past is prologue

Remembering the Reagan-Ford ‘Co-Presidency’ That Could Have Been

Three presidents – one past, two future – on one stage in 1980. Photo: Mark Meyer/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images

As speculation continues about Joe Biden’s running-mate choice, which should be unveiled in the next two or three weeks, it’s useful to remember that today’s careful, heavy-on-vetting, game-planned veep process is a relatively recent development. In days past, this sometimes-fateful decision was usually made on the fly at the convention itself.

The more spontaneous vice-presidential selection process of olden days produced such fascinating moments as a 1960 offer to Lyndon Johnson that John Kennedy didn’t really think he’d accept; a compromise choice of Spiro Agnew by Richard Nixon in 1968, made without benefit of the knowledge that the Maryland governor had been taking cash bribes from road contractors for years (which eventually led to the VP’s resignation); and the disastrous Thomas Eagleton fiasco of 1972, when George McGovern picked the Missouri senator after multiple prospects turned him down, but later dropped Eagleton from the ticket when it transpired he had undergone shock treatments and had several drunk-driving citations.

But as Steve Kornacki reminds us today, an especially strange veep moment occurred 40 years ago this week, when Ronald Reagan mulled his running-mate choices at the Republican National Convention in Detroit.

Reagan had some history with unconventional vice-presidential politics. Four years earlier, when he was struggling to catch up to incumbent Gerald Ford shortly before the 1976 Republican convention, Reagan suddenly announced liberal senator Richard Schweiker as his running mate, hoping to pry lose some delegates from Schweiker’s home state of Pennsylvania. It didn’t work, but it showed Reagan could take risks with a veep selection.

In 1980, George H.W. Bush, Reagan’s most enduring rival in the primaries, and someone with the foreign-policy credentials Reagan lacked, was the obvious choice. But there were questions about Bush’s “chemistry” with the Californian, and also some conservative unhappiness with his background as a booster of Planned Parenthood and his association with foreign-policy mandarins.

As campaign chronicler Jules Witcover recalled later, former president Gerald Ford’s name got into the veep discussion (he was eligible because his presidency had lasted less than one term) and immediately drew support while intriguing Reagan:

Reagan’s pollster, Dick Wirthlin, surveyed leading party figures with eight possible choices, including Bush, Howard Baker, Donald Rumsfeld and Jack Kemp. Ford ran far ahead. Republican supporters circulated a petition favoring a Reagan-Ford ticket, and Reagan himself took to the idea. 

Ford wasn’t initially interested, but Reagan and some go-betweens didn’t give up. The courtship continued during the convention, and when rumors got out that this “dream ticket” might happen, it electrified the gathering. Conservative Bush foes like Jesse Helms were especially excited by this possibility, and many pols happy about the idea all but convinced the media types ferreting out the story that it was a done deal.

Behind the scenes, though, Ford still didn’t like the idea. And among his advisers pouring cold water on the veep idea was, ironically, Dick Cheney, says Witcover:

Cheney cautioned the others: “There are two possible approaches to take. One is to say, ‘They’re going to make this a meaningful job,’ and I don’t think that would work. The other way is to say, ‘This is a really rotten, stinking job, but we want to do it for the good of the country and the party.’ That would be the only way he’d do it … [D]on’t go in and try to tell him it’s going to be a wonderful job. He knows better.”

While Ford never warmed to the prospect of joining Reagan’s ticket, he never quite ruled it out. The whole thing finally blew up when the former president granted an interview to Walter Cronkite, who introduced a deadly phrase into the discussion:

Cronkite, trying to parse Ford’s response, asked whether “it’s got to be something like a co-presidency.” Ford never used the term. But he did not contradict it. In fact, he only added to the confusion, telling Cronkite: “I really believe that, in all fairness to me, if there is to be any change, it has be predicated on the arrangements that I would expect as a vice president in a relationship with the president. I would not go to Washington and be a figurehead … Before I can even consider any revision in the firm position I have taken, I have to have responsible assurances.” [Pollster Richard] Wirthlin, watching the interview with Reagan at Detroit’s Crown Plaza hotel, said the nominee “sat up in his chair and said, ‘Did you hear what he said about a co-presidency?’”

The fact that Ford agreed to talk about the “dream ticket” in a network interview further convinced most of the people at the convention that Reagan-Ford was really happening. But the prospect of sharing real presidential power with a representative of the Republican Establishment that he had finally vanquished sobered Reagan, and while he did ask Ford again to join his ticket, this time he decided to take no for an answer.

Most delegates and media folk, of course, didn’t know what was happening behind the scenes, and when word came down that Reagan was going to become the first presidential nominee ever to appear at the convention podium before his acceptance speech, it was widely assumed he was about to announce the Reagan-Ford ticket. He did indeed announce his veep choice to the delegates and the world. But it was George H.W. Bush, not Gerald Ford, and Reagan’s decision to address the convention was designed to kill the “dream ticket” talk once and for all.

Reagan and Bush went on to beat Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale decisively that November, and after eight years of intense loyalty to his boss, Bush ascended to the presidency in 1988 (though not without difficulty; he finished third in Iowa behind Bob Dole and televangelist Pat Robertson). But had the “co-presidency” worked out, there might well have never been a Bush presidency, much less a Bush “dynasty.” Had he become veep for a second time, Ford would probably not have stuck around for a second term, and he wasn’t a lively prospect to become Reagan’s successor, either (he was 75 in 1988, and back then that was considered too old). There’s no telling exactly which direction the GOP and American politics might have taken after Reagan in that counterfactual, though it’s clear Reagan’s conservative wing of the party was in total control by the time he left office.

It’s unlikely Joe Biden’s pick will have anything like the drama of Reagan’s, and, of course, Biden’s convention will be mostly virtual. But if you get bored with the Democrat’s laborious vetting process and lengthy rollout of his decision, there’s something to be said for avoiding the chaos and happenstance of 1980.