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The Man With the Plan

Advance men are among the most underappreciated employees in the District. Few question how an event gets set up; most just take for granted the fact that the little things, such as seating and transportation, will be handled long before the rally, speech or even funeral gets under way.

Jim Hooley proudly counts himself in that group of unheralded staffers. “Most advance men feel greatly under appreciated and misunderstood,” he jokes as he describes the mindset of his brethren.

“It’s sort of a chip they all carry on their shoulders. People who don’t know much about it think of it as running around getting cars and drivers and making sure everybody’s got something to eat and drink.”

As Hooley demonstrated last month during former President Ronald Reagan’s funeral, however, there is much more an advance man must do to make sure an event goes off without a hitch. A longtime event planner for the late president, Hooley was in charge of the California portion of the Reagan funeral.

Since leaving the employ of the president, Hooley has worked in the planning of the funeral around his full-time jobs.

Currently employed by Siebel Systems as their executive director of Government Affairs, Hooley manages state, local and federal relations with Siebel and runs the Siebel political action committee. He had to work the kinks in the funeral out on his own time.

In addition to making sure the reception before the burial went smoothly, he had to coordinate the live television coverage and find a way to transport more than 106,000 mourners to the Reagan Library for the initial viewing of the body.

Transportation issues were especially tricky, since the library sits a mile up a mountain, and people had to be bused in from a local college since there was not nearly enough parking at the library to accommodate everyone who wished to show their respects.

While the details of the Washington portion of the state funeral are fairly fluid, the basics are largely the same. The advance team led by Hooley and Nancy Reagan, however, largely put the California segment together from scratch.

While the team has been working on plans for the funeral since the president left office, they started working more hurriedly when Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1994. Ideas were constantly bandied about, first among the advance men and then presented to the former first lady for approval.

“We would go to her and say ‘This is the program we’re recommending,’” Hooley said. One specific portion of the event that came to mind was the “lone bagpiper, which was something I threw in relatively recently, the last few years.”

Hooley says he had no idea what to expect from the public in respect to the California part of the funeral. When he got the news that Reagan had died, he hopped on the first flight to California and was shocked by what he saw when he arrived at the funeral home: Thousands of people already paying tribute.

“There were a couple of thousand people out there. It’s 1:30 in the morning and they’re out there. And they’re just standing there, leaving things.”

Nobody on the planning team had expected such a turnout — in fact, quite the opposite was feared. Reagan had been out of the public eye for so long that it was a concern few would show up to pay their respects.

As any advance man worth his salt would be, Hooley was concerned with the image that this might leave for posterity about the president he respected so deeply. “You’re aiming for the photo,” he said. “We used to have a thing called ‘HPS’: headline, picture, story. Everything’s got to be perfect.”

In his years with the president, Hooley was involved with a number of key HPS moments; he was one of the architects behind both the “Tear Down This Wall” speech at the Brandenburg Gate and Reagan’s speech at Normandy for the 40th anniversary of D-Day, “which is now copied every 10 years,” Mr. Hooley notes with a hint of pride.

With the advent of 24-hour cable news coverage, the HPS is not quite as important as it used to be. “Now the whole thing’s going to run, so every minute has got to be perfect,” Hooley says. “Everything’s got to be precisely timed.”

Even with the emphasis on the whole product, however, Hooley still went for one final HPS shot: the lowering of Reagan’s casket in front of the California sunset. It was the result of 15 meticulous years of planning, and one final tribute to the Great Communicator.

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