Moments before Sen. Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming was about to cast his state's 18 votes for Ronald Reagan, a message went out to the floor: Keep the "spontaneous" demonstration marking the end of the roll call and Reagan's nomination going as long as possible.
A problem had developed. The candidate needed to buy time. Demonstrators were to keep waving their placards and sounding their horns until the band stopped. It was a stall, pure and simple, but in the noisy atmosphere of the convention hall hardly anyone noticed.
Actually, the problem had been brewing for hours in private. The signal to delay had been sent to the Reagan forces from the 69th floor of the Plaza Hotel overlooking the Detroit River, Canada and Joe Louis Arena. The instructions came from Reagan's campaign manager, William Casey. He was desperately bargaining for more time.
One floor above, Gerald R. Ford, the former president and vice president, had talked by phone to the new GOP standard-bearer. Their two staffs had conferred. Now the prospects for a "dream Republican ticket" that had seemed so real only a few hours earlier were collapsing. Although a document had been prepared describing some of the areas where Reagan would grant something like an unprecedented deputy president status to Ford, the agreement seemed to be slipping away.
In the end the Republican ticket that tantalized the participants and party leaders never materialized because Reagan and Ford could not reconcile fundamental differences over the waay they would exercise and, to some degree, share presidential power.
From the Reagan side:
"The governor finally decided the price they wanted was too high."
From the Ford camp:
"He [Ford] knew exactly what he was going to need if he went into the government and he knew it was something he probably wasn't going to get [from Reagan]. So he finally said, 'Goddam it all, it's not going to work. I knew it wouldn't work. You know . . . it's not going to work.'"
Whether it could have worked probably will never be resolved. Each side sees the events that sent this convention and the nation on an emotional roller-coaster from differing perspectives. There are disagreements over why the attempted deal fell through, and over specific points of some of the most dramatic maneuverings ever in a political convention.
What emerges from this story is a conflict not just of ambitions and personalities, but of perceptions as to how best to govern the nation.
In the aftermath, several points of tension emerge. Among them are the role of former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, the decision by Ford to discuss his thoughts about accepting a second place on the Reagan ticket so dramatically and publicly over national TV in prime time, and the difficulties of resolving the working relationships. in Washington should the GOP ticket win in the fall.
In discussions with his staff and the congressional leaders who were imploring him to take the position, Ford felt, as one of his associates said, that if he were going to sacrifice, "there has to be some reciprocity on the other [Reagan] side."
"It was not just Kissinger he wanted to bring in. He felt and said that he needs some horses he could rely on -- Alan Greenspan, Jim Lynn, Paul O'Neill, Brent Scowcroft -- you know, the ones who were the core that he depended on. He was not imposing people on Reagan, but he knew that if he was going to be able to function [in the role they were discussing] he had to be able to say, 'I want this guy and I want him in this spot.'
"Ford knew that without the kind of structure his people were discussing with the Reagan group he would be a fifth wheel in government. As he said over national TV, he didn't want to go back to Washington merely as a ceremonial vice president."
And, as another of his aides said, "He also knew that without the people he was talking about, he'd be a eunuch."
Although Ford's advisers insist that the question of specific people coming into government was not raised with their Reagan counterparts, they say Ford talked about such appointments with his own staff and with congressional leaders. Whether Ford raised those names alone with Reagan is not known.
But the Reagan people, as one said, were acutely aware that what appeared to be in the offing was "a return of the Ford White House."
One important Reagan source is convinced "the reason it didn't fly" was because of discussions about the Ford impact and possible control over the National Security Council and foreign policy. The person says Reagan had misgivings about that prospect.
"I think," the source said, "when Ford started talking Kissinger it began to make the governor realize how much he might be giving away."
Others say Reagan expressed displeasure when he watched Ford giving television interviews to Walter Cronkite of CBS and Barbara Walters of ABC. "Reagan was really irritated by what he saw on telelvision -- he had no idea Ford would do that," one Reagan aide said.
Another person described this scene:
Reagan is in his suite watching three television sets and talking with his aides when suddenly he sees Ford's face appear on the CBS set. The candidate leans forward in his chair."Is that Ford?" he says, in the incredulous tones. Then, when he hears Ford speak about establishing something like a "co-presidency" with Reagan, the candidate shakes his head from side to side, his lips set in apparent disgust.
This was only one of many emotional scenes played out in the drama that transformed this convention from one of the most predictable into one of the most memorable.
Just when the idea of a Reagan-Ford ticket began to form is not clear, but a key beginning was when the two met last month at the former president's home in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
They had not been close. Their contest for the 1976 GOP nomination had left scars, with Ford and his people privately bitter about Reagan's failure to campaign actively for the president and the Reagan side equally alienated by a number of disagreements.
