The year was 1987 and the Reagan administration had announced the INF Treaty to limit short-range nukes. Many conservatives were opposed. I elected to host a press conference to make that point publicly.
The night before, we met privately. As ringleader, I issued a directive: No attacks on Ronald Reagan. Our beef was with the treaty, not with the Gipper. My co-conspirators agreed unanimously. But while we were meeting President Reagan was sitting down for an interview with Tom Brokaw and said about conservative opposition, "Some conservatives just believe in the inevitability of nuclear war."
Bad choice of words. The next morning conservatives were furious, none more than the late Senator Malcolm Wallop, who broadsided the president from the Senate floor. As we assembled for our press conference, I withdrew my edict. Anyone who felt the need to respond to Reagan had the right to do so. It was decided that three of us would speak on behalf of everyone.
Now here's a little bit of inside baseball about press conferences. It matters not a whit what you say. Reporters cover events but transcribe only soundbites. For speakers vying for coverage, the rule is pretty solid as well: He with the best one-liner wins.
I led off, and my statement contained the sentence that I delivered with brio and knew was sure to stick. Very satisfied, I sat down, but not before introducing Richard Viguerie, the patriarch of the "New Right" re-birth of the conservative movement. He didn't have a statement, just a little card containing one sentence. His attention-grabber line was twice as good as mine, which he delivered with double the brio. Advantage: Viguerie.
We turned the podium over to Howie Phillips. Within a minute he had delivered his sound bite. Viguerie and I, seated at the head table on either side of the lectern, leaned our chairs back, looked at each other and silently nodded. We knew Phillips had scored the knockout. "Reagan is a useful idiot."
All hell broke loose. All day we were peppered with questions from the press after being denounced by the White House. That evening, Viguerie and I were guests on CNN and anchorman Bernie Shaw eviscerated us. That was it. We asked Phillips to join us for breakfast the following morning.
Serious and worried, we told our friend it was time for serious damage control. The options: One, apologize. Whatever your intent, this is perceived as a personal insult and no one, most especially Ronald Reagan, should be insulted by us.
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