Did the Ronald Reagan/George Bush presidential campaign negotiate a deal with Khomeini’s Iran to delay the release of the American hostages until after the election of 1980, thereby assuring the Republicans of a victory over the incumbent President Carter? In this highly original fiction, what the author is calling a faux history, Brian Josepher places the reader in the middle of the action, fleshing out the negotiations and the players involved. Here, in this excerpt, the reader meets the man who would become the brains behind the October Surprise, from the American side. To order a copy of “The Complete and ExtraOrdinary History of the October Surprise,” please go here.
“Our Actor Needs a Director”
Two gentlemen, both tall and stooped, both with hairlines thoroughly receded, both wearing the golf wear of the elderly – khaki pants with drawstring waists, untucked golf shirts made of cheap polyester, white tennis shoes, socks once white but darker now due to stains and overuse, socks noticeable due to khakis slightly on the short side – these two men stood on a green in the middle of a warm Ft. Lauderdale winter, determining line and speed. Both men wore oversized eyeglasses. Neither man could read green speed; neither man could putt. Golf wasn’t exactly their chosen career path.
Both men were lawyers. Both men catered to the super wealthy. On the side, both men dabbled in Republican politics. With a Democrat in office, both men considered a return to any sort of political activism a rather remote possibility.
Earl E.T. Smith, the ambassador to Cuba under Eisenhower, squinted hard at the hole. He lined up his putt from twenty feet away. With his deteriorating eyesight he could barely see the hole.
His partner, William J. Casey, tended the flag and cursed under his breath. Bill Casey was not exactly a patient man. “Christ!” was his favorite curse word. “Goddamnit” ranked a close second.
Bill Casey grew up in a devout Catholic household. He certainly didn’t acquire that language from home.
Former Ambassador Smith stood over the little dimpled ball and swung the putter. Unfortunately for the ambassador, he had a hitch in his swing. A negligible distance from the ball he hesitated. He didn’t completely halt his motion; he just reconsidered. So his swing didn’t have a fluid motion. His swing became halted.
The outcome never changed. His putter tapped at the ball, nudged at the ball, like a bird pecking at scraps of bread. The ball never rolled more than five feet.
“Christ!” Bill Casey muttered under his breath.
Back at the tee box four men waited impatiently to hit. They’d been waiting quite a while. The hole – a typical par three in the Florida retirement community, about one hundred and fifty yards long, straight as can be, no water to protect the green, little rough, one unintimidating sand trap tucked behind the green – had a sign beside the tee box. “Please allow others to play through.”
Bill Casey abhorred this rule, both in golf and lifestyle.
Former Ambassador Smith stood over the ball. Again he swung the putter. Again he hesitated near the ball. Again his putt traveled under five feet.
“Christ!” Bill Casey mumbled under his breath.
For the golfers back at the tee box, their patience had run its course. “Hurry the hell up,” one man yelled. “Come on, you idiots, let us play through,” another man yelled. Based on appearances, the men shouting profanities looked to be in their mid-80s.
A month away from his 68th birthday, Bill Casey flipped both men the bird. Like uttering “Christ” and “Goddamnit,” this was an act that Casey thoroughly enjoyed.
Bill Casey was a man of many idiosyncrasies. For instance, every afternoon he carried his trusted 5-iron, his putter, and one ball to the tee box. Casey owned a condominium some one hundred yards from the tee box and he played the hole six or seven times in a row, depending upon course traffic. Among the Florida retirement set, very few golfers played in the afternoon. Too hot, even in February. The retirees played in the early morning. In the afternoon they went out for the early bird special.
Bill Casey didn’t care about the early bird special. He cared about, in order: preserving the American way of life, making money, his family, and hitting a hole-in-one. Former Ambassador Smith hit another putt. The ball rolled five feet. “Christ!” Casey mumbled to himself.
His mumbling was followed by the beautiful soprano of a trained opera singer. “Phone call,” Sophia Casey sang, as she stood on the deck just off the kitchen of the couple’s condominium.
Most wives would have shouted in such an instance. Not Sophia Casey. “Bill had remarkable hearing,” she explained, “but it was very selective. Selective eyesight, selective memory, selective communication. That was my husband. Bill responded to what he wanted to. Typically he responded whenever I sang. He liked it when I sang.”
Bill Casey responded to his wife’s singing by dropping the flag and walking away. In the kitchen of his condominium, while Sophia poured lemonade, Casey spoke into the phone. “Hello, this is Bill Casey.”
