hat I remember most about entering Ronald Reagan’s suite early on the third evening of the 1980 Republican convention, the night of his nomination, was the silence. It’s not that there weren’t plenty of people around. William J. Casey, Reagan’s campaign manager; Richard Wirthlin, his pollster; and his advisers Peter Hannaford, Michael Deaver, and Edwin Meese were all there in the candidate’s elegantly appointed rooms on the sixty-ninth floor of the Detroit Plaza Hotel. So, too, was Reagan, dressed in a casual shirt and tan slacks. The entire group was seated on a large U-shaped couch, hushed, as if they were watching some spellbinding movie on TV.
The silence in the room was in marked contrast to the steadily rising noise at the Joe Louis Arena. There, word was spreading that Reagan was going to choose Gerald Ford, the former president and his bitter adversary in the 1976 primaries, to be his running mate.
As Reagan’s foreign policy adviser, I didn’t have much business getting involved in the selection of a vice president. But as someone who signed on with Reagan because I admired his principled criticism of the foreign policy of the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations, I couldn’t help venturing to the suite to see what was going on. And so, at 5:30 in the evening, before I was to head over to the convention, I walked up the single flight of stairs that separated Reagan’s floor from mine. It didn’t take long for my suspicions to be confirmed. As I stepped into the hallway, there, coming out of Reagan’s rooms and flanked by his Secret Service detail, was a tanned and fit Gerald Ford.
Once the former president and I had exchanged pleasantries, I made my way past security to Reagan’s suite. Alone among those gathered on the couch, the nominee looked up and greeted me. I asked if he needed anything before I left for the arena. “Oh, no,” he replied, “but thanks.”
As I turned to leave, he asked, “What do you think of the Ford deal?”
“What deal?” I responded, genuinely surprised that the two parties were already working out details. In addition to the vice-presidential slot, Reagan said, “Ford wants Kissinger as secretary of state and Greenspan at treasury.” My instant response was, “That is the craziest deal I have ever heard of.” And it was.
This election year, both major presidential candidates conducted highly structured searches for their running mates. Though it was only 20 years ago, the process in 1980 could not have been more different from the one today. It is hard to imagine an unexpected vice-presidential pick at the last minute, like John Kennedy’s selection of Lyndon Johnson in 1960, Richard Nixon’s choice of Spiro Agnew in 1968, or even George Bush Sr.’s elevation of Dan Quayle in 1988—all of which caught the candidates’ advisers by surprise.
As I turned to leave, Reagan asked, “What do you think of the Ford deal?” My instant response was, “That is the craziest deal I have ever heard of.”
But it was Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Governor Bush’s father that bears special telling. Reagan’s selection of Bush in Detroit represented a turnabout within six hours; it came only when the negotiations with Ford, having taken on a life of their own, appeared to have reached an impasse. Had the talks succeeded and had Ford been selected, the Reagan campaign, crippled by infighting, might well have lost to the Carter-Mondale ticket in the fall. Had Reagan and Ford managed to win the election, it’s very likely that their administration would have been hobbled by an unworkable power-sharing arrangement. It’s also possible that the Republicans might have a different candidate today.
There are many plausible versions of how and why Reagan chose George Bush as his running mate, but most are wide of the mark. One conventional view is that Reagan, about to be nominated, recognized that he "needed a moderate" like Bush to balance the ticket; another version has it that Reagan, supposedly unschooled in foreign affairs, saw the wisdom of naming someone with extensive experience in the field to offset his own shortcomings. Yet another explanation holds that Reagan, a Californian, needed “geographic balance” and got that in Bush, with his Connecticut and Texas lineage.
These explanations are wrong. George Bush was picked at the very last moment and largely by a combination of chance and some behind-the-scenes maneuvering. Many Reagan advisers have claimed a deal was never close. The postconvention media commentary has largely reflected this view. In fact, Meese and Deaver have gone so far as to declare that Bush was their first choice all along. I take exception to their account. I saw a very different story unfold and saw it from a privileged vantage point. From the moment I walked into that suite until the moment Bush was finally selected, I was the only person to remain in Reagan’s presence throughout the adventure. With detailed notes to back up my memory, this is what I saw at the dawn of the Reagan revolution on that long night in Detroit.
