Nofziger: A Friend With Whom It Was a Pleasure to Disagree

In a rare tieless moment, Lyn Nofziger, right, puts an end to a November 1980 news conference with President-elect Ronald Reagan. Nofziger died of cancer Monday at 81.
In a rare tieless moment, Lyn Nofziger, right, puts an end to a November 1980 news conference with President-elect Ronald Reagan. Nofziger died of cancer Monday at 81. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
By Frank Mankiewicz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Until his death Monday, Lyn Nofziger and I, unlikely as it may seem, were good friends -- off and on -- for 50 years. During that time, I doubt we ever agreed on any public matter (except for one, on which I dwell below). His consistency in some other matters is worth noting: I never saw him without a tie, usually with some design variant of Mickey Mouse -- nor did I ever see his collar buttoned. The tie was always well knotted, but an inch or two below his throat. We first talked during the '50s, when he was a journalist at Copley Newspapers in San Diego and I was a sometime Democratic campaign functionary and an aspiring lawyer. We debated occasionally, although it was always hard for him to take the disputes as seriously as his colleagues did.

We came together, I recall ruefully, in 1967, when he was the press secretary for Ronald Reagan, the newly elected governor of California, and I had the same job for the newly elected Sen. Robert F. Kennedy of New York. Don Hewitt of CBS News, later to achieve great renown as the inventor and executive producer of "60 Minutes," had an idea that a debate between Reagan and Kennedy would be a wonderful way to display CBS's new and then-revolutionary technical wonder -- the satellite.

As Hewitt explained it, RFK in Washington and Reagan in California would answer questions, live, from students around the world -- some in London, some in the Middle East and others in Asia. Nofziger, who knew his boss better than I knew mine, thought it was a wonderful idea and embraced it eagerly. I saw no downside, and thought RFK would virtually destroy this "B-movie actor" who had somehow stumbled into the governorship of California. The debate, to Lyn's eternal delight, was a disaster for our side. Reagan, a master of on-camera speaking developed through years of introducing the "General Electric Theater," was in command from the beginning.

When the first question came in from London, about Vietnam, I sensed we were in trouble. Kennedy, predictably, thought about his answer, mentioned that there were difficult questions involved. He came down on the right side, to be sure, but only after a lengthy explanation and a good deal of thought, during none of which did he make eye contact with the camera. Gov. Reagan, well coached by Lyn, stepped into the camera and, making instant eye contact, answered clearly and quickly that, "We have always been a generous people, and we seek only to share the benefits of democracy and a healthy economy."

As the questions continued from students in India and elsewhere in Asia, it only got worse. And indeed, whenever a brisk discussion occurred later within RFK's staff over the wisdom or non-wisdom of a particular activity, he would often stop the discussion, and turn to me with the question, "Aren't you the fellow who urged me to debate Ronald Reagan?"

By 1980, after playing a major role in the presidential campaigns of Reagan in 1976 and 1980, Lyn became the assistant to President Reagan for political affairs.

So, during that first year of Reagan's presidency, I sent Lyn another copy of a column I had written a few years before, attacking and satirizing the attempt by some organized do-gooders to inflict the metric system on Americans, a view of mine Lyn had enthusiastically endorsed. So, in 1981, when I reminded him that a commission actually existed to further the adoption of the metric system and the damage we both felt this could wreak on our country, Lyn went to work with material provided by each of us. He was able, he told me, to prevail on the president to dissolve the commission and make sure that, at least in the Reagan presidency, there would be no further effort to sell metric.

It was a signal victory, but one which we recognized would have to be shared only between the two of us, lest public opinion once again began to head toward metrification.

We debated after that from time to time on some cable show or other, but often found we agreed that our mutual respect for each other made the venom the talk shows sought (and alas, seek) disappear, and made our friendly participation less suitable for audiences accustomed to near-violence. In the past few years, we talked from time to time about the possibility of starting a program ourselves, but Lyn always begged off on the grounds he was overworked. I suspect, reading this week of his death from cancer, that the "overwork" may have consisted largely of his battle against the disease. When his doctor gave him the diagnosis, I'm betting he eventually chuckled, and then loosened his tie.

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