This was to be part of “America! The Trivial!,” and as today our nation lays its subject to rest, I thought of no better time to post it than now…
ONE DAY, ONE DECISION, AND THE THREE DECADES OF IMPACT IT HAS HAD ON AMERICA
July 16, 1980. For 99.9994% of Americans, this one day on the calendar holds little significance at a glance. Just another day long ago. But what took place on that day has impacted the American scene, Presidential politics, national and world affairs, and perhaps the manner in which America is perceived by the rest of the world, ever since. On that day, sequestered in the 69th floor of the Detroit Plaza Hotel, the chief staffers of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign were wrangling over the question of who Reagan should select as his Vice Presidential running mate – a choice that was seen as important to uniting the Republican Party first and foremost, but would ultimately prove important to the entire planet.
Then, as now, the choice of a Vice Presidential running mate is influenced by a variety of factors. Mostly it’s based on what the candidate brings to the table in terms of his own support base (the most recent example being Vice President Pence’s delivery of conservative votes in the midwest in 2016, the most notable likely being Lyndon Johnson bringing southern support and a sense of “gravitas” to the candidacy of John Kennedy in 1960). While nowadays Vice Presidential nominees tend to be chosen a week or two before party conventions, allowing the conventions themselves to serve as mere billboards and coronations for their nominees, in 1980 Reagan’s choice hadn’t been announced. Why? Because it hadn’t yet been decided.
One name on Reagan’s list of potential Vice Presidents going into the convention today would be perceived as ludicrous: that of former President (and before that, Vice President) Gerald Ford. Four years earlier, Reagan had challenged Ford for the 1976 GOP nomination, and the differences between them were seen as stark: on foreign policy, domestic issues, and a variety of other matters, Ford was center-right while Reagan was viewed as a dyed in the wool conservative. This, plus the thought that a former President would never demean himself by serving as a successor’s subordinate, made it seem illogical, farcical… though oddly enough, in 1948 President Harry S Truman reportedly volunteered to do the exact same thing had Dwight Eisenhower opted to run that year for President as a Democrat.
When approached about the idea of joining Reagan on the ticket, Ford surprisingly didn’t reject the notion out of hand. Instead, he proposed a unique scenario that would have given the Vice Presidency an unprecedented level of power and prestige, far beyond that held by the post even today. Ford’s proposition was essentially to combine the roles of the elected Vice Presidency with those of the appointed White House Chief of Staff – one which often is seen as being that of a de facto Prime Minister for the United States. Reagan meanwhile, sensing he’d need moderate Republican support to defeat incumbent Jimmy Carter that November, allowed advisors to negotiate with Ford and his people, meanwhile not discussing any other potential candidates. As the sun began to set in Detroit on July 16, 1980, a Reagan-Ford ticket seemed if not likely, at least more than simply plausible.
Ford’s terms for the arrangement, however, were unpalatable to Reagan’s staff. Ford wanted Henry Kissinger to return for a second stint as Secretary of State. Ford wanted future Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan as Secretary of the Treasury. He (or his subordinates) would further go on to ask for chairmanship of the National Security Council, a post traditionally held by the President himself. While Reagan and his staffers viewed the arrangement as unwieldly, negotiations nevertheless continued.
While staffers worked on details, Ford agreed to be interviewed by Walter Cronkite as part of CBS television’s coverage of the convention – and immediately shot any chances he had of returning to the Vice Presidency directly in the foot. Cronkite got straight to the point with Ford, asking about rumors that a “co-Presidency” was being considered with Reagan. Not entirely aware of all that was being hashed out in the Plaza Hotel, the former President didn’t outright deny such an arrangement, but answered as honestly and forthrightly as he could: yes, there were negotiations taking place that would put him on the 1980 ticket with Ronald Reagan.
