Acting on the instructions of President Reagan, ranking administration officials boycotted a meeting yesterday that had been billed by political consultant Lyn Nofziger as the first planning session for Reagan's 1984 reelection campaign.
White House deputy chief of staff Michael K. Deaver called more than a dozen Reagan loyalists early yesterday and told them to stay away from Nofziger's session at the Key Bridge Marriott hotel in Rosslyn. White House chief of staff James A. Baker III delivered the same message to White House political director Ed Rollins and his deputy, Lee Atwater.
Everyone called by the White House followed orders. And a few of those who were "disinvited" by Deaver and Baker to the Nofziger get-together decided to have their own meeting yesterday at the Capitol Hill Club.
Ten administration officials and several political consultants and party officials boycotted the Nofziger meeting. Among those he invited who didn't show up were Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis, Office of Personnel Management director Donald J. Devine, Federal Communications Commission chairman Mark S. Fowler and General Services Administraton chief Gerald Carmen.
Others who didn't go included Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), Reagan's choice to be the new "general chairman" of the Republican National Committee; Frank Farhenkopf, the Nevada GOP chairman, who is expected to be second-in-command to Laxalt; Richard Richards, the retiring national Republican chairman, and Richard Wirthlin, Reagan's pollster.
"I didn't ask the president to endorse what I'm doing," Nofziger said after the 4 1/2-hour session yesterday. Those who did attend agreed not to discuss the closed-door session, called by Nofziger, the former White House political director, as a first step is preparing for a 1984 Reagan campaign, should the president seek reelection.
In a letter that angered Baker and other Reagan political operatives, Nofziger said he wanted to make sure that Reagan's 1984 effort would be a "Reagan-Bush campaign, not a Bush-Reagan campaign." His comment that he wasn't certain that the 1984 campaign would be "run by Reaganites" was seen by those who received the letter as a slap at Bush people in the administration, including Baker, who ran Bush's 1980 presidential campaign.
Although Nofziger sent the invitation to a host of administration officials as well as some private consultants who worked for Reagan, none passed it on to chief of staff Baker. One invited administration official said, "I assumed everybody knew about it. It would have been senseless to call."
When Baker heard about the letter while traveling with the president in Latin America, he angrily telephoned Nofziger, interrupting him in the middle of a speech to a meeting of political consultants here. Baker reportedly said in blunt, Anglo-Saxon language that he had been responsible for having Nofziger named a presidential assistant after Reagan's 1980 victory and took the slap at Bush as a personal affront.
Baker wasn't satisfied after the long-distance call, and went back to tell the president about it, sources said. Reagan then called Nofziger. According to these sources, the president told his former aide: "George Bush , Jim Baker and I have worked as a team. This is really harmful."
Nofziger, a blunt-spoken political operative whose relationship with the president dates back to Reagan's 1966 campaign for California governor, said in a second letter to those he invited that Reagan was told of his plans. Nofziger said that while not asking Reagan's permission, "I didn't want him to be caught by surprise."
But the president was surprised by the tone of Nofziger's comments about Vice President Bush. Deputy White House press secretary Larry Speakes said yesterday that although Reagan knew of the meeting, he had not seen Nofziger's letter. Speakes said administration officials were told that any White House involvement "could raise FEC [Federal Election Commission] problems."
Even some administration officials who have not been fans of Bush thought Nofziger's letter was a low blow. "He's been a loyal vice president and almost underground," said one official who was invited to the Nofziger session. "It's a cheap shot."
The episode did, however, highlight the difficulty that Baker has had in convincing some "Reaganite conservatives" of his loyalty to the president. Baker has gone out of his way to quell this distrust, and there is no evidence that the president shares any suspicion of disloyalty. But, as the Nofziger letter seemed to suggest, the president's view is not unanimously held by conservatives.