George Bush was picked as Ronald Reagan’s running mate at the very last moment and largely by a combination of chance and some behind-the-scenes maneuvering.
Ronald Reagan’s search for a vice president started as soon as he clinched the nomination with a string of primary victories in the spring of 1980. Before long, a short list of prospective running mates had been put together, including Howard Baker, William Simon, Jack Kemp, Richard Lugar, Paul Laxalt, and George Bush.
None of these prospective running mates were actually “vetted” in the way the process works today. Reagan knew all these men in varying degrees, but as was his style, he expected his advisers to do what was necessary to prune the list. The job fell largely to Ed Meese, who knew Reagan’s mind better than anyone except Nancy Reagan.
It wasn’t until several weeks before the convention that Gerald Ford’s name entered into the mix. Although it has never been established how it happened, most attribute it to Bryce Harlow, a respected adviser to Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford. Harlow probably initiated the idea in a discussion with his friend William Casey, who then took it to Reagan and Meese.
As the convention approached, the Ford rumors became stronger. Although Reagan was running even with or behind President Carter in most polls, the idea struck several of us on the senior staff as a highly impractical, if not silly, idea. After all, Reagan and Ford had fought intensely for the nomination in 1976. In 1980, the GOP platform carried Reagan’s conservative message down the line. Its foreign policy planks in particular were, under cover of assailing Carter, a de facto indictment of the Nixon-Ford-Kissinger policy of détente with the Soviet Union. Unlike many of his predecessors, Reagan actually believed in the platform and was determined to see it put in place. The platform alone, we thought, would make a Reagan-Ford ticket unthinkable.
In Reagan’s suite, however, the unthinkable had become the possible. In less than 24 hours, Reagan was going to have to go before the convention to announce his vice-presidential nominee. And yet for reasons that to this day remain baffling, not only had Reagan given his political advisers free rein to negotiate with Ford, he had also refrained from initiating conversations with other potential running mates. With no alternate plan in sight, it seemed that Reagan was prepared to embrace the wing of the Republican Party that had ridiculed him, probably disliked him, and would surely do its best to undermine his agenda.
“I can’t take him,” Reagan said of Bush. “That ‘voodoo economic policy’ charge and his stand on abortion are wrong.”
At 5:50 p.m., Casey and Meese, who had left the suite shortly after my arrival, returned. They seemed pensive. Lyn Nofziger, a longtime aide, joined us a few minutes later, asking, “What did Ford want?”
Reagan again described the deal being negotiated, complete with Ford’s demands for Kissinger and Alan Greenspan, adding “I thought that was more than a little sacrifice.” Then Reagan went to his bedroom to take a short nap. He knew it would be a long night.
Shortly after 6:30, Kissinger entered the suite to talk to Meese, evidence that a serious negotiation was indeed in progress. Half an hour later, he emerged; we chatted briefly, but the former secretary of state revealed nothing of the talks. Meese, who was similarly guarded, said that Kissinger wanted to proceed with discussions.
This was serious. And so I did something rash: I decided to try to contact George Bush. Until that moment, the campaign inner circle had treated important issues in a collegial manner; there had been no secrets among us. But on this issue, Casey, Meese, Wirthlin, and Deaver were keeping the lid on. If my colleagues could play it close to the vest on such a crucial issue, it was a game that could be played by others as well.
Although nominally still on a list of frequently mentioned running mates, George Bush was not really on Reagan’s radar screen. Since the primaries, the two men had barely spoken, and they certainly hadn’t discussed the vice presidency. Apart from serious policy differences, Bush had refused to admit defeat in the primary battles despite being vanquished by Reagan in 29 of 33 primaries and did not withdraw from the race until just before the California primary in June. Reagan considered the belated departure willful and unnecessary and was offended by it. Still, I thought Bush a viable alternative to Ford; he had the best credentials of the possible running mates mentioned. If not for the unsettled relations between the two, Bush could bring more to the ticket to help Reagan than anyone on the list of choices.
