How Reagan Helped to Build the House of Bush

Tuesday, January 30, 2001

In the fall 2000 issue of the Hoover Digest, my colleague Richard V. Allen presented his version of the vice presidential candidate selection in 1980 (“How the Bush Dynasty Almost Wasn’t”), which provides an interesting story but contains certain inaccuracies and omits some important facts (which may have been unknown to Mr. Allen). The result was a distorted account of how Ronald Reagan handled one of the most important decisions of that campaign.

Allen’s article gives the impression that the 1980 campaign lacked a “highly structured search” for a vice presidential candidate, that a “copresidency” between Reagan and former president Gerald Ford almost became “a deal,” that the selection process was haphazard and unorganized, and that George Bush was picked, almost by accident, at the very last moment. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the following facts will demonstrate. Necessarily, much of what occurred was known only to a few people involved in the campaign, but from the standpoint of those of us who were privy to all the facts, it is important to set the record straight.

From the outset of his campaign, Ronald Reagan recognized that selecting a vice presidential nominee would be a critical decision that could profoundly affect his own credibility as a national candidate. Therefore, in the spring of 1980, he asked Richard Wirthlin, who served as director of planning and strategy, to explore voters’ views on a wide range of issues associated with the vice president and their knowledge and perceptions of various potential nominees. During May and early June an extensive one-hour in-home survey was conducted involving some 20 possible candidates. The results were then presented to Governor Reagan, Bill Casey, and me in mid-June. Three names emerged on top—Howard Baker, Gerald Ford, and George Bush.

Several weeks before the Republican convention, Governor Reagan commissioned Edward Schmults, a respected New York lawyer who had served in the Treasury Department and later became deputy attorney general in the Reagan administration, to conduct a thorough review of nearly a dozen people who were under consideration as vice presidential candidates. Governor Reagan eschewed the established practice of grabbing headlines in the run-up to the convention by conducting a highly visible vice presidential search.

Following Schmults’s work, these extensive and multifaceted preparations were closely held among five individuals—Casey, Wirthlin, the candidate and his wife, and me—and no word that they even existed leaked to the press, the public, or a wider circle of others heavily involved in the campaign.

Even before the beginning of the convention, there developed a groundswell of enthusiasm, particularly among eastern Republicans, for a so-called dream ticket—Reagan for president and Gerald Ford for vice president. Even some of Reagan’s “kitchen cabinet” and other major supporters were impressed by this possibility. Although there were serious doubts from the very beginning that this would ever work out, Reagan and the campaign leaders felt—out of respect for President Ford and deference to those pressing this idea—that we should carefully explore whether such a ticket might be feasible. Therefore Bill Casey, Dick Wirthlin, and I began meeting with the team designated by Ford, which included Alan Greenspan, Henry Kissinger, Jack Marsh, and Robert Barrett.

It should be noted that, contrary to Mr. Allen’s story, Mike Deaver had other convention responsibilities and was not a member of this group. Further, Mr. Deaver states that he never had any discussion about “negotiating with Henry Kissinger,” as set forth in Allen’s article.

In a series of meetings over three days, the two groups of representatives discussed how a Reagan-Ford White House might possibly be organized and whether an arrangement that included a former president returning as vice president could be successful. While a variety of ideas were presented, at no time was the concept of a “copresidency” accepted, nor were the discussions even close to forming “a deal.” Both Governor Reagan and President Ford were kept current on the contents of these meetings.

On Wednesday afternoon, several hours before Walter Cronkite conducted a televised interview of Gerald Ford, I had a private conversation with Governor Reagan, advising him that it was highly unlikely that any arrangement with President Ford was going to emerge. Reagan said that after seriously thinking about the vice presidential candidacy over several days, he believed that George Bush would be the best prospect. We left the matter at that point, pending the final meetings of the exploration teams.

Finally on Wednesday evening, all the parties involved—Reagan, Ford, and both teams—came to the conclusion that President Ford should not be the vice presidential candidate. It was then that Ronald Reagan phoned George Bush, obtained his commitment to the Republican platform, and asked him to be his running mate.

Meanwhile, a new problem had developed. The Cronkite broadcast had created the impression that a Reagan-Ford “deal” was imminent. Speculation was rampant in the media and the convention hall about the “dream ticket.” The governor knew that if the delegates went home that night thinking Ford might be the vice presidential candidate, only to learn the following day that this was not so, disappointment and recriminations in some quarters could sour the proceedings. He therefore decided he should go to the hall before he himself had been formally nominated and clear the air—announcing that, should he receive the nomination, Bush would be his running mate. In doing this, Reagan went against the tradition holding that the presidential candidate shouldn’t make a personal appearance in the convention hall before he actually has the nomination. But Reagan felt that it was important to gain control of the situation and eliminate potential discord over a false issue.

Ronald Reagan had the habit, illustrated many times during his presidency, of keeping his options open until the ultimate moment of decision. But, invariably, the final conclusion on an issue came only after extensive study and much thought on his part. In this case, what might have appeared to be an instant decision was actually the result of careful preparations, deliberate consideration, and, finally, his taking decisive action.