Ken hits the campaign trail and tries his hand at politics.
When Ken went to Washington to meet with President Reagan’s chief of staff, Jim Baker, the president was rehearsing for a press conference in the East Wing with advisor David Gherkin, still seen frequently as a political commentator on CNN. Reagan recognized Ken, and they chatted for several minutes, a mind-blowing experience for Ken at the time. Jim asked him to head up Reagan’s re-election campaign in Texas. As Ken says, he did not have a political bone in his body. As they were talking, George Bush walked in and started telling jokes.
Then Jim said, “We saw what you could do with drug addicts. Just imagine what you can do with Republicans.”
Ken knew nothing about politics, but he got plenty of advice from the experts, such as Rick Shelby and Martha Wiesend. In 1982 Shelby served as the national campaign director for the Republican National Committee, and Martha Wiesend was the Texas Republican chairperson in Dallas. Mrs. Wiesend was named the Texas state chairman of both the 1980 and 1984 Reagan-Bush Campaigns, and was vice chairman of the Dallas County Republican Party.
Ken was with the Young Republicans group and traveled all over the state, making speeches about Mrs. Reagan’s interest in drug programs and such. At one point, they asked if Ken had any interest in running for political office, to which he answered with a resounding “no.”
Following the campaign—which Reagan won in a landslide, taking all the electoral votes in Texas (and almost everywhere else)—Ken eventually was given a job in Washington in the Health and Human Services Department as the deputy assistant secretary for public affairs/public liaison. This was the result of a call from Rick Shelby, who advised they had to fill 3,500 jobs and would Ken like to be in that group of appointments. Ken resigned from Cenikor and leased a house in Alexandria, Virginia. The family joined him soon after.
One day, after only a few weeks in the job, Margaret Heckler, who was the secretary of health and eventually became the ambassador to Ireland, received a call from Jim Rosebush, special assistant to the president in the office of the deputy chief of staff. He said that Mrs. Reagan wanted to talk to him, and so he went, expecting that Mrs. Reagan just wanted to talk some more about drug programs, which was a very important issue to her. They sat on a red and white couch in her office. Interestingly, there is a picture of the Reagans and Mr. and Mrs. Billy Graham sitting on that same couch in the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Charlotte.
Mrs. Reagan and Ken talked for a couple of hours, and then Jim Rosebush walked in to inquire if all was going well, and Mrs. Reagan said she wanted Ken on her team.
Jim replied there were several other candidates still to be interviewed, to which Mrs. Reagan said she did not need any more interviews; Ken was the one she wanted.
Sheila Tate was the press secretary for Mrs. Reagan and said they would have to divulge Ken’s background. She advised it was better just to get it out there, rather than to have the media snooping around and thinking they had discovered a secret. John Chancellor* did a story on Ken and then Doonesbury** ran stories for a week, which culminated with how drug addicts were running the White House. Even his kids heard about this from schoolmates, and he had to fill them in on details about his life that they had not known before.
Mrs. Reagan invited first ladies from all over the world to Washington for a conference on drug abuse and then in Atlanta and New York. Two groups, Pride and Just Say No, were obliged to work together due to Mrs. Reagan’s influence.
Ken eventually became the director of projects and policies in HHS. At the time, he was being paid $72,000 a year, the most he could be for his position. At Cenikor he was making about $30,000. He still had a house in Houston and was eager to sell it. A friend from his football equipment business at Cenikor, Claude Kirk, who had been the governor of Florida, agreed to lease the house until Ken could sell it.
He managed to get a tuxedo from another friend, since he had to go to many black tie events with Mrs. Reagan. Then the good news came from Jim Rosebush that Mrs. Reagan really liked Ken and wanted him on her team. However, the bad news was that they had to cut his pay to $60,000, and he and his wife decided she would have to go to work to make up the difference. At first his wife wondered if Ken had turned down the job, but of course he was not about to do that. While she had no college degree, she was very good with accounting issues.
So Jim Rosebush called Bill Casey, a former Reagan campaign leader in California, who was then head of the CIA. He had Ken’s wife come over to Langley where he offered her a job in covert accounting, whatever that was. In the meantime, Margaret Heckler was so happy that Ken was working in the White House, and Ken mentioned to her that his wife was being considered for a job with the CIA. Margaret said they could help with that. So while the FBI was doing the background check on Ken, the Defense Intelligence Agency was doing the same on his wife. Their neighbors were all being interviewed as well and thought that Ken and his wife must be another version of the Rosenbergs.
However, Margaret Heckler ended up offering his wife a better job, three days a week, for more money than the CIA could offer. Her job was to sell savings bonds to the employees and read the Grace Commission Report. It had been commissioned by President Reagan, to look for all the inadequacies in government spending. That was good job for her, and she enjoyed it.
**Doonesbury is a comic strip by American cartoonist Garry Trudeau that chronicles the adventures and lives of an array of characters of various ages, professions, and backgrounds, from the President of the United States to the title character, Michael Doonesbury, who has progressed from a college student to a youthful senior citizen over the decades.