of Reagan’s running mate gambit led all three networks’ nightly news broadcasts. It forced CBS to scrub its plan, after a careful count of over 2,100 delegates, to declare Gerald Ford the nominee—three weeks before the convention. Walter Cronkite threw the story out. Everybody was forced to play from a new deck of cards. 

Not to say there weren't problems. A few movement conservatives went ballistic and while some delegates moved into the Reagan column, just as many moved away, including Clarke Reed, chairman of the Mississippi GOP. But the issue of delegates was secondary. The first order of business was to keep Reagan’s campaign alive for three weeks and the selection of Schweiker did this. At one point in Kansas City, faced with conservative criticism, Schweiker offered to resign from the ticket. Reagan ardently refused.

“Dick, we came to Kansas City together, and we're going to leave together,” Reagan told him.  

Schweiker’s gracious offer and Reagan’s gracious response spoke volumes about the character of both men. 

The convention went to a final balloting and Ford prevailed, 1,180 to Reagan’s 1069. The incumbent president won the nomination by just 50 delegates. It was that close. Still, the convention was divided, so Ford invited Reagan to address the gathered in Kemper Arena. Reagan’s remarks were thrilling, inspiring and bittersweet. In that speech, Reagan laid the foundation for the campaign of 1980, when he prevailed over Jimmy Carter.

None of this would have happened though without Dick Schweiker—neither the agonizing balloting nor the speech heard ‘round the world.

The Reagans actually liked the Schweikers and never forgot them, even after they attained their quest one election cycle later. When Reagan was shot in March of 1981, Dick and Claire were supposed to have dinner alone in the private residence of the White House with the president and Nancy Reagan, something the Bushes were never invited to do in eight years. Reagan had gladly and unhesitatingly put Dick in his cabinet in 1981, in charge of the largest government agency, Health and Human Services.

One can only imagine the different world we would live in had Reagan asked Schweiker, again, to be his running mate in 1980, rather than George H. W. Bush. Reagan would have won just as easily and there is no reason to believe Schweiker wouldn’t have inherited the “third Reagan term” that George H.W. Bush won in 1988.

I believe that Dick Schweiker would have governed as a conservative. Certainly, there would have been no “kinder and gentler” put down of Reagan. I also believe there would have been no breaking of tax pledges, no neocons leading America into endless and counterproductive wars, no meltdown of the Republican Party in 1992, or again in 2006. Reagan, who as a populist despised dynasties, was the unwitting father to both Bush administrations. 

However, that is all so much eyewash now. Dick is now with his beloved Claire. He and Claire were kind and gentle Christians. My wife Zorine and I enjoyed their company and Claire often wrote us in the most beautiful penmanship. I will miss them. I will miss their annual Christmas cards, filled with pictures of their photogenic family, including children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. While here on Earth, Dick Schweicker was a winner who lived a wonderful life.

Richard Schweiker, rest in peace.

Craig Shirley is the author of two best-selling books about Ronald Reagan, including “Rendezvous With Destiny” and “Reagan’s Revolution.” He is also the author of the best-selling “December 1941; 31 Days That Changed America and Saved the World” and is the president of Shirley & Banister. He is now writing several more books about Reagan, including “Last Act.” He has lectured at the Reagan Library, is the Visiting Reagan Scholar at Eureka College, and is a member of the Board of Governors of the Reagan Ranch.

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