There was no question that a Bush candidacy would be a hard sell. Among Reagan’s advisers, Nofziger and Casey viewed Bush as a liberal, and others were almost unanimously against him, some even contemptuous. I considered Bush a capable man whose positions were actually much closer to Reagan’s than were Ford’s, especially on foreign policy and defense matters. In 1978, Bush had requested my assistance on his campaign, but my commitment to Reagan was firm. Of the Reagan inner circle, I had the clearest channel to Bush and knew him the best.
Shortly before 7:30, I reached Stefan Halper, a Bush aide. Talking to him from the nearly empty suite, I asked him, in as circumspect a manner as possible, to seek Bush’s assurance that he could support the platform “with no exceptions.” Halper knew what I meant: Was Bush interested in the job? Would he implicitly abandon his support for abortion and his opposition to supply-side economics by embracing the platform? I then called an old friend, Richard Fairbanks, to ask him to approach Bush with the same questions. I wanted two sources of independent confirmation and knew Fairbanks was close to Bush.
At this point, Reagan emerged from his bedroom refreshed by the catnap and sat down in front of three muted television sets in the suite. Within moments, Gerald Ford appeared on CBS with Walter Cronkite, and Reagan asked that the volume be turned up. Cronkite wasted no time asking Ford if he and Reagan were discussing a “copresidency,” which Ford affirmed by not disagreeing. Reagan looked appalled.
After the broadcast, the room cleared out. Reagan and I were alone. Reluctant to question him, but knowing that another track could never be started unless he agreed to it, I asked Reagan why he would not simply issue a statement denying that he had agreed to a copresidency. There was a sense of resignation in his voice when he said, “I can’t.” After a few seconds, he said aloud, almost rhetorically, "Who else is there?"
“There’s Bush,” I suggested, half expecting him to close off the discussion. Instead, he paused and then said, “I can’t take him; that ‘voodoo economic policy’ charge and his stand on abortion are wrong.”
Sensing an opportunity, I reached for a copy of the platform lying on the coffee table, passed it to him, and said, “Governor, this is your platform, every word of it.” I added that Martin Anderson, Reagan’s chief domestic policy adviser, Peter Hannaford, and I had scrutinized it carefully. “If you could be assured that George Bush would support this platform in every detail,” I asked, “would you reconsider Bush?”
Reagan mulled this over for a moment and then said, deliberately, “Well, if you put it that way, I would agree to reconsider.” The opening emerged.
At 7:50 Fairbanks called to say that Bush could indeed embrace the platform; soon thereafter, Halper phoned with the same message. Meanwhile, negotiations with Ford continued upstairs on the seventieth floor, with Casey, Meese, Deaver, and Wirthlin representing Reagan, and Greenspan, Kissinger, and the Ford advisers John O. Marsh and Robert Barrett representing the former president.
Reagan continued to sit before the televisions, snacking on his favorite jelly beans. Senator Bob Dole appeared with the television commentator Max Robinson and declared that “Ford and Reagan can work it out.” Reagan commented, softly: “No, Bob. I cannot give him what he wants.”
Seeing another opening, I then informed Reagan that Bush had given unequivocal assurances that he could embrace and defend the entire platform, emphasizing “with no exceptions.” He listened carefully, but did not respond. I simply could not read his reaction, and the thought crossed my mind that he was angry that I had opened a channel to Bush.
At 8:05, Reagan announced to no one in particular, doesn’t Ford “realize there is no way in the world I can accept? What kind of presidential candidate would I be in the eyes of the world if I were to give in to such demands?” It seemed odd that despite his instincts, Reagan did not call a halt to the talks. It seemed odd, too, that so many of those who felt uncomfortable about the deal remained quiet.
Just before 8:30, Meese reported progress: Ford had modified his demands and now wanted to be “chairman” of the National Security Council. The notion should have been rejected outright, as the president is the head of the NSC. A few minutes later, Anderson and Deaver rejoined the group in the suite, and Deaver told Reagan that Ford would like to speak to him on the phone. At 8:55, Reagan went into his bedroom to call Ford. He returned five minutes later, reporting that Ford had told him that Kissinger “now takes himself out” of the running for secretary of state. It was clear that Ford and Greenspan had not taken themselves out of anything.
By 9:30, Sam Donaldson was reporting that Reagan would go to the arena with Ford in a matter of hours, reinforcing speculation about the “dream ticket,” and at 9:45, Cronkite announced that Ford and Kissinger were meeting with Reagan operatives. At 9:50, Meese came into the room: “We’re wanted upstairs” in Ford’s suite.
