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New Canaan resident recalls senior role in Reagan White House

Published 9:35 am, Sunday, July 21, 2013
  • Bently Elliott, a 23-year resident of New Canaan, was the head speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Photo: Contributed
    Bently Elliott, a 23-year resident of New Canaan, was the head speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Photo: Contributed

 

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In July 1980, New Canaan resident Bently Elliott got a call from Ronald Reagan's chief speechwriter, Ken Khachigian. It was the middle of the summer in a heated three-way election.

The economy had been in a recession since January and the unemployment rate was 7.8 percent.

A month before, in June, polls showed Reagan trailing Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter 39 percent to 32 percent, with Republican-turned-Independent candidate John Anderson at 21 percent.

Still, Khachigian and the Reagan campaign were confident.

"He said, `When we win the election, I want you to come work for us,' " Elliott said of the phone call he received from Khachigian, remembering the first moment of his five-year career in the Reagan administration.

In the years that followed, Elliott drafted many of Reagan's speeches and releases, had weekly meetings with the president, hired writer and strategist Peggy Noonan, and became head of speechwriting for the administration.

In the early 1970s, Elliott was fresh out of Pennsylvania's Bucknell University. He got a job with CBS News, working under the iconic Walter Cronkite, for whom he would buy dark chocolates and shine shoes every afternoon. Elliott began writing more, focusing on the economy. During the New York City bankruptcy crisis of 1975, he interviewed Bill Simon, the U.S. secretary of the treasury under President Gerald Ford. The two stayed in touch, and soon after Simon invited him to Washington to work at the treasury department.

When Carter beat Ford in the 1976 election, Simon was not reappointed as secretary of the treasury, and with him went Elliott who began writing policy positions for the Senate Republican Policy Committee. He contributed to political magazines, including the staunchly right-wing Human Events. In 1978, he got a job with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Unbeknownst to him, Human Events was one of Reagan's favorite magazines, and the presidential hopeful had taken note of the young writer's pieces.

"I probably did 18 interviews and I had three openings," Khachigian said. "When it came down to the end, seven or eight were extremely qualified, and I made my decisions based on what each speechwriter could contribute in a specific area. Because economics was the absolute central focus, I liked Ben based on his experience at the chamber and his writings on economic issues."

Even at the time, Khachigian was a veteran Republican presence, having worked for Richard Nixon and Ford. He would go on to write for and advise George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, John McCain and Fred Thompson. He is now a senior partner at the Orange County, Calif., law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.

"Ben was very thoughtful; he was eager to work hard, which he did. He did his homework and he was not precious about his words being edited," Khachigian recalled.

By 1983, Elliott was the head of the speechwriting department. He said every Friday Reagan and the speechwriters would meet at 11 a.m. The team would go over the speeches planned for the next two or three weeks.

"If he'd already seen a draft, you kind of wanted him to comment on it," Elliott said. "If he took it and put it on the side table and said, `I was just wondering...' you said, `uh oh,' and knew he was going to go in a completely different direction."

It was foggy and rainy, with a nearly full moon around 3 a.m. on Oct. 25, 1983, when only a handful of people in the world knew that the U.S. Army was about to invade the tiny island nation of Grenada, which had undergone a coup d'etat and which the administration believed was aligned with the Soviet Union. There was also a contingent of American medical students on the island during the unrest, who the administration thought were in danger.

"I got a call at 3 a.m. to come in from Ollie North," Elliot recalled. North was a lieutenant colonel at the National Security Council and was running the operations desk at the time. "I had to put together a statement that the president would read around 7:30 that morning. I was in the situation room and it was a complete success. We knew the press was going to accuse Reagan of being militaristic. That afternoon, the first plane of American students got back and got off the plane and kissed the ground."

Two days prior, on Oct. 23, 240 American soldiers had been killed at a bombing of their barracks in Lebanon. The administration decided to combine the two incidents into one speech for the country. Elliott was asked to write that speech as well.

"I went into (Reagan's) office that night to talk about the speech. He came back in the room with tears in his eyes and said, `that was a tough one.' What I found out was that he'd called every family of every marine who had been slain in Lebanon, all 240," Elliott remembered.

In 1983, as head speechwriter, Elliott was now in the role of Khachigian, the man who'd hired him three years prior, looking for talent to add to the speechwriting staff. He'd been tipped off by a friend from the conservative National Review magazine to a promising young CBS staffer named Peggy Noonan.

"She worked for Dan Rather on the radio, and if you heard what he said on radio, it was totally different from TV. Her writing was just fantastic. She had a very strong connection to blue-collar America, and a great strong literary background, and it enabled us to bring a combination that we didn't have," Elliott recalled.

Elliott snapped her up. Noonan would go on to become a top conservative voice in the nation, writing five New York Times bestselling books and writing a column for the Wall Street Journal.

After Reagan's June 2004 funeral, Noonan wrote a 3,600-word retrospective in The Wall Street Journal about his legacy and her memories of the administration. She titled the piece, "The Ben Elliott Story," a tributed for the person the unsung hero of the administration. In it, she recalled speaking to a crowd at a Heritage Foundation gathering.

"He (Elliott) hired most of the speechwriters," she wrote. "He shaped and refined Ronald Reagan's speeches, directing themes and approach. He was a great writer. Ronald Reagan said a lot of famous things, and he said them in part because Ben Elliott got them past the bureaucracy, past the powerful so-called pragmatists, so Reagan could consider them, rewrite them, underscore them. But Ben is the one who got the draft to him.

"Ben kept it all together," she continued. "And it worked. When he left the White House he never said a word, never spoke of his experiences, never went on TV for interviews, never wrote a book And when I said his name the crowd burst into the biggest applause of the day. Because they knew who Ben Elliott was. And Ben Elliott was there. He was in the audience with his wife, Troy, and his daughter Grace, 11, who did not know her father was a great man, or rather might not have known he was great in this particular way."

Elliott left the White House in 1986, after his boss, Jim Baker, switched jobs with Don Regan, who became chief of staff, and Baker became secretary of the treasury. Regan installed a more corporate chain of command and culture in the White House, limiting speechwriters' face time and communication with the president. For Elliott, who'd been there five years, it was time to leave.

"Ben, the thought of your leaving leaves me, well, speechless," Reagan said to his top speechwriter in a video before his departure. The video shows the president seated in a library in the White House. He rattles off several jokes at Elliott's expense before getting sentimental.

"As someone used to say, specificity is the soul of credibility," Reagan said. "Ben, I want you to know I've long appreciated your idealism, your hard work and your commitment to your country and to the conservative revolution. A lot of people believe in America, a lot of people work for her betterment, but I've seen few who love her as you do. I'm going to miss your great work and your big contribution to the success of this administration, and I'm going to miss seeing you on the balcony. Thanks for everything, Mr. Elliott. God bless you."

Elliott would go on to work for Jack Kemp, the free-market congressman and presidential hopeful, and others. He now works at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in communications and wealth management. He's lived in New Canaan for 23 years with his wife, Troy. The couple has five children.

"Writing in the White House was a once in a lifetime experience about someone who tried to save the nation when it was in a period of severe difficulty, and tried to turn it around," Elliott said.

twoods@bcnnew.com; 203-330-6582; @Woods_NCNews