“Good afternoon, Bill,” the man on the other end of the line said in his warm, intimate way. “I hear you’re out on the golf course. How are you shooting?”
“Decent,” Bill Casey replied. He swallowed some lemonade. He grimaced at the sharp taste. His tongue jutted out of his mouth in response.
“Well, Bill,” the man on the other end of the line continued, “I won’t waste your time…” And then the caller repeated Casey’s first name, much like an actor who was memorizing lines. “Bill,” he said, “I’m thinking of making some changes in my organization. You don’t have to give me an answer now. But I want you to think about taking over. I’m going to New Hampshire in a few days. Bill, why don’t you join me there? Bill, we’ll have an opportunity to talk.”
The caller, a politician whose presidential campaign was in a downward spiral, didn’t present his deep frustrations with his candidacy. The caller wasn’t a man who explored the frustrating side of life. He lived in an optimism all his own. His name was Ronald Reagan.
According to Sophia Casey, the grimace on her husband’s face turned into a grin. “And it wasn’t from the offer made by Reagan,” she told me. “Bill had a rare condition. He tasted words. I know it sounds strange, but when Reagan made the offer, a word popped into Bill’s head. Genteel. That was actually Bill’s initial reaction to Reagan. On the phone Reagan was courteous and polite. To Bill, genteel tasted like grapes. The grapes tasted sweet. He grinned.”
Bill Casey was a synaesthete. “Synaesthesia is the condition of joined senses,” according to Dr. Julia Simner, a cognitive neuropsychologist and synaesthesia expert. “The majority of synaesthetes see letters or numbers as colors. A very few synaesthetes taste words.”
According to Dr. Simner, who detailed the case of Bill Casey, “When he tasted food, he tasted adjectives. In addition, Bill Casey experienced a food starting with the same letter as that adjective.” So when the adjective “genteel” popped into his head, he tasted grapes on his tongue.
A few days after the phone call, on Valentine’s Day 1980, a United Airlines shuttle touched down in Boston. Casey came prepared. In the few days between phone call and meeting he’d performed what Joe Persico, his biographer, called “a management audit of the Reagan candidacy.” His discoveries were less than inviting. Persico explained, “Ronald Reagan didn’t have a campaign organization as much as he had a civil war. In California there was Ed Meese and Michael Deaver and a few others. In the East there was John Sears. As campaign manager, Sears had emerged as a political guru with Ronald Reagan as a puppet on a string. Not exactly the best formula for winning a national election. In addition, Sears hated the California contingent. He wanted Meese and Deaver fired in disgrace.”
There was another major problem. “Casey also looked at the books,” Persico told me. “He found that the campaign was going broke.”
In addition to these major problems, Bill Casey identified two “annoyances.” Persico explained, “The first annoyance had to do with George Bush, who had just won the Iowa caucus. I call this an annoyance because, according to Bill Casey, Bush was a man nobody remembers. To Casey, this was minor stuff.”
The other annoyance was a woman named Nancy. “Casey had heard the stories,” Persico told me. “The all-powerful Nancy Reagan. The Metternich in Adolfo dresses. The most conniving woman in the world. The actor Jimmy Stewart once perfectly summed up Nancy’s ability to manipulate. ‘If Ronald Reagan had married Nancy the first time,’ he said, ‘she could’ve got him an Academy Award.’”
Persico returned to the subject, “But the question in Casey’s mind was this: Would he have total control of the campaign or would Nancy interfere? If he didn’t have control, he figured the job wasn’t worth his time. Or to use his language, ‘Christ, screw it.”
On the curbside at Logan Airport Casey held up an arm for a taxi. Standing in that same taxi line, a famous novelist recognized Bill Casey. John Irving was on the American leg of The World According to Garp book tour. Irving, in his usual overflowing and effusive prose, characterized Casey in his recently published memoirs: “He wore a plaid, short-sleeved sport shirt that exposed the wiry white hair on his arms. The shirt was not tucked in, but hung over a pair of baggy blue cotton slacks ending in grass-stained tennis shoes. His face was puffed and pale with fatigue. With its sagging jowls, tired eyes, and gray flesh, it seemed composed of old molten wax and cobwebs – an arresting face, a face out of Dickens, rendered all the more incongruous by the suburban weekend dress. The heavy lower lip hung loose and with every taxi that passed without stopping, he mumbled a very audible ‘Christ!’ and ‘Goddamnit!’”
