What Bill Brock said about Ray C. Bliss, in commenting on the death last week of his distinguished predecessor as chairman of the Republican National Committee, was the literal truth: "Our present success is due in large measure to his devotion and continuing leader ship."
Few national party chairmen put their marks on history. For Republicans, they run in an alliterative tradition: Mark Hanna to Will Hays to Len Hall, and, more recently, from Bliss to Brock. Of the five, Hanna and Bliss were probably the great innovators, on whose work the others built.
Hanna showed Republicans how to organize business and industry as a source of major campaign funds, an art they have never lost. Bliss, 70 years later, welded onto that financial base the mass of small direct-mail contributions and showed how the money could be sensibly spent to build local organizations, guide campaigns through scientific polls and use mass media to shape the party image.
Brock, now the U.S. special trade representative, has received deserved praise for bringing those elements to a high pitch of readiness in 1980 and for making an immense contribution to the best Election Day for Republicans in a generation. But what Brock said about Bliss was true: the seeds were planted then. If it had not been for the folly and arrogance of the Nixon administration, they might have borne fruit much earlier.
Those who know the RNC only as the affluent, well-staffed organization it is today cannot believe what a feeble thing it was 16 years ago when Bliss came in from Columbus, where he had been Ohio Republican chairman for 16 years. He arrived in the wake of the Goldwater debacle at a time when the RNC was, in his phrase, "a second-rate answering service."
He took over a party demoralized by defeat and split down the middle by the mutual recriminations of the Goldwater and Rockefeller wings. Rather than duck those divisions, Bliss pulled the antagonists--and all the other major figures in the party hierarchy--together in a policy vehicle called the Republican Coordinating Committee. Over the next four years, that committee developed and publicized such innovative notions as federal revenue-sharing. But its great function was to ease the personal feuds and persuade the public that Republicans could agree on a positive agenda for the future.
Bliss's personal passion was training; it was no accident he married a schoolteacher. There were endless rounds of workshops for city, county and state chairmen on the nuts and bolts of politics. Use of polls, computers, TV, direct-mail in campaigns at all levels is routine now; it was not then, and it was Bliss, more than anyone else, who organized the teaching process.
To read the clips on Bliss is to rediscover the origins of the modern muscle of the Republican Party:
Is the GOP the party of ideas today? In September 1965, Bliss met with 29 political scientists "to discuss ways of attracting more professors to the Republican Party."
Does money pour in with every mail delivery, as the result of a small-donor, direct-mail pro gram that makes the Democrats green with envy? In January 1966, Bliss and his finance chairman, retired Gen. Lucius D. Clay, announced they would mail more than 10 million letters asking for money. They raised half their $7.1 million budget from $10 contributions that year.
They also elected 47 new House members and three more senators that year and had a comparable surge at the state level. In 1968, the Bliss-built organization helped Nixon to victory, but Nixon and his arrogant lieutenants incredibly purged Bliss for his "failure" to declare himself a Nixon partisan during the time the nomination was being contested.
I remember talking to Bliss at the time, and his personal bitterness was less than his professional disappointment that the pieces he believed were in place for a Republican capture of Congress in 1970 would now probably not be carefully assembled. Events proved him right.
But I also have a happier memory of that period in early 1969, when he was awaiting the formalities of the purge. He and his wife, Ellen, came to a party in a reporter's home, where there were probably more Democratic officials than Republicans. But Bliss was the lion of the evening. The Democrats he had just helped turn out of power praised his craftsmanship, while marveling that Nixon would so cavalierly discard such an asset. Bliss had been a partisan Republican from his election as precinct captain in Akron in 1932; he would remain one until his retirement from the RNC last year and his death last week.
But he was a hero that night, even to the Democrats, because he was much more than a partisan. He was a pro.