Ford also had said repeatedly he was not interested in a secondary position on the ticket -- not surprising, for no American president ever has returned to run as vice president.
But by the time Ford arrived in Detroit for the convention he and Reagan had established better rapport in other meetings. A Ford aide, Bob Barrett, who participated in this week's discussions with the Reagan aide, says:
"I think Governor Reagan was always extremely considerate of not embarrassing President Ford, being sure that he wasn't placing him in any position that wasn't tenable or reversible or anything else. . . . Those two people, I think, had their first really complimentary, meaningful relationship -- you know, one of them was 69, having gone down one road, the other guy's 67, having gone down another road. . . They were apart; then all of a sudden, in this intense period we're going to try and make up almost 140 years worth of something else."
Reagan came to Detroit, one adviser insists, convinced Ford had taken himself out of consideration for vice president. But last Tuesday he did ask Ford to consider a paper Reagan staff lawyers had prepared about the constitutional problems of two people from the same state running for president and vice president.
When Reagan gave Ford the memo at their late afternoon meeting, the former president replied, according to Barrett: "Ron, just believe me, it's overwhelmingly likely -- I don't want to quantify the chances, but please . . . I think I can help you more on the outside."
Reagan reportedly said: "Well, if you'd just take the memo and think it over, and don't answer right now."
Whatever Reagan had in mind, Ford found a political boomlet for him to take the vice presidency awaiting him in Detroit.
One of his former aides recalls a discussion with Ford last Monday as they were meeting to go over Ford's speech to the convention that night. Ford said he was getting a lot of pressure to reconsider.
Bill Brock, the GOP national chairman, put together a group urging Ford to run. It included Sens. Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee and Bob Dole of Kansas, Illiois Gov. James Thompson, Rep. Richard Cheney of Wyoming, pollster Robert Teeter and former Senator Robert Griffin of Michigan.
These people discussed two approaches to try to entice Ford: to structure a significant and meaningful role to the vice president; or to acknowledge that, however flawed the post, it was important to the party and the country for him to take it.
One of the advisers, at least, had mixed feelings about the approach.
"Frankly, I was torn," he says. "On the one hand I wanted him to do it, because it would be good for the country. But on the other, I had a guilty conscience in asking him to do it."
Tuesday was a critical day. Ford's associates -- such people as Greenspan, Bryce Harlow, Kissinger, Jack Marsh, Barrett -- who had served him in Washington were actively exploring the idea of the vice presidency.
That night Ford took a boat cruise on the Detroit River with some of these people and returned to his suite to watch Kissinger address the convention. The political deliberations grew heavy -- and long. "We knew that there was a great desire for him to take the number two spot," Barrett said, "that we had had long discussions about it, and we said, 'Okay, here it comes.'"
Kissinger then entered the deliberations. he says he was asked by Reagan advisers William Casey, Ed Meese and Richard Wirthlin Tuesday night "to use my influence with President Ford to induce him to join the ticket. I said, 'I can't do it immediately. It's such a wrenching decision for the president, that I want him to raise it with me, and then I will use my influence. . . .'"
After his speech, Kissinger went to Ford's suite. Ford knew, Kissinger says, "there was a national emergency and he had to decide if he wanted to go through this very uncertain process."
"As it turned out, he raised it with me as soon as I walked in. We talked about it for about three hours. I talked to him alone about 45 minutes, and then all of us. And it was very moving. He slept on it -- barely." The conversation ended at 3 o'clock in the morning."
Three hours later, at 6 a.m., Ford got up to appear on the "Today" show.
"Then sometime during the course of the morning, he got us all together and said he was willing to do it -- no, not willing to do it, he was willing to let us talk to the Reagan people to see if we could give some meaning to the definition of a significant role that preserves the president's prerogatives and the vice president's sense he was contributing to the nation.
"Those were the benchmarks, and once you start talking about it, it gets very complicated."
That Wednesday became the day of frantic deliberations, of meetings and calls from the 69th- and 70th-floor suites, of trying to avoid press speculation that might jeopardize the delicate discussions.
The Ford and Reagan advisers met. So did Ford and Reagan.
One of the people who attended the long night session thinks he detected a notable change in Ford's manner. "For the first time it struck me he was saying 'no-but.' We talked a long time about how tough it was going to be for Reagan and we could see a very important role for Ford in helping a Reagan ticket, and more important, a Reagan administration."