Bill Casey, normally a man in a business suit, had gone casual. “On that day,” his wife Sophia noted, “he figured he’d make a statement. The Reagans would wear their power suits and he’d wear the same shoes he wore out on the golf course.”
The taxi dropped Casey off at a Holiday Inn. Richard “Dick” Allen, Reagan’s foreign policy point man, greeted his old friend with a clap on the back. The two men had served in the Nixon administration, Casey as the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. “Welcome to the show,” Dick Allen said. “Our actor needs a director.”
Casey followed Allen over to the elevator. When the elevator car arrived, four people stepped in: Bill Casey, Dick Allen, a young man named Daniel Jones, and a young woman. Daniel Jones, a stockbroker and part-time volunteer for the Reagan campaign at that time, remembered the conversation. “Dick Allen introduced the woman to Bill. ‘Linda,’ Dick said, ‘this is Frank Williams.’ Bill Casey responded instantly, ‘Aah, c’mon. My name’s Bill Casey.’ One floor later, after Linda had departed, Dick Allen said, ‘Jesus, Bill, you just blew your cover. She’s one of Sears’ people. Now he’ll guess why you’re here.’ Bill responded with one word: ‘Good.’”
Daniel Jones smiled when he considered the next sequence of events. “Bill looked over at me,” Jones said. “‘What do you do for the campaign?’ Bill asked. I thought of the many trivial things. I listed them for him in a semi-sarcastic tone. I said, ‘Oh, I lick stamps. I write names on envelopes. I run errands.’ Bill responded, ‘An errand runner? I might need one of them.’”
From this moment forward, Daniel Jones would become Bill Casey’s top assistant. That role would place him in some advantageous positions: as an eyewitness, for instance, to the October Surprise affair. Daniel Jones offered his point of view in these pages for the first time.
On the fifth floor of the hotel Bill Casey and Dick Allen passed through security and entered a suite. “It was a dull, gray day outside,” Dick Allen remembered, “and freezing cold. Massachusetts cold. The suite was neither warm nor light. But that didn’t matter once Ronald Reagan entered. With his remarkable charm, the suite became overheated and very bright.”
According to Allen, Reagan greeted both men and offered chairs opposite the floral-patterned couch. A coffee table separated the couch from the chairs. Water stains dotted the tabletop, accentuating the lack of amenities. In fact, despite their typical social grace, the Reagans didn’t serve any refreshments during the meeting. Not even tap water. This was barebones politics at its most urgent.
Ronald Reagan took a seat on the couch beside his wife of nearly 28 years. Nancy wore khaki pants, a white shirt neatly tucked in, an eye-catching brown belt. Reagan wore a black suit, his hair slicked back as always.
Dick Allen remembered the scene as “edgy. The Reagans were nervous, desperate. They needed Bill Casey more than Bill needed the Reagans. Bill appeared relaxed.”
Nancy Reagan immediately cut to the chase. “Bill,” she said, “we’re offering you the opportunity to run this campaign. Do you want the job?”
Bill Casey was not surprised by her directness. “I’m interested,” he responded, “but I have one concern.”
“Let’s hear it,” Nancy said.
“I need absolute control,” Casey replied. “Look, in recent times, only two men have put together campaigns that successfully drove out the Democrats. Herb Brownell for Ike and John Mitchell for Nixon. How did they do it? Total control. I need final say on advertising, spending, strategy – the works. Ron, there’s an internal war over ownership of you within your campaign. If you bring me on, that ends today.”
Ronald Reagan opened his mouth to speak. Nancy cut in. “You’ll find that Ron takes direction,” she said. Reagan touched his wife’s arm, a signal to speak, according to Dick Allen. Nancy continued, “If you lead Ron, he will follow.”
“This part of the meeting took all of two minutes,” Allen told me. “I thought the meeting was over. Clearly, the Reagans had agreed to Casey’s demand and Bill wasn’t a man to hang around when there was work to do. Getting the Reagan campaign turned around was not simply pointing the candidate in the right direction. But Bill wasn’t done. Bill Casey not only expected to have the last word; he expected to have the last thought.”
