In 1981, when I moved to DC to work for Senator Abdnor, there were two “social” Republican groups. These groups regularly met in the evenings, adult beverages were served, off the Capitol campus but near Capitol Hill. The members/attendees were mostly Senate and House staffers, and, with the recent inauguration of President Reagan, a sprinkling of lower level White House or Cabinet staffers. Lobbyists weren’t barred from coming but they weren’t really welcome. Members of Congress were usually only there if they were the speaker.
The Coolidge Society comprised GOP conservatives in the Dewey/Taft tradition: Socially conservative, international isolationists, and strong states rights advocates. With the recent take-over of the Senate and the new Reaganites in town, the Coolidge Society was ascendant.
The Ripon Society members were from the GOP’s more liberal and libertarian wing in the Wilkie/Eisenhower tradition. Socially liberal (affiliated with the gay Log Cabin Republicans and pro-abortion), willing to be internationally active on economic and military fronts, and libertarian on civil rights type issues. I was surprised that many of Goldwater staffers were more likely to be here than at Coolidge.
Because many of Ripon’s members had been pro-John Anderson in the 1980 Presidential election, the Ripon Society was definitely on the decline and its members were primarily from the Northeast part of the country. It seemed the Reagan staffers who belonged to the Ripon Society seemed to be those with an international focus because the isolationism of the Coolidge Society wasn’t warm to Reagan’s Cold War strategy. While Ripon was formed in Wisconsin, it really had become the home of the “Yankee Republicans.”
Despite (and maybe because of) the differences, there was substantial cross-over members because:
- We were Republicans and mostly worked for Republican Congressional members. Even though we disagreed on some matters, the success of our boss’ agenda depended on us having relationships with each other.
- On taxes, spending, and regulation, there wasn’t a lot of difference between the Societies except often times it seemed Coolidge was more pro-regulation while Ripon had greater fidelity to the free market and civil liberties.
- Because these two groups were competitive for standing in town, they both worked hard at having quality speakers and the Q&A was extremely topical. Sometimes as an Abdnor staffer, I was able to get insight into the view of another Senator because of the questions another staffer was asking.
- In reality, these gatherings were an “excuse” to leave the office before 7 p.m. and socialize. Congressional staffers work hard and by necessity most of our friends were from our home state. Frankly, I mostly went to the Ripon Society gatherings because a cute girl from Pennsylvania was a member. Whether true or not, when I see Ashton Kucher’s girlfriend, I remember this gal, whose name escapes me. Maybe I didn’t even know her name and had a crush from a distance.
I probably should say “membership” was a loose term. I don’t remember there being dues to either group or even a cover charge. I just kinda remember you labeled yourself as a member of one and a guest of the other and maybe paid a nominal amount to get an occasional newsletter. And, you seemed to be more diligent to going to one group’s gatherings or the other.
Why am I giving this background today? Last night, I saw that Martin Anderson had died. It got me thinking of one time I was in his presence. I never really met him but was a few times where he was.
Anderson was a long-time fellow of the Hoover Institution, Reagan’s Chief Domestic Policy Advisor, White House point person on Reaganomics, and member of the Economic Policy Advisory Board. Anderson was credited for articulating the intellectual underpinning for the Reagan-Kemp-Roth tax cuts. Even if you aren’t a Reaganite, I urge you to read something from Anderson. Anything. Personally, I think his “Reagan, in his own hand” is the best biography of Reagan out there where Anderson was essentially the editor of Reagan’s letters and speeches with commentary for context.
Martin Anderson was alternatively called a right-wing radical or the “Reagan’s Conscience” or something like that. Senators were often frustrated because he seemed insensitive to “political realities.” Senator Abdnor as Co-Chair of the Joint Economic Committee once said to him before a committee meeting something to the effect- “This is what we are talking about. Don’t go off on your crazy economic theories.” But, another time I remember Abdnor saying to Anderson “It isn’t the same since you aren’t around all the time (Anderson commuted to and from California after a few years). Those guys need you back here.”
Anyway, probably late in Reagan’s first term but before the re-election campaign was in full swing, Anderson was the speaker at a Coolidge Society gathering. I think his talk was about what was coming with regard to economic policy now that the tax cuts had passed. I don’t remember it very well.
But, what I’m reminded of today was, when he was thanking Coolidge for the invitation to speak, he made a point to say he wanted to be invited to the Ripon Society too. My first reaction was that it is a slap in the face to his Coolidge hosts.
Anderson then explained when he was a young man just out of college it was the Ripon wing of the GOP that advanced GOP support of the Civil Rights Acts over its state’s rights inclination. And then during Anderson’s tenure with Nixon, it was Ripon that supported his intellectual thesis we should end the military draft and stood behind Nixon’s trip to China.
Anderson’s point was clear. Both Coolidge and Ripon had a role in stimulating ideas within the GOP body of thought.
Martin Anderson was more than the economic and philosophical conscience in the White House. He was a thinker and loved ideas, even those ideas he opposed. But there are a lot of people who are like that. Abdnor and Illinois Senator Paul Simon weren’t friends because they agreed. They were friends because they disagreed.
What makes Martin Anderson special to me is that he was more than a critical cog in what we recognize as the Reagan legacy.
As Reagan began to drift away from Alzhiemers, Anderson knew the Reagan greatness might never be known to the next generation. So Anderson began his last endeavor* to use his up-close and personal experience in the Reagan inner circle to give us a glimpse of Reagan the deep thinker who mulled and contemplated both his positions and how to present them to the American people, Reagan’s basic understanding America is the people’s requiring Reagan to do more than rule but to also convince the people on the issues, and Reagan’s personal courage to see things through to the end.
In one of Anderson’s books (maybe “Revolution”), Anderson gives his explanation of Reagan’s charisma via a story where Reagan was asked why people like him and are willing to trust him. Reagan humbly replied, “When they look at me, they see themselves.”
As we now start to turn our attention to the 2016 Presidential election, maybe we should be looking for another deep thinker with great personal courage who recognizes the President is a steward of the American Experiment and not its author, one in whom we see our best selves.
Martin Anderson, American. Rest In Peace.
*Anderson’s final book will be released next month: “Ronald Reagan: Decisions of Greatness.”
(Sidenote: I’m writing this from memory. I apologize to Anderson and you if I have inadvertently misquoted him, especially the reference to “Revolution” which I can’t find anywhere (Schoenbeck, did I give you my copy?) and exactly the subject of his Coolidge talk. It has been almost 30 years. Speaking of “Revolution” which I read about the time Reagan’s Alzheimers became public. At the end of the book, Anderson talks about Iran-Contra. My impression was Anderson felt Reagan had lost his physical energy because of age and being in the mid to late 70’s. My reaction was maybe the disease had started to manifest itself, especially how Reagan could remember so little during the investigation.)