I first became aware of speechwriter and Washington flack Victor Gold in 1975, when my mom brought home his memoir “I Don’t Need You when I’m Right.” Mom herself was a speechwriter and Washington flack and admired the work of a master, no matter how his politics differed from hers.
And, boy, did they. Gold crafted some of the most effective right-wing sound bites, giving the language such immortal gems as “extremism in the defense of liberty” and “nattering nabobs of negativism” in his long service to Republican pols.
Gold was born in East St. Louis in 1928. In the midst of the Depression, his family moved to New Orleans, where his father worked as a longshoreman and factory worker. Gold graduated from Tulane University and moved to Alabama to work as a reporter-correspondent for the Birmingham News for two years before going on to law school at the University of Birmingham, graduating in 1951. He served in the Army during the Korean War and returned to Birmingham to open a law office and advising Democratic politicians.
He moved to Washington in 1958 and joined the PR firm of Selvage & Lee where, as he recounted in “I Don’t Need You,” his first assignment was to write promo articles for the Anhydrous Ammonia Association. He asked his boss what the Association was, he was told, “Fertilizer lobby.” “Then why don’t they just call it the Bullshit Lobby?” “Well, how would we tell it apart from the rest of them?”
Though he began his political life as a Democrat, and was a Kennedy supporter in 1960, he became disillusioned after the Bay of Pigs, and ended up working for Goldwater’s campaign in 1964. In 1968, he and Lyn Nofziger tried to make Reagan the nominee, an effort they would repeat in 1976. In the Nixon years, Gold was press secretary to Spiro Agnew. Later, he was speechwriter to George H.W. Bush, penning his campaign biography in 1987. He even co-wrote a Washington satire/thriller with Lynne Cheney.
But though he spent much of his life and career as Mr. Republican, Gold’s political journey started from much different roots, and eventually moved beyond the GOP, an evolution outlined in a Washington Post piece and an episode of Bill Moyers’ show.
Just as Gold and the GOP drifted apart on matters of substance, the party’s style became different from his. While known as “the Mount Vesuvius of press secretaries” for his bullying and sharp tongue, he treated actual reporters royally, making sure they all had phones and wire service and wake up calls. His personal service won over reporters who may not have supported candidates like Goldwater and Agnew. Contrast such treatment with current Republican press relations, body slams optional.
Because Gold came from the old school of political flackery, he knew that the press served his needs only as well as he served the press’, and what little real progress and communication goes on in Washington is as likely to happen at a cocktail party as in the White House or on K Street. And even though he invented a great deal of nasty Republican rhetoric, he never appeared to mean it, or take it, personally.
No matter my feelings on the politics he championed, I note Mr. Gold’s passing this week with sadness. Another piece of the Washington that was has disappeared, leaving the city, and the grand old flack tradition, the poorer.
The Post has a comprehensive obituary up, with all the appropriate quotes from “Making of a President” and “Boys on the Bus.” Some pieces from his long stint writing for the Washingtonian can be read here. His blog, The Wayward Lemming, begun in 2010 and closed Thursday by his children, can be read here.