Bill Casey spoke directly to Ronald Reagan. “I have two fears regarding your campaign,” he said. “The first is Jerry Ford. He’s hinting at something. First, he says he won’t run. He says he’s not interested in being president again. Then he changes his mind. He says that if something develops – to quote him, if there’s ‘some switching’ – he’d enter the race. Ford harbors hard feelings for you, Ron. You challenged him for the Republican nomination back in ’76. He believes that challenge cost him the general election to Carter. Now, what Ford wants is to be drafted at the Republican Convention. It’s what every politician wants. Listen, Johnson was dying for the Democrats to draft him in ’68. Didn’t happen, thank God. Can you imagine Nixon beating Johnson? No way.”
According to Dick Allen, Casey took a second to subtly glance his way. “I can’t tell you exactly what he was thinking,” Allen told me. “But I know what I was thinking. Nixon put both of us, Bill and me, on the political map. If Nixon hadn’t become president, what would have happened to us?” As in the Reagan campaign, Dick Allen served as Richard Nixon’s foreign policy point man.
Casey looked back at Reagan. “Ford,” Casey said, “wants a deadlock among candidates. He then comes in and saves the day. It’s the re-creation of his role after Nixon resigned.”
Nancy replied, “How do we make sure that Ford stays out?”
“We have to blow up the field,” Casey remarked. “Whatever happens today in New Hampshire, we have to decimate the others in their backyard. Ron, nobody can touch you out West. You’re the candidate from California. But you have to beat Bush here in his territory. You have to beat Howard Baker down in the South. You have to beat Dole in the Midwest. If you cut off their heads in their own backyards, you ensure that Ford stays up there with his beloved Michigan Wolverines.”
A deep breath from Ronald Reagan. A squinting of the eyes from Nancy. “Ron looked like he was preparing for a performance,” Dick Allen remembered. “Nancy looked like a schemer scheming.”
Nancy Reagan said, “What’s your other fear?”
“The hostages in Iran,” Casey remarked. “If Carter can tap into the national patriotism, he will be difficult to defeat in November.”
According to Daniel Jones, Casey then launched into a story. In The Errand Runner, Jones paraphrased: “Like the rest of America, Bill watched the Carter campaign score a major victory in the Democratic primary in New Hampshire [two weeks before the Casey/Reagans meeting]. In the days leading up to the vote Teddy Kennedy was pulling up fast on Carter. That could be the beginning of a sweep for Kennedy in the Northeast, a section he had to have. On the Sunday before the election Carter notified the networks that he expected good news on the hostages. They would be taken out of the embassy and moved to safer quarters. He got up at seven o’clock on the day of the primary and announced it again as the voters were going to the polls. He then scored a tremendous victory in New Hampshire, right there in Kennedy’s backyard. Bill thought it was brilliant political maneuvering by the president, and downright scary for his challengers.”
Bill Casey told the Reagans, “The people support their president in this matter. What if, by some twist of fate, he negotiates the hostages’ freedom in October, a few weeks before the general election? What if he pulls an October surprise? He’ll win the election no matter how unpopular he might be. Forget the gas lines. Forget the out-of-control interest rates and the recession. Forget stagflation. If he negotiates the freedom of the hostages, he wins the election. Period.”
According to Daniel Jones, Bill Casey’s synaesthesia kicked in at that moment. He tasted the adjective “definitive” on his tongue. It tasted like Doritos.
Bill Casey’s words had an effect on the Reagans. Both were rendered speechless. “I traveled with the Reagans that day,” Dick Allen remembered, “up into New Hampshire for the Republican primary. And the feeling – this deep fear of Jimmy Carter and his ability to negotiate the hostages’ freedom – lasted all day. Ron spoke only for political purposes and Nancy barely opened her mouth.”
By the end of that day, February 14, 1980, the Reagans had a new campaign manager and a noteworthy victory in the New Hampshire primary. Ronald Reagan won 51 percent of the vote. George Bush, in his own backyard, won 22 percent.
According to Daniel Jones, Bill Casey received a phone call from the Reagans that night. “Reagan called Bill, who was back in Florida, in bed with his wife,” Jones told me. “Reagan said, ‘I think, years from now, this day will mark the beginning of my run to the White House. Nancy and I are very happy that you are on board, Bill.’ He then put Nancy on the line. ‘Bill,’ she said, ‘we’ll have to do something about Carter and the hostages. You must have some ideas.’”
Bill Casey hung up the phone without answering. If he had a plan then in mind, he didn’t tell the Reagans. Or his wife, for that matter. Still, Sophia recalled her husband’s optimism. “Before he fell asleep that night he had an outbreak of synaesthesia,” she told me. “He tasted the adjective ‘auspicious’ on his tongue. He told me it tasted like apple sauce.”