In Memoriam

Harry O’Connor, RIP

An unsung hero behind The Great Communicator.

By 7.5.13

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Harry O’Connor died last week. He was a hero of the Reagan movement, largely unsung, but a hero nonetheless.

It began on a March Monday in 1974, Ronald Reagan’s last year as Governor of California. He had just arrived in the capital from spending the weekend in Los Angeles. His secretary called me to say he was free for a few minutes, so I could see him to cover a matter that needed his attention. That took little time, but before I got up to leave he said, “Efrem (Zimbalist, Jr.) called me yesterday to say he’d been doing daily five-minute vignettes of famous figures down through history for syndication on radio. He said the chap producing these, Harry O'Connor, thinks there is a real place for daily conservative radio commentary and that I’m the man for the job after I leave office. Will you look into it?”

The next time I was in Los Angeles, I met with O’Connor. He’d been producing and syndicating short radio features for several years and was convinced a five-minute program of Reagan commentaries five days a week would get many sponsors.

I reported this to the Governor. He was intrigued. Later, Michael Deaver, another of his senior assistants, and I developed a proposal to manage Mr. Reagan’s public schedule after he left office. This involved the radio series, a newspaper column and a week of speaking engagements each month. We presented the plan to the Reagans one weekend. They liked it and he told us to proceed, which we did upon the completion of his term early in January 1975. A contract was signed with O’Connor Creative Services and the first taping was a few weeks later. 

When the day came, I accompanied Mr. Reagan to O’Connor’s office in the Taft Building at Hollywood and Vine. To his surprise, he was greeted by several old friends including Art Linkletter, Jack Webb and John Carradine. Sally Cobb, owner of the Brown Derby next door, appeared with a staff member bearing champagne and strawberries to celebrate the event. Reagan proceeded to record 15 radio commentaries. From then on, he recorded three weeks worth of commentaries every three weeks. 

O’Connor was right about the potential popularity of the series. He found that local businesses in many markets -- auto dealers, banks, dairies, stores -- were anxious to sponsor Reagan. 

In the early days I drafted many of the scripts, with Reagan editing them to his satisfaction. The series was suspended while he campaigned for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination, but resumed soon after that summer’s convention n Kansas City. After that, Reagan drafted nearly all the scripts himself while on his speaking tours. 

He and Harry had an easygoing working relationship, with exchanges of jokes and anecdotes at the recording sessions. At its peak, the series was carried on 350 stations across the nation.

The series ended when Reagan became an official candidate for President in 1980, but the germ of the idea was reborn after Reagan was inaugurated in January 1981. Mike Deaver, by then deputy chief of staff in the White House, met with Harry and out of that meeting came Harry’s idea of a short weekly radio address by the President. Taped every Saturday, the program was not aired by a large number of radio stations, but the news made from these broadcasts became a staple topic on all the network television Sunday public affairs programs. All four presidents since Reagan have continued the Saturday broadcasts.

During the nearly five years of his commentaries produced by O’Connor, Reagan always signed off with “This is Ronald Reagan. Thanks for Listening.” He meant it, too, for it introduced him and his ideas to millions of Americans. An untold -- but large -- number of them became campaign supporters.

In recent years, Harry O’Connor’s health declined until, finally, his heart gave out. He was 87. His legacy is the contribution he made to a great man’s success. 

 

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About the Author
Peter Hannaford was closely associated with the late President Reagan for a number of years. He is a member of the board of the Committee on the Present Danger. His latest book is “Presidential Retreats.”