Lou Cannon is a former reporter for The Post and author of multiple biographies on President Ronald Reagan.
At a time when George H.W. Bush is rightly being celebrated for his statesmanship and decency, it is easy to forget that he was also a savvy long-distance politician whose doggedness enabled him to become vice president despite Ronald Reagan’s reservations about him as a running mate.
That doggedness was evident in 1980, when the entire Republican establishment tried to prevent Reagan from becoming the party’s presidential nominee. Howard Baker, John Connally, Bob Dole, Philip Crane and John B. Anderson, who later ran as an independent, all dropped out after Reagan victories in the primaries.
Bush did not drop out. Instead, he competed in 33 primaries with Reagan, losing 29 of them. By May 1980, when Reagan had more than enough delegates to be nominated, some of Reagan’s political operatives were clamoring for Bush to quit. Bush refused, believing that if he stayed in the race until the Republican National Convention in July, he would become Reagan’s only option as a running mate.
Bush believed Reagan would need a moderate to balance the GOP ticket. This was an accurate assessment; Reagan never seriously considered conservative alternatives such as his friend Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada.
But Reagan didn’t want Bush, who had backed down at a televised debate in February 1980 in Nashua, N.H., where Reagan refused to be silenced by a pro-Bush moderator who threatened to turn off his microphone. “I am paying for this microphone,” Reagan said, capturing the headlines and with them the New Hampshire primary.
The Nashua debate was a big story, but there was a follow-up a few months later to which the press paid little attention that confirmed Reagan’s low opinion of Bush. Bush had complained that in the Texas primary, he was being smeared by leaflets circulated by Reagan supporters. On May 2, in Houston, a local television station put the question to Reagan, who heatedly denied responsibility for the leaflets. The station then showed the clip to Bush, while being interviewed in his Houston home. To the astonishment of Reagan and his wife, Nancy, who were watching the interview, Bush absolved Reagan of blame and said the leaflets were “no big deal.”
“If it’s no big deal, why does he keep talking about it?” Nancy Reagan said. Ronald Reagan later told an aide that Bush lacked “spunk.”
Bush went on to the convention in Detroit and sat tight. He had friends in the Reagan camp, including pollster Richard Wirthlin and Reagan adviser Edwin Meese, whom he was counting on to say a good word for him if the occasion arose.
Meanwhile, in his search for a balanced ticket, Reagan pursued the will-of-the-wisp of putting former president Gerald R. Ford on the ticket. Amid questions about whether a “co-presidency” would work, the boomlet for Ford collapsed. At the 11th hour, Reagan pragmatically called Bush and asked him to be his running mate.
Being Reagan’s No. 2 kept Bush on his toes. His first assignment was a fence-building mission to the People’s Republic of China, where Bush was on the defensive trying to explain contradictory statements Reagan had made about Taiwan.
Once Reagan was elected, Bush struggled to achieve a constructive working relationship with the president. It wasn’t easy. Six weeks into the presidency, Bush confided to me that, try as his might, he couldn’t understand Reagan.
That uncertainty faded on March 30, 1981, when Reagan was shot and nearly killed by a would-be assassin outside the Washington Hilton.
Traveling in Texas, Bush flew back to Washington. He wisely declined to take a helicopter from Andrews Air Force Base to the White House lawn, believing that this would seem an alarming comment on Reagan’s condition. Instead, he was driven to the White House.
During Reagan’s recovery, Bush dutifully beat the drums for Reagan’s tax-reduction bill, which passed Congress that summer with help in the House from Texas Democrats.
In the 1980 presidential campaign, Bush had denounced Reagan’s view that supply-side tax cuts would increase government revenue as “voodoo economics.” As vice president, Bush favored tax cuts, and virtually the entire Republican Party had lined up behind the Kemp-Roth tax bill, which was premised on supply-side doctrine.
When the 1981 tax cuts proved to be an overreach, Reagan subsequently proposed and Congress ultimately raised taxes. As Bush would later learn, conservatives were far more forgiving of their idol Reagan for raising taxes than they would ever be of him.
Reagan, however, was completely won over by Bush’s steadfast loyalty through Iran-contra and other tribulations of his presidency.
When Baker asked Reagan to stay neutral in the 1988 presidential primary campaign, Reagan promised that he would, and did. But he confided to his diary that his personal choice was Bush, a patient and dogged politician.