This is a personal column.
It contains no Reaganisms, no tidbits about the more backward members of the Reagan Cabinet and no details of the president's coming trip to Brazil. With luck, it will tell you something about Edward J. Rollins, the administration political adviser recovering from a stroke suffered in the service of president and party.
Let me begin by acknowledging that reporters sometimes protect public figures whom they like or respect. There are lots of reasons for doing so, some of them self-serving, but the motivation for protecting Rollins was mostly to save him from his own unremitting candor. In an administration where officials are apt to go on background to tell you that tomorrow is Tuesday or that the president is popular in Utah, on-the-record candor can be as rare and welcome as a cheerful face on the unemployment line.
Rollins, 39, a weight lifter who once boxed and played football in California, may have been something of an overachiever in the candor division. Even Rollins' fans, of whom I am one, would have to acknowledge that any president's patience would be sorely tried by a political adviser who described President Reagan's daughter as the worst candidate he had ever seen.
Rollins also did not make himself a favorite with the Senate by insisting early and often that Senate Republican campaign committee chairman Bob Packwood (Ore.) was damaging the GOP cause with persistent personal criticism of Reagan.
This came just after a story that Rollins had responded to a question at a college seminar about how the White House had obtained the vote of Sen. Roger W. Jepsen (R-Iowa) on the AWACS radar plane issue by declaring that "we beat his brains out." Jepsen then emphasized this bit of political hyperbole by making the remark an issue in Iowa.
As a counterintelligence officer, Rollins would have been a bust. His gut response, in almost every circumstance, is to tell the truth as he sees it. After the House overrode Reagan's veto of the supplemental appropriations bill, White House senior officials ran for Air Force One to avoid reporters who wanted an explanation of the defeat. Rollins did not run. When Gannett reporter Ann Devroy asked him what had happened, he replied succinctly: "We were overconfident."
He was equally candid on the inside. Rollins did not want Reagan to waste his time campaigning in a secure Senate race in Pennsylvania and urged that Reagan jump into a supposedly one-sided California gubernatorial race that Rollins accurately predicted would become a close battle at the end. Rollins lost both advocacies, which may say more about White House political priorities than its political director's capabilities.
Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), the senator closest to Reagan, told me last April: "I think Ed Rollins is doing a good job under terribly difficult circumstances. There should be more authority to the political shop; there is very little opportunity for political initiatives."
Rollins' superiors were understandably jittery about his openness. House chief of staff James A. Baker III, justly proud of having created a political office not disguised as something else, found Rollins' candor difficult to take.
After Rollins told reporters that Republicans who personally attacked the president should be "disciplined," Baker saw to it that Reagan disavowed the report and instructed Rollins not to talk to the press. Fortunately for everyone, including Baker and Rollins, the order didn't take. "Unmuzzle Rollins" buttons bloomed like those mythical hundred flowers in the People's Republic of China.
The sign that Rollins would stay the course came one morning at a senior staff meeting when counselor Edwin Meese III showed up wearing one of the buttons on his lapel.
Rollins and his small staff work long, hard hours at the usual thankless tasks. They have earned the respect of nuts-and-bolts politicians, desperate candidates with no chance, assured victors running scared, party workhorses who needed a favor, a letter, a kind word or a White House tour. Such small chores are the warp and woof of politics, which can sometimes be a rip-off or a lark but more often is a decent occupation performed by men and women of conviction from both parties.
Rollins has made his mark here as a partisan. Those of us with California roots think of him in a different way. He is a product of the California legislative staff system forged by Democrat Jesse Unruh, a system that resolves political conflicts in inordinately civilized ways and that attracts and produces people such as Rollins and his friend, Bill Hauck, who once served as chief aide to a Democratic speaker.
"Ed is a partisan when necessary, but he's been able to be partisan in ways that don't make enemies of the other side," Hauck said. "It seems to me important in politics to have people who are clearly on one side but also are able to build bridges to the other side. We are all in government to make things work and solve problems. Ed did that."
Hauck credits Rollins with pulling Republicans together and making it possible for Assemblywoman Carol Hallett to become the first woman minority leader in California history. Then he helped persuade Republicans that they should make Willie Brown the Assembly's first black speaker. "Ed realized the political advantage of having a black Democrat from San Francisco as the speaker," Hauck said. "He also realized that Willie is a man of his word who would keep his commitments."
Rollins was still building bridges last week when he suffered the stroke. Ironically, he was talking on the telephone to the man he most wants to retire from public life: California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.
B.T. Collins, Brown's irrepressible chief of staff and a Rollins admirer, had put Brown on the phone for a chat. That wasn't surprising, nor was Rollins' remark made to his valued aide, Michele Davis, when he was finally able to speak at George Washington University Hospital last Tuesday night.
"I guess this means you won't let me go to North Carolina with the president," Rollins said.
He was right about that. I hope he gets well soon.