Republican lawyer and strategist John P. Sears died last week at age 79. Sears played a pivotal role in the ascendancy of both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to the presidency. Sears was also the person who hired me for the national staff of Reagan’s 1976 and 1980 campaigns and served as a mentor in my early political experience. Because the New York Times and Washington Post so badly mangled his obituary, I felt compelled to write this appreciation.
John Sears was born in upstate New York and graduated from Notre Dame. After graduating from law school, Sears became an associate at the Wall Street firm of Mudge, Rose, Guthrie and Alexander. Former Vice President Richard Nixon joined the firm in his wilderness years, and Sears quickly became Nixon‘s confidant and the chief political operative for Nixon’s then improbable 1968 comeback. Thus, Sears learned politics at the knee of a master who would manage to be on the national ticket five times before he was done. Sears was “like a son to Nixon,” Nixon’s longtime secretary Rose Woods once said.
Indeed, Nixon’s small entourage in 1966 consisted only of political operative Sears, a mere 26 years old, writer and issues researcher Patrick J. Buchanan and stalwart Nixon secretary Rose Mary Woods. When the combination of the Vietnam War and the murders of Robert F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. cleared the way for Nixon’s path to the White House, his staff would expand to include not only his law partner John Mitchell but also “the Berlin Wall” of H.R. ‘Bob” Haldeman and John Ehrlichman. These two who boarded late would eventually go to prison in the Watergate scandal.
Sarcastic and wise beyond his years, Sears was ousted from the Nixon White House by the man who would become Nixon’s campaign manager and Attorney General, John Mitchell. Sears unwillingness to be deferential to Mitchell and his close personal relationship with Nixon were both threats that Mitchell could not abide.
Unlike his mentor Nixon, Sears carefully cultivated relationships with virtually every major political reporter of the day, and unlike Nixon did not view them as “the enemy” but more precisely as useful tools. These warm relations with the press would earn Sears the distrust of Nixon’s inner circle and an illegal wiretap when he was a Deputy Counsel to the President. Those wiretaps never revealed Sears leaking classified information, but they did pick up Sears’ sarcastic references to “Milhous,” as he sometimes referred to the President, providing the grist for Mitchell’s move to oust him.
Sears would remain close to Woods and Buchanan as well as other Nixon loyalists, and he was incorrectly identified by many to be “Deep Throat,” the notorious source for the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who played a critical role in Nixon’s downfall. Sears heatedly denied that he was “Deep Throat,” and he was technically correct because, as I outlined in my book “Tricky Dick -the Rise and Fall and Rise Richard M Nixon,” there was no “Deep Throat.” “Deep Throat” never appears in the pages of the Washington Post, in the Woodward and Bernstein book “All the President’s Men” nor in the initial draft of the script for the movie based on the book which starred Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. Legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee denied there was a “Deep Throat.” In truth, “Deep Throat” is most likely a literary device and amalgamation of multiple sources, of which Sears was probably one.
To the extent that there was a “Deep Throat,” the main source was most definitely not FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt but rather White House Chief of Staff Al Haig, as meticulously detailed in USA Today reporter Ray Locker’s new book “Haig’s Coup.” Thirty-one years after Nixon resigned, Woodward and Bernstein were still covering for their real source by falsely fingering Felt.
Sears flew to California in late 1973 to meet with Ronald and Nancy Reagan regarding the 1976 Republican presidential nomination. To the astonishment of the Reagans, Sears correctly predicted that both Nixon and Agnew would be gone by 1976 and that the Watergate-damaged nomination of the Republican Party would still be well worth having. It is probably this uncanny prognostication that got Sears hired as Reagan’s campaign manager in his bid to wrest the Republican nomination from President Gerald Ford, who had risen to the presidency after his appointment as vice president and Nixon’s resignation.
Although he was the heartthrob of the conservative grassroots movement, Reagan was badly outmatched by the Republican establishment in the 1976 contest. Ford used the pulpit of the presidency to woo delegates and doled out federal grants in order to win the nomination. Reagan himself said that when Gerald Ford came to town “the band didn’t know whether to play Hail to the Chief or Santa Claus is Coming to Town”.
