By Alena Harvey
Longtime public relations professional, Willamette University graduate and dedicated Salem community member Fred VanNatta is featured in historian Gene Kopelson’s new book, “Reagan’s 1968 Dress Rehearsal,” a publication mapping Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign enterprise.
Referred to as “Reagan’s Oregon 1968 team leader” and headlined as “rock star lobbyist,” VanNatta was mentioned more than 30 times within 935 pages, making him the most referenced individual in the book. “(VanNatta) remains a lanky individualist whose knowledge of local and national politics is expansive,” says Kopelman who flew out from Connecticut in 2012 to interview the Oregon Primary team. “His recollections were crisp, detailed and his enthusiasm for the 1968 Regan campaign was quite evident.”
Raised in the backwoods of Columbia County, VanNatta has called the Pacific Northwest home for many years. A fishing enthusiast and beekeeping expert, the landscape of the upper-left USA fits him. In the 1960s, though, the start of his career in political campaigning pulled him away.
When VanNatta completed his graduate studies at University of Oregon, he was quickly assigned to run political campaigns in Pennsylvania, crusading for Republican Bill Scranton against Barry Goldwater. His tenure there got the ball rolling, preparing him for a successful career in the field.
Following the election, VanNatta moved back to Oregon. In 1968, he embarked on a new adventure as the Western Regional Director for the Oregon Primary. Initially, his expertise was coveted by Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller. But the thought of rallying for Reagan won him over. “Reagan had no staff people in Oregon. As his first staff person, I would be in a commanding position,” says VanNatta who had great respect for the candidate. “For either of my other two campaign offers, I would work for existing staff members.”
Although VanNatta claims that he learned little about politics, the opportunity to win Oregon for Reagan was fortunate. “(My position) lead to visits with the Republican governors of the Western states,” he says. “I spent a week with a pilot visiting key political leaders around the west. I never made any money as a result, but I got to see things I otherwise would not have.”
Since then, VanNatta has been deeply involved in several landmark pieces of legislation including Senate Bill 100, which enforces the requirement that every Oregon city and county must have a comprehensive land-use plan that met state standards. It was signed by Governor McCall in 1973.
The founder of VanNatta Public Relations in Salem, he is still actively engaged in the firm, although he identifies as the founder. VanNatta was a charter member and past president of the Strategic Economic Development Corporation (SEDCOR), He is an original member of the Oregon State Capitol Foundation, which strives to identify and preserve the political history of Oregon’s Capitol. He was identified as a “Salem Business Pioneer” by West Coast Bank (now Columbia Bank) and was inducted into the Oregon Housing Hall of Fame in 1999. In 2009 he received the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce’s Distinguished Service Award.
Pick up “Reagan’s 1968 Dress Rehearsal,” at Amazon, ISBN 0182198847. For more information about VanNatta Public Relations, visit prsalem.com or call 503.585.8254.