From the Fact Check Desk: Did Reagan Offer a Senator a Job If He Agreed to Not Run for Re-election in 1982?

Jun 3, 2010 10:06am

In efforts to defend President Obama from the controversies involving Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Penn., and former Colorado speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff – Democratic Senate candidates whom the White House made efforts to coax out of their challenges to incumbent Democratic Senators — the White House and its allies have argued that a similar offer was made by President Ronald Reagan's White House when trying to coax a weak incumbent out of his re-election race.

But the Reagan White House official involved tells ABC News that that's not true, and he’s supported by press accounts at the time.

Some background: In 1981, it was very clear that Sen. Samuel Ichiye (S.I.) Hayakawa, R-Calif., might not win re-election. Then 75, Hayakawa was trailing in polls to then-Reps. Paul McCloskey, R-Calif., and Barry Goldwater Jr., R-Calif.

President Reagan's daughter Maureen was also talking about running in the Republican primary to challenge him, as was Rep. Bob Dornan, R-Calif. The Democratic nominee would likely be then-Gov. Jerry Brown.

A New York Times profile of Hayakawa from around that time noted that the Senator "is ridiculed now as 'Sleepin' Sam.' He had a penchant, widely publicized and a source of glee to television's Johnny Carson, among others, for nodding off." Hayakawa acknowledged that the image of him "can be very, very damaging.''

The Republican senator said he might not run for reelection of still trailed in polls at the end of 1981. A November 1981 California Poll had Goldwater with 22 percent, trailed by San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson with 19 percent, McCloskey with 18 percent, and Hayakawa with 15 percent. Dornan, Maureen Reagan and other candidates all had less than 10 percent.

Onto this scene in November 1981, enter Ed Rollins, Reagan's incoming political director.

Asked by an Associated Press reporter if President Reagan would offer Hayakawa a job if he decided not to run for reelection, Rollins, underlined that the White House was not negotiating with Hayakwa but said: "If the senator chooses, on his own initiative, not to run for re-election, I'm sure the president would be willing to offer him a substantial administration post."

Rollins told the AP reporter "it has never been discussed" so it would be "purely speculative to say" what job Hayakawa might be offered. "We are clearly not encouraging it," he said.

Asked to respond, Hayakawa said, "I'm not interested… I do not want to be an ambassador, and I do not want an administration post." In a statement, Hayakawa said, "I have not contacted the White House in regard to any administration or ambassadorial post, and they have not been in contact with me."

Hayakawa dropped out of the race in January 1982. Wilson went on to win the GOP nomination and defeat Brown. Hayakawa was never appointed to a position in the Reagan administration. He died in 1992.

Reached for comment today, Rollins told ABC News that the AP interview took place "when I was very inexperienced and didn't understand you don't answer hypothetical questions."

Hayakawa was facing a grueling primary, he noted, and "I was asked 'Would there be any place for Hayakawa if he left the Senate?'" And he gave his answer.

"The senator had many friends in the administration including the president," Rollins recalled. "We never made an overture to him, there was never an overture to anybody by Hayakawa personally, it was purely a top-of-the head answer. We did not get involved in primaries."

Even with the president's daughter running, he added.

So what does Rollins think about the Sestak and Romanoff controversies, in which Republicans are alleging White House misconduct by discussing possible jobs with Sestak if they didn’t challenge Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Penn., and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., respectively?

He's skeptical of any allegations of malfeasance, he says.

"My sense is they're smart enough to look very carefully at the law," he says of the Obama political shop.

That said, "it's a little heavy-handed. My sense is Rahm is still running the congressional committee," looking for the strongest candidates in each race.

But it has backfired. "Sestak had a great victory and he's spent the last two weeks talking about this."

– Jake Tapper

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