Almost immediately after watching the interview, an realizing that what was being discussed was something of a co-opting of the job he sought for himself, Ronald Reagan looked around to his staffers in the room and asked, almost resigned, “Who else is there?” While there was a “short list” of potential running mates (Howard Baker, Jack Kemp, Paul Laxalt, Richard Lugar and William Simon), the name of George Herbert Walker Bush wasn’t high on it. It also wasn’t the first time his name had been on a “VP short list.” Ironically, Gerald Ford had considered Bush a prime candidate as his Vice President in 1974; but Bush, who at the time was chairman of the Republican National Committee, was under investigation for an alleged “slush fund” within the party – a charge that ultimately was proven without merit. But under the circumstances of the time (Vice President Spiro Agnew having resigned a year earlier due to taking kickbacks, and a President resigning under a cloud of scandal himself), even a whiff of controversy was unacceptable to Ford. So a Vice President Bush wouldn’t happen in 1974.
Bush was low on the “short list” not due to a lack of qualifications but other factors. He was far more moderate than Reagan, and had openly derided his economic policies during the 1980 campaign. Bush held a more moderate position on abortion. More rankling though was that Bush pursued the presidential nomination himself in 1980 with great vigor, fighting Reagan tooth and nail in the primaries even after Reagan had built an insurmountable lead in the delegate count. But now, with Ford’s demands for the job making a Reagan-Ford pairing less than appealing, Bush’s name was brought up… and immediately rejected by Reagan, who cited why he didn’t think it would be a good match.
It would be Reagan staffer Peter Hannaford who would return Bush to the discussion, asking the presidential nominee if he’d reconsider Bush were he to consent to the Reagan platform in its entirety. Reagan, watching Ford slip away and wondering who else he could select to mollify the moderate wing of the party, said he would. But the prospect of a Reagan-Ford ticket remained, and over the evening deliberations continued between lieutenants of the former President and the future one. Feelers meanwhile were put out to the Bush camp: Would George Bush be interested in the Vice Presidency to the point of coming in “lock step with the Reagan program?” The response came back without hesitation, without question and without stipulation: Bush would be on board.
In short, George Bush wanted the job badly enough – and perhaps thought that Reagan, at age 69, might not survive the rigors of a four year term – that he’d do anything that was asked of him. Ford meanwhile had conditions, and a fairly long list of them at that.
Finally at 11:30 that night, Ford and Reagan met face to face at the Plaza Hotel. After just a few minutes Ford departed, and Reagan told his key people what they’d suspected: there’d be no “Reagan-Ford” ticket. A moment of hesitancy followed as the gravity of the moment was absorbed, and the sense of historical loss was brought to bear. Reagan then asked, “What do we do now?”
Dick Allen, a senior Reagan advisor, simply said “George Bush.” Within minutes, a phone call was placed and a deal struck. It would be Reagan-Bush, not Reagan-Ford, representing the Republican Party in the 1980 campaign. And the ramification of this one, otherwise seemingly insignificant day and its events, have proven incalculable. Had Ford joined Reagan on the ticket that night, the name of George Herbert Walker Bush almost certainly would have joined those of Philip Crane, John Anderson, and others who ran in the 1980 Republican primaries and lost – footnotes in history. Without eight years as Vice President, Bush likely doesn’t win the 1988 GOP nomination and the White House in his own right over Michael Dukakis.
Perhaps the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 is handled differently under a different administration, Republican or Democrat. A different President could have taken a purely passive stance, or could have wiped Saddam Hussein off the face of the Earth. The Bush name wouldn’t have had sufficient recognition to propel not one but two sons into Governor’s mansions in Florida and Texas – and it certainly wouldn’t have provided much help in placing George Walker Bush in the White House on January 20, 2001. You could even play alternate historical timelines out into scenarios in which, if Gerald Ford joins Ronald Reagan on the 1980 Republican Party ticket? The attacks of 9/11 never occur. The United States never invades Afghanistan or Iraq. Tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of lives are spared.
Then again, perhaps we enter even greater battles and wars, with far higher casualties on both sides. Perhaps without things unfolding as they did, this December is a nuclear winter rather than a merely mild one. Interesting to contemplate, isn’t it?