901 S Highland: Reagan's Forgotten Campaign HQ

Published on October 13, 2016

Update, Jan. 31, 2020: Another presidential election finds Arlington home to at least one top candidate's national headquarters. President Donald Trump has set up what the Washington Examiner calls his "operational hub" along the 14th floor of a Rosslyn high-rise a quick walk from the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial.

The convenience of a run based in Arlington is inarguable, especially for staff already in the area. And with the 2020 nominating season just kicking in, one or two more candidates might ultimately be looking here for office space in the fall.

Ronald Reagan has never been bigger. At 9 feet and 900 pounds, the 40th president offers his beatific bronze grin to the millions of passengers who annually wind their way into the national airport given his name in 1998. Reagan Airport.jpg

Caught mid-stride on a wedge of lawn by the original terminal, the presidential greeting is hardly out of place so close to the White House. But beyond a welcoming statue, Arlington County can claim an even more tangible link to Reagan, having served as home to the command operation that landed him at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Unsuccessful in White House bids in 1968 and "76, the former California governor finally locked in his party's nomination in late spring of 1980. The successful primary campaign was run from the West Coast. But for the fall, it was decided that Reagan and team needed to be closer to the nation's media and political axis of New York and Washington, plus the wealth of voters east of the Mississippi.

It was time to move inside the Beltway.

Ed Meese, Reagan's chief of staff from the governor's office and again in 1980, remembers the hunt for a large office space coupled with the need for a short trek to the Republican National Committee on Capitol Hill.

Just off Columbia Pike with the 14th Street Bridge nearby, the top two floors of four-story 901 S. Highland looked good. As a bonus, the building offered something of a low-profile, situated across the street from a quiet residential neighborhood of small brick homes. 901SHighland.JPG

In a recent interview with an Arlington County researcher, Meese recalled the 23,000-square-foot space as having been previously occupied by the U.S. Census Bureau. But newspaper clips say it was available after serving as headquarters to defeated Reagan rival John Connally. (Famously, the former Texas governor and Treasury secretary spent more than $10 million dollars to win a single convention delegate.)

Moving the Reagan campaign from California also meant the need for temporary homes for the candidate's inner circle. Meese and a handful of others moved into the brand-new Skyline Tower apartments, just over on Seminary Road in Falls Church. Meese, the future U.S. attorney general, would have many a working breakfast at dawn with neighbor, campaign manager and future CIA director Bill Casey. Then the two would head to Arlington around 7 a.m.

For Meese, the hours and territory were not a culture shock. He had come to Washington frequently in the mid "70s as a vice president for ROHR Industries, maker of the first Metrorail cars.

As for the candidate himself, Reagan and wife Nancy moved as close to Arlington as a rented farm in Middleburg, 40 miles west.

As Meese recalled, the future president visited South Highland maybe a half-dozen instances "because most of the time he was on the campaign trail." The bucolic privacy of Middleburg — and the farm's barn — proved valuable for debate rehearsal. It also didn't hurt to have a familiar Hollywood face as a neighbor. Actress Elizabeth Taylor and her husband, Senator John Warner, were just down the road.

As Reagan headquarters was taking shape that early summer of 1980, part of the operation was dedicated to the newly compelling idea of 24/7 media-monitoring. Amid the campaign and ongoing Iranian hostage crisis, CNN began pumping round-the-clock television news out of Atlanta in June 1980. High-level campaigns were recognizing the need to stay tuned in, ready to respond, at all hours.

Above all else, Meese remembers the long days and nights at the Arlington headquarters. "We got there early and left late," he says, with 14- and 15-hour stretches hardly unusual for senior staff. Until Election Day, polls hardly predicted the landslide to come.

Meese, now 84 and still living in Northern Virginia, hasn't seen 801 S. Highland since the campaign. But he says he'd "certainly be interested" if someone wanted to recognize the building's historic role. Meese was among those who attended the 2011 Reagan statue dedication at the airport.

The low-key office building off Columbia Pike is still at work as it approaches its fifth decade. It's best known now as headquarters for the non-profit Ethiopian Community Development Council. The one-time command center for a future president serves the needs of immigrants and refugees.

. . .

Arlington's natural geographic ties to presidential politics hardly ended in 1980 although notable connections to the 2016 race have proved short-lived.

Former Rhode Island governor and senator Lincoln Chafee announced his candidacy at George Mason's law school on Fairfax Drive in June 2015. He was out four months later. Former senator Jim Webb of Virginia, a former Arlington resident, launched in July 2015 and was gone in October.

For a direct White House connection, go back 12 years when 2107 Wilson Blvd. in Courthouse housed the full Bush-Cheney re-election operation—including an acclaimed 24/7 media monitoring operation.

Memorably in 2008, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton based her first national campaign at 4420 Fairfax Dr. The headquarters was known throughout the campaign simply as "Ballston."

Another snapshot: In January 2001, when Al Gore left the vice president's mansion after the grueling post-election recounts, he transitioned to private life at the family home off Arlington Ridge.

Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and Joe Lieberman all based recent presidential campaigns in Arlington as did County resident and former senator Mike Gravel of Alaska -- like Clinton, another unsuccessful Democrat of 2008.

The Republican nominee that year, Senator John McCain, established his national headquarters at 1235 S. Clark St. less than a mile from his Crystal City condominium. After rejection in November, McCain and staff made one last appeal to the people, using their office space for a public going-out-of-business sale of furniture, computers, blackberries and even coffee urns.

Perhaps the campaign left one particularly strong impression on McCain's running mate. To this day, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin points potential donors not to an address in America's Last Frontier but to her political action committee's post office box in Arlington, VA, 22207.

Thanks to Alexandra Fox of Arlington Public Library for research assistance.