This past weekend, I lost one of the greatest friends to ever grace my life.
In 1945, the New York Times wrote, “Men will thank God on their knees a hundred years from now, that Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House…” For those of us who believe the same of Ronald Reagan, it is important to remember Peter Hannaford.
Peter Hannaford was one of Reagan’s top aides in California and his presidential campaigns in 1976 and 1980. After Reagan lost the nomination in 1976, he was 65 years old. It was by no means certain that he could run again.
For millions, like my parents, who lived behind the Iron Curtain, they were grateful that Reagan won in 1980. Long before Reagan pressured Gorbachev to negotiate an end to the Cold War, he had to get elected. Peter Hannaford played a crucial role in that effort.
When Governor Reagan was ending his second term in California, his four top aides were Ed Meese (Chief of Staff), Michael Deaver (Director of Administration), Don Livingston (Director of Programs and Policy), and Peter Hannaford, who was his Director of Public Affairs.
In 1975, Michael Deaver and Peter Hannaford quickly formed a public relations firm. About 60 percent of their time was spent on getting Reagan elected president, the other 40 percent was on other clients.
Deaver and Hannaford got Reagan a radio show, a weekly column, and organized his schedule so that he would have plenty of speaking engagements every month. Peter helped Reagan draft some of his speeches, columns, and radio commentaries.
They also traveled the world together. In 1978 alone, Reagan, Hannaford, and other top Reaganites visited the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Iran. Peter was with Reagan during his first two meetings with Margaret Thatcher in 1975 and 1978. This not only strengthened his foreign policy credentials, it helped Reagan form a clear agenda once elected.
Reagan’s political rise was not inevitable. In March 1976, Reagan’s campaign was almost out of money and they couldn’t afford another defeat. With the help of Senator Jesse Helms, Reagan won North Carolina.
After his first victory in North Carolina, Peter helped draft one of his most memorable speeches in 1976 as Reagan attacked détente as soft on the Soviet Union. This energized the conservative base. It brought in money to keep the campaign going all the way to the convention and led to several primary victories including Texas, Georgia, Nevada, and California.
At the convention, Reagan narrowly lost in delegates to the incumbent president (1,187 to 1,070). The Reagan team was down, but not out.
In 1977, Hannaford along with the Reagan inner circle of Meese, Deaver, and Lynn Nofziger would form Citizens for the Republic (CFTR). Others in Reagan’s orbit such as Martin Anderson, Richard Wirthlin, and Richard Allen would follow. Years later, Peter wrote: “The idea was to create a national network of potential Reagan presidential campaign volunteers. That’s exactly what happened. By 1980, Candidate Reagan had a ready-made grassroots network of prodigious size.”
Reagan won in 1980 after nearly 6 years of non-stop campaigning. Some people study history, Peter shaped it.
By the time I met him in 2004, I was a senior in college and he was a long-time Washington insider. That day, we began an 11-year conversation that ended with his passing.
I was privileged to learn from someone who had a lifetime of incredible experiences in politics, business, and life. I imagine few have had a better mentor.
He believed that Reagan’s strategy to win the Cold War could provide useful lessons on how to defeat Radical Islam over the next several decades. That was why he was active in the Committee on the Present Danger and why he continued to write books and columns, including frequent pieces for The American Spectator.
It was in the last six years that I helped him with research on some of his book projects and co-wrote some columns with him. We also worked on a statewide campaign in California in 2014.
Peter was remarkably humble despite everything he achieved in life. He was one of the most decent and honorable men I ever met.
William Butler Yeats wrote, “Think where man’s glory most begins and ends, and say my glory was I had such friends.” Ronald Reagan and I were among the many people who were lucky enough to have known Peter Hannaford.