Finch, Robert Hutchinson

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Finch, Robert Hutchinson

(b. 9 October 1925 in Tempe, Arizona; d. 10 October 1995 in Pasadena, California), politician and presidential adviser who served as secretary of health, education, and welfare in 1969 and 1970.

Robert Finch was the son of Robert L. Finch, a politician, and Gladys Hutchinson, a homemaker. In 1932 his family moved from Arizona to Inglewood, California, where Finch attended public schools. He learned the importance of shrewd campaigning from his father, who, as a Republican, had won a seat in Arizona’s predominantly Democratic legislature. His father’s death forced Finch to spend his adolescence working after school and during summers to support his family. After briefly serving in the Marine Corps during World War II, Finch enrolled in Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he formed the campus Young Republicans club and during his senior year served as president of the student body. In 1947 Finch received his B.A. degree in political science.

Finch’s interest in politics never waned. In 1946 he campaigned for Norris Poulson, the Republican congressional candidate for California’s Twelfth District, and became Representative Poulson’s administrative assistant a year later. In Washington, Finch met Representative Richard M. Nixon, another California Republican, who urged him to study law. In 1951 Finch earned his LL.B. degree from the University of Southern California Law School. He ran strongly but unsuccessfully for Congress in 1952 and 1954. From 1956 to 1958 he chaired the Republican Central Committee of Los Angeles County.

In 1958 Finch moved to Washington, D.C., to become administrative assistant to Vice President Nixon, beginning a long association. Finch helped set the strategy and implement the tactics that earned Nixon the Republican presidential nomination in 1960. He managed the vice president’s unsuccessful campaign against the Democrat John F. Kennedy. In 1962, when Nixon rejected his protégé’s counsel and sought the California governorship against the Democrat Edmund G. (“Pat”) Brown, Finch played a supporting role in the campaign. Following Brown’s triumph, with Nixon’s star descending, Finch remained one of Nixon’s confidants. By the mid-1960s Finch had struck out on his own. In 1964 he managed Republican George Murphy’s upset victory over Pierre Salinger for the U.S. Senate from California. Two years later Californians elected Finch lieutenant governor. His margin of victory exceeded, by 355,000 votes, that of fellow Republican Ronald Reagan, who had wrested the governorship from Brown. Finch established a more moderate identity than the conservative Reagan. During the 1966 election he opposed a state proposition, which Reagan backed, allowing any citizen to demand general censorship of material he or she deemed obscene. But Finch dissuaded Reagan from backing a rigid antipornography bill and from pursuing a probe of student unrest at the University of California at Berkeley. Finch, at Reagan’s behest, chaired a committee on urban problems, especially those dealing with racial minorities. A pragmatic Republican unafraid to use governmental power to solve social problems, Finch won bipartisan support for legislation enhancing the state’s power to loan money to minority businessmen, and he prodded white employers to recruit from disadvantaged groups.

In the late 1960s Finch was nearing political stardom. The columnist William S. White dubbed him in 1966 a “skilled political professional” embodying “mainstream” Republicanism. In 1968 John C. Waugh of the Christian Science Monitor wrote of two power centers in California politics, one clustering around Finch, the other around Reagan. There was something reminiscent of Robert Kennedy in Finch. Perhaps it was his youth and handsome, square-jawed appearance, or, more likely, it was his empathy for the plight of the poor and racial minorities. In 1968 he advised Nixon during the latter’s successful campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination and his election to the White House.

Although Finch had considered running for the governorship or U.S. Senate in 1970, he agreed to serve as secretary of health, education, and welfare (HEW). As head of the largest federal department and Nixon’s confidant, Finch was expected to make a great impact. Here was a young man, the Chicago Tribune opined in 1969, “with a potentially lustrous career ahead.”

It was not to be. Finch proved unable to assert control over HEW’s sprawling, Democrat-oriented bureaucracy. The secretary’s indecision emerged when his choice for assistant secretary for health, Dr. John H. Knowles, a moderate Republican, encountered opposition from the conservative American Medical Association (AMA). The dispute dragged on for five months until Nixon, deferring to the AMA, jettisoned the nomination. The president disliked Finch’s approach to school desegregation, enforcing guidelines that required schools to desegregate by a certain date or lose federal aid, and opted instead for Attorney General John N. Mitchell’s more deliberative approach of filing law-suits against districts that refused to desegregate. Nixon opposed Finch’s tolerant approach to student antiwar demonstrations, reasoning that it conflicted with Mitchell’s firmer stance and made the administration appear inconsistent. On the positive side, Finch helped draft the president’s welfare reform proposal, the Family Assistance Plan, which promised a minimum income to every American family. But Finch’s health was declining, and in 1970 Nixon moved him from HEW to the White House to serve as counselor.

Finch’s tenure as counselor proved both a blessing and a curse. The administration’s onetime “fair-haired boy” never penetrated the president’s inner circle, possibly insulating him from the crimes associated with the Watergate scandal. Finch handled such marginal (to Nixon) issues as recruiting women and Hispanics to federal offices. He did not command the respect of the White House chief of staff H. R. Haldeman or the domestic policy chief John D. Ehrlichman, who defined a “finch” as any example of “super-waffling.” Although Finch returned to California late in 1972, following the president’s landslide reelection and prior to the investigation of the Watergate scandal, his ties to Nixon shattered his political career. “I couldn’t run for dog-catcher without it turning into a referendum on Watergate,” he explained in 1974. “But at least I don’t have any trouble sleeping at night.” In 1976 he ran in California’s Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, losing to S. I. Hayakawa.

Finch spent his last years in semiretirement, practicing law in Pasadena. Known for his boundless energy, he enjoyed swimming, tennis, and gardening. Finch passed time with his wife, Carol Crothers, a former teacher whom he had met at Occidental College and married in 1946, and their four children. He died of a heart attack and is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California.

Finch represented the Republican party’s moderate wing, which viewed the state as the servant of opportunity. His age, energy, and interests placed him within the political mainstream during the 1960s. But Watergate destroyed Nixon’s administration and, along with it, Finch’s political career. With the onset of Reagan’s presidency, Finch’s brand of moderate Republicanism went into decline.

Finch’s personal papers are at the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, California; his White House files are at the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Materials, National Archives, College Park, Maryland. Firsthand accounts of Finch’s service in the Nixon administration include William Safire, Before the Fall: An Inside View of the Pre-Watergate White House (1975); John Ehrlichman, Witness to Power: The Nixon Years (1982); and H. R. Haldeman, The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the Nixon White House (1994). Secondary works include A. James Reichley, Conservatives in an Age of Change: The Nixon and Ford Administrations (1981); Joan Hoff, Nixon Reconsidered (1994); Dean J. Kotlowski, “Nixon’s Southern Strategy Revisited,” Journal of Policy History 10, no. 2 (1998); and Dean J. Kotlowski, “The Knowles Affair: Nixon’s Self-inflicted Wound,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 30 (Sept. 2000). An obituary is in the New York Times (11 Oct. 1995). An interview between Finch and A. James Reichley is at the Gerald R. Ford Library, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Oral histories are at Butler Library, Columbia University, New York City, and the Oral History Program, California State University, Fullerton.

Dean J. Kotlowski