MOB RULE: JOHN B. ROBERTS II ON THE 1984 REELECTION CAMPAIGN’S SECRET OPERATION AGAINST GERALDINE FERRARO, THINKING OUTSIDE THE BALLOT BOX, AND HIS NEW BOOK ON MORNING IN AMERICA: “REAGAN’S COWBOYS”
In the run-up to the 2020 election, Reagan Political Strategist John B. Roberts II looks back at 1984—only to find a highly controversial president, a terrible economy, and mass protests in the streets. The parallels go on . . .
Interview with Bob Shuman, Stage Voices
What is an issue from the 1984 Reagan campaign that is also important to a millennial–and why?
The economy. Until 1983, America had a terrible economy for a decade. It began with an oil embargo and gas shortages. We waited in long lines to try to fill our cars, at prices that spiked more than 150 percent. I was a college graduate in 1973. Jobs were impossible to find, and when you did find them, wages couldn’t keep up with double-digit inflation. I vividly remember how hard it was to land a job and how it seemed impossible to ever buy a home. It was really dismal, a lot like it has been for millennials.
Reagan was a highly controversial president, it should be recalled. There were mass protests in the streets, a difficult economy, Russian interference in elections; the parallels go and on. For those who do not remember that time, this look backward may reveal that no matter how bad things seem, they can turn around for the better.
Why hasn’t the story of the 1984 reelection campaign’s secret operation against Geraldine Ferraro been told before–and do you think reasons had to do with protecting participants?
By design, only a handful of us knew the full extent of the operation, even when it was happening. We had lots of people working on the investigations, but they didn’t know everyone who was involved or what people outside of their cluster were doing. It was a compartmented operation and only I, my colleague Art Teele, and the Reagans’ closest advisor, Stu Spencer, knew the complete story. In late 1984, an editor at Knopf told me he was interested in publishing a book about the press coverage of the campaigns, which would have included the Ferraro operation. Stu Spencer asked me not to write it because he thought it might embarrass the Reagans, especially Nancy. So we kept silent for decades.
Besides yourself, name the first Reagan Cowboy to come to mind–and who was he or she?
Mac Baldrige. He was Reagan’s Commerce Secretary and although he was an Ivy Leaguer and successful businessman, he grew up on a ranch and had been a professional roper, a real rodeo cowboy. In 1988 he was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame. He and Reagan shared a love of horses and often went riding together. Baldrige died from injuries in a freak riding accident. Of course, the second name that comes to mind is Colonel Oliver North, who was a principal in the Iran-Contra affair. He was one of Reagan’s cowboys, whether they went horseback riding or not.
Why was it worth staying with the campaign as you found yourself involved with organized crime?
That’s a really good question. My mortgage was definitely a factor. But the main thing that kept me on the job was that Reagan declared war on organized crime in 1983. Attorney General William French Smith ordered U.S. attorneys and the FBI to make the Mafia and other crime groups a top priority. At the same time Reagan created a high-profile presidential commission to publicly spotlight the dangers. One question Art Teele and I could never answer was this: was it just a coincidence that a relatively unknown politician with extensive connections to organized crime was picked to run for vice president? Or was the Mafia trying to put someone they could coerce into doing their bidding into the White House? Because we couldn’t discount that possibility, we stuck with our investigations until the Mondale-Ferraro ticket was defeated.
What do you see as major differences in opposition research then and now?
The dossier of derogatory information British former spy Christopher Steele developed on Trump in 2016 embodies the differences. Even though the FBI and CIA could not verify the chief allegations in Steele’s dossier, it was used to justify secret surveillance. The report became part of a counter-intelligence investigation of the Trump campaign and was shared with the press, senior officials in the intelligence community, and in the Justice Department. Each and every one of those actions would never have happened in 1984, at least not on my watch or on Art Teele’s watch. They violate every important principle of a democratic election, from abuse of executive authority to potentially introducing Russian propaganda into a presidential campaign.
We verified the information we uncovered about Geraldine Ferraro before we disclosed it to anyone. We then required the main news organizations we worked with to independently verify our leads, as a condition of our sharing the information. We refused to involve Executive Branch agencies in our investigative work, and the one time we found out someone, on our side, had tried to do so, we shut him down. Without subpoena powers, without court warrants, without FISA court approved eavesdropping, we nonetheless uncovered politically damaging information. Some of that information led to a congressional investigation, unanimously approved by every Republican and Democrat on the House Ethics Committee, into Geraldine Ferraro’s compliance with the law. Unlike in recent years, where the Steele dossier’s allegations remain unproven and investigations into Russian collusion have come up empty-handed, the 1984 investigation into Ferraro found numerous violations of the Ethics in Government Act of 1978.
The second part of the Stage Voices interview with John B. Roberts II will appear next Tuesday.
Reagan’s Cowboys by John B. Roberts II, available now from McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers
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Photos: North, Guardian; Steele, Business Insider
Interview (c) 2020 by John B. Roberts II and Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.