After a paper-thin loss in the New Hampshire primary and a shellacking in the Florida primary, Reagan would stage a comeback in the middle and late primaries, starting with a shocking win in North Carolina and sweeping wins in both Texas and California. Still, after the dust settled Reagan was short of the delegates to snatch the nomination from Ford, but the Ford campaign unwisely failed to declare victory. John Sears saw an opening.
In a bold strategic move, Reagan announced that moderate Republican Pennsylvania Sen. Richard Schweiker would be his vice-presidential running mate. Pennsylvania was known to have a substantial block of uncommitted delegates. While those delegates would not end up with Reagan, the stunning maneuver left the nomination in doubt and got Reagan to the convention still in contention. The New York Times obit called this move “dubious.” To the contrary, it was brilliant.
Knowing that Ford had promised the vice presidency to multiple would-be candidates in return for their delegates, Sears also put forward a proposed convention rules change — rule 16c, which would have required presidential candidates to name their vice-presidential choice prior to the first ballot for the presidential nomination. This maneuver added to Reagan’s viability in Kansas City, where he lost narrowly but cemented his position for 1980 with a memorable speech from the podium in which he roused the faithful while never actually mentioning Ford’s name. There is no better account of this triumphant moment that in Craig Shirley’s excellent book “Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All.”
Based on these brilliant maneuvers, Sears was invited back to manage Reagan’s 1980 campaign — much to the chagrin of many conservatives who felt Sears put too much stock in his belief that moderate Republicans needed to be brought in to the Reagan coalition. Sears was clearly thinking ahead to a general election in which some thought Reagan would be, like 1964 nominee Barry Goldwater, too extreme to win a national contest.
I believe it was the scar of his downfall under Nixon that eventually lead to Sears’ ouster from Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign after he had effectively engineered Reagan’s comeback over George Bush in the New Hampshire primary. Sears set Bush up in the Nashua Telegraph Debate — in which Bush showed his petulance by demanding that the debate be one-on-one with Reagan and all other contenders including John Connally, Howard Baker, Bob Dole and John Anderson be excluded. It was Sears’ credibility that got all those candidates who were closed out of the debate to Nashua for the ambush that stunned Bush. This brilliant gambit essentially iced the New Hampshire primary, which in turn sealed the nomination for Reagan. However, Reagan fired Sears right after the polls closed. Brooding, secretive and not one to suffer fools gladly, the wily and mercurial Sears had alienated the Reagans by seeking to purge those in Reagan’s inner circle who he thought might challenge his position.
Sears actually knew that his ouster from Reagan’s campaign was imminent weeks before when he asked me to join him for breakfast at the Waldorf Astoria with William J. Casey, the man who would soon take Sears position as campaign manager for Reagan. We met at the hotel the evening before the breakfast for a “night cap.” John had more than one. Sears never showed up for the breakfast, leaving me to ad lib with an impatient Casey, who was demanding “input” in return for his support for the former California governor. He was also demanding to know all about the campaign’s finances, of which, as the Northeast political director, I knew little. When I checked with the front desk at the Waldorf, I learned Sears had checked out at 3 a.m. Sears had discerned Casey’s real purpose — to scope out the campaign he was about to take over.
Sears would come back as a political commentator for CBS, but he essentially returned to his small law firm. He performed pivotal roles in representing South Africa and bringing that country out of apartheid as well as helping engineer the national tobacco settlement — earning himself a considerable fortune.
Sears ultimately moved in with his sister in Miami and became a virtual recluse. Despite our warm relationship, he declined to be interviewed for my 2018 book on Nixon. “Politics is motion,” Sears often said, “It requires taking risks but above all keeping the voters’ interest.” He would also say, “If you are not saying anything interesting to the voters, they will look elsewhere. The only thing in politics worse than being wrong is being boring.” The brilliant and Machiavellian John Sears was never boring.
Roger Stone is a well known Republican political consultant and is a veteran of eight national Republican Presidential campaigns. His also the men’s fashion correspondent for the Daily Caller and editor of Stonezone.com.