That next day, when the advisers from both camps met, that role was discussed at length. "It turned out we were very much agreed on the broad conceptual framework," a Ford aide says. "There were no significant differences at all."
The Reagan people presented a "talking paper," not for anyone's signature, in which they agreed Ford would have a vital role in the National Security Council, over the federal budget and in congressional relations. The proposal was to be, as a top Reagan aide explains, a "super director of the executive office of the president."
When asked whether that meant Ford would have been, in effect, "deputy president," that aide said: "You could characterize it that way."
But there were problems -- and they intensified as the clock raced on and the nominating time for Reagan approached. From Reagan's side, one of them was "concern about relations between the staffs" -- a backhand directed at Kissinger.
Kissinger explains his conception of the expanded vice presidential role this way:
"We got to the point of saying he would have a major input on all decisions.
At that point everybody agreed. But then, what does major input mean? When you say the paper goes through the VP, what does that mean? If all he does is be a bottleneck, then how does he contribute? Does he have a staff? Can he stop something? Can he send a paper back? There was never any proposal made on our side that was rejected. It was just when we specified these questions [that problems arose]."
Another Ford aide says:
"There was no disagreement of an enhanced vice presidential role. So that is not where the issue lies. We then decided that they could move further, and there were a number of issues which Ford wanted to discuss with Reagan one on one."
The two men met between 5 and 5:30 p.m. Wednesday. They had a general discussion of the type of administration they would head in Washington.
Apparently at no point did Ford agree to take the vice presidency, but the Reagan side got the clear sense he was leaving the door open, with Reagan pursuing him, as one of the governor's people put it.
"Ford pushed on. He never said yes. But he never said no. It was always maybe."
By now the convention hour for the nomination was nearing, the belief that the Reagan-Ford ticket was coming closer to reality took hold strongly in the Reagan camp.
One of Reagan's oldest and closest advisers visited the Californian's suite at 7 o'clock. He found Reagan eating dinner, quietly looking out over the river.
It seemed serene, dead really," he recalls.
By the time he left for the Joe Louis Arena to watch the crowning of Reagan by the convention faithful, he was certain he knew the ticket.
"I was told it was Ford. I thought it was all set," he said.
Time and events quickly shattered that conviction.
First came the dramatic sight of Ford appearing with Walter Cronkite in the CBS anchor booth. Ford began that long conversation, in which his wife, Betty, participated, with a disclaimer of interest in the vice presidency. But he quickly made it stunningly clear he seemed eager to have it.
Cronkite asked about "the question of pride" -- both for a man who was president to accept second place, and for a new president to forge a different relationship with a former chief executive. "It's to be something like a co-presidency," he said.
"That's something Governor Reagan really ought to consider. Neither Betty nor myself would have any sense that our pride would be hurt if we went there as number two instead of number one. We've been around this city for a long time, Walter, and I think we're big enough, we're self-assured enough, that that problem wouldn't affect us in any way whatsoever.
"But the point you raised is a very legitimate one. We have a lot of friends in Washington. And the president-to-be -- and I would hope it's Ronald Reagan -- he has to also have pride. And for him not to understand the realities and some of the things that might happen in Washington is being oblivious to reality."
Reagan's people say they were stunned by the Ford-Cronkite interview. They were, as one top aide said, caught "flat-footed." And they resented the interview.
"It was a power squeeze," the same aide, said. "They were putting us in a box . . ."
The Ford TV interview touched off pandemonium. Network reporters filled the air waves with interviews about the supposedly certain ticket, and the fervor was growing out of control.
"We were faced with the problem of television establishing a reality in the convention hall that wasn't a reality at all," said Clifton White, director of the Reagan command center and a veteran of GOP conventions since 1948. "We were dealing with two worlds. People were saying things predicated on 20 percent and 30 percent fact and it was going out across the globe. What does this do to history?"
The Reagan forces began playing for time.
Both Ford's group and Reagan's feared the momentum would get out of hand. The Ford question about specifics in the expanded vice presidency had not been resolved.
Bitterness intruded: "They were playing hardball with us," said one Reagan aide of the Ford people. "You could say we made a very thorough investigation of creating a dream ticket, but the closer we got, the further apart we seemed to get."
The dream ticket was disintegrating. Each of the principals came to a decision -- it wouldn't work. The rest was a historic might-have-been that will be written about and discussed for years to come.
How close Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford came to forming their unprecedented partnership and experiment in governance cannot be determined with any certainty. But Henry Kissinger, for one, has a theory.
He thinks a good night's sleep could have sealed that remarkable bargain.
"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 this thing up in two hours in the morning," he says. "That's how close it was."