At 10:05, former treasury secretary William Simon entered, and Reagan and I sat with him in a corner. Simon, who had been mentioned as a vice-presidential candidate, was determined to stop the deal in its tracks, which was surprising since he had served in Ford’s cabinet. “Ron, take me out of this,” he told Reagan. “But under no circumstances take Ford. If you did that, you’d be totally compromised, and you know it.” Simon, never a man to mince words, left; he had made a deep impression on Reagan.
By 10:45, Casey and Meese had returned to the suite to present the latest version of the deal. “It’s kind of hard to describe how it would work in practice,” Meese began. “The president will nominate the secretaries of state and treasury, with the veto of the vice president. The vice president will name the director of the Office of Management and Budget and the national security adviser with the veto of the president. It boils down to a mutual veto power.” In this version, Kissinger, “taken out” as secretary of state, would run foreign policy from the vice president’s office.
At that late hour, despite its obvious and fundamental flaws and without any sort of backup plan, our side seemed determined to try to make this constantly changing arrangement work. It was almost surreal: How could a president limit his constitutional powers and prerogatives by allowing a vice president to veto his choices?
Just before 11, Nancy Reagan and the Reagan children came in to watch the convention roll call. At 11:13, Montana put Reagan over the top, and there was jubilation. At the moment of triumph, though, the negotiators were not present; they remained upstairs, locked in discussions. Meanwhile, the convention was drawing to a close—if the Ford talks went on much longer, and failed, there would be no way to heal the disappointment. Over the course of the preceding hour, I had told Hannaford, Anderson, and Nofziger that a channel had been opened to Bush and that Bush was on board with the platform. Hannaford then began to argue that the logjam had to be broken. He collected Deaver and Nofziger at the entrance to the suite and mounted the stairs to tell the negotiators that a decision was needed.
At 11:25, the negotiators returned; Casey reported that “the answer is probably no.” Five minutes later, Ford, accompanied by Barrett, entered the suite to talk with Reagan, and we left the room. The two men spent a few minutes alone, and at 11:35, Ford departed. We rushed back into the room, and Reagan said: "I have to say the answer is no. All this time, my gut instinct has been that this is not the right thing. I have affection and respect for Ford. He said he would go all out to help." There was complete silence.
Reagan glanced around and asked those assembled—a group that included Casey, Meese, Wirthlin, Hannaford, Deaver, and me—"Well, what do we do now?" There was no immediate response. No one offered an alternate plan. No one tossed out a name. Expecting instant opposition, I ventured, "We call Bush." Once more, silence. Reagan again looked at each of us; hearing no objection, he said, "Well, let’s get Bush on the phone."
At precisely 11:38, the phone was in Reagan’s hand; though they barely knew each other, Reagan dove right in. "George," he said warmly, "I would like to go over there and tell them that I am recommending you for vice president. Could I ask you one thing—do I have your permission to make an announcement that you support the platform across the board?" We could hear Bush agreeing at the other end. Reagan then left for the convention center where, shortly after midnight, he took the podium to praise Ford and then to announce his running mate, George Bush.
And so it came to pass that Ronald Reagan averted what would have been a disaster for his candidacy and the Republican Party. The following morning, Ed Meese called us together and declared the official line should be that the process of selecting a running mate had been orderly and measured and that there "never was a deal with Ford" for the vice presidency. Technically, he’s right, since no deal was ever consummated.
Months later, while on the campaign plane, I asked Deaver what was in his mind as he sat in those discussions. He thought for a moment and said, "Look, I’m a guy from Sacramento, California, and there I was sitting at a negotiating table with Henry Kissinger, and Kissinger had negotiated with Mao." Astonished, I waited for something more, then asked, "And so, that’s it?" He looked at me as if I didn’t understand and said, sharply: "Of course that’s it. I was sitting right there!"
For his part, Kissinger, no stranger to balky negotiations, later told the Washington Post that "if it had been possible for both the principals to go to bed, sleep on it, meet again in the morning, we could have wrapped up this thing in two hours in the morning," adding, "that’s how close it was." And I believe him.