He worked in Ronald Reagan's campaign doing "negative research," finding out President Carter's weak points for Reagan's speeches and advertisements, digging up the numbers that led the challenger to ask Americans in 1980 the winning question: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"
But last week, after two years in the White House, Wayne Valis, a true believer in the "Reagan Revolution" and special assistant to the president for liaison to major businesses and professional trade organizations, was told he was out. His experience in the Reagan White House has left him disenchanted with that revolution, and he says he is doubtful that its goals of cutting government spending, taxes and regulations will be achieved.
"We didn't turn the government around," he said. "But it is a question of how fast can you turn around a battleship. You don't turn a vast engine like the federal government around quickly.
". . . I've come to believe, especially after my time with Reagan, that there is no ultimate solution to human problems," said Valis. "Every solution that you find contains the seeds of other human problems . . . . Hopefully you can trade more vexing problems for less vexing problems."
The purge of Valis, 38, and five others from the president's liaison staff, more than half of that office, came as Reagan's standing in polls stood at an all-time low. A recent Gallup poll showed Reagan's voter disapproval rating at 54 percent, a 14 percent shift in a year. And there is strong concern in the White House over the loss of support among key voting groups that the liaison office serves.
According to White House aides, the firings of liaisons to business, organized labor, enviromental groups, legal groups, Hispanics and blacks were masterminded by John Herrington, the personnel director-designate. Herrington has been studying the three White House offices that deal with the public: the liaison office, the communications office and the press office. White House insiders often blame those offices for the president's political problems.
"We are not telling our story," said a White House aide, explaining how the purge coincided with Faith Ryan Whittlesey's succession of Elizabeth Hanford Dole as director for the liaison office. "This administration's failure is in not making the public realize what we are doing to help them," the aide said.
Support for Reagan has been flagging in the business community, and Valis as Reagan's liaison to business has taken blame from all sides.
White House officials say he served the president well in getting information from business groups to help shape administration policy, but had an abrasive personality that often left business representatives feeling they could not deal with the White House.
"I don't know about him personally," said Horace Busby, a Washington consultant and lobbyist for several major corporations, "but there has been considerable rumbling in the business community about the quality of the liaison office under Liddy Dole. In the last few months before she left, the business people were saying, 'Bring back Anne Wexler President Carter's head of the liaison office .'. . . Business people do feel highly critical of inferior lines of communication they have in the White House. For a Republican administration the lack of sophistication is inexcusable."
"Wayne got into some fights," said Lyn Nofziger, a former Reagan aide who remains close to the White House. "He really got into a fight with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce over the tax cut bills. But what the hell, I think Wayne did an excellent job with the business community."
Valis, however, blames the White House's failures with big business largely on poor communications between the staffs of Reagan's counselor, Edwin Meese III, and chief of staff James A. Baker III.
Last week, for example, the White House withdrew a bill sent to Congress that had sought new limits on lobbying by nonprofit groups that receive any government financing. Meese's policy office had not checked the politics of the proposal with the business community, which vehemently opposed it and helped to get it withdrawn.
The Office of Management and Budget "and the policy people didn't clear it with anyone," said Valis. "They went back and forth without bringing in the outside world on the anti-lobbying statute. So we have a firestorm on our hands with everyone from the Boy Scouts, to the Red Cross and Common Cause screaming . . . . We had a staff meeting afterward and I said, 'Next time we have to get it right.' "
Valis, pointing to his achievements, said his favorite was getting Reagan to support a bill requiring the federal government to pay its bills within 30 days and to pay all interest on bills not paid after 45 days.
OMB and the Treasury Department had argued against such a law, but when Valis took some small-business leaders to see the president, he recalled, the question came up and Valis explained the problem.
"An OMB official in the meeting said there were technical problems with prompt payment," said Valis. "The president stopped for a second, and then said, 'I think I favor prompt-pay legislation. I'm in favor of it.' He told the OMB official to take care of the technical difficulties." Valis was present for the bill-signing in the Rose Garden.
A fellow with the American Enterprise Institute before joining the Reagan campaign, Valis wrote a book, published in 1980, called "The Future Under President Reagan." But he says now that the "Reagan Revolution" has not come about.
The accelerated depreciation on investments that he pushed for businesses has been repealed; the three-year tax cut and supply-side theories have failed to spur the economy. A standby tax increase has been proposed by his president, and, with the federal deficit larger than ever, Valis says government spending remains out of control.
But he says Reagan has succeeded in changing the "terms of the debate in Washington."
"Instead of talk about big spending bills, there is talk about incentives for capital formation, to increase net savings," he said.
But, he added, "it takes the public a long time to understand what he is doing."
Despite the setbacks, Valis said he's sorry to go, although Whittlesey has the right to her own staff. "Faith is entitled to her team but I am on the Reagan team," he said.
Though he will miss the fun of working at the White House, he said it is "time to make some money" in private industry. He will continue to work toward deregulating natural gas. He also intends to take part in a 1984 Reagan campaign.
Valis, who served on the domestic council in the Nixon White House, compared the Reagan and Nixon administrations as the difference between "California and Russia."
"Things are looser in the Reagan White House," he said. "There is not as much bureaucracy . . . and Ronald Reagan in private is the same person you see in public. He is an optimist and convinced of his programs and committed to making them work.
" . . . The last time I was alone with him, I was in the outer office setting up for a meeting with business leaders and he walked in," Valis said. "I told him who they were and their concerns about tax increases. He laughed and said: 'Very good, fine, maybe we should feed them some liquor. You know, the Indians always gave their victims some liquor before they scalped them.' "