How Ford was used to create Bush dynasty

Matt Towery

12/28/2006 12:01:00 AM - Matt Towery

It goes without saying that the passing of Gerald Ford is a loss to the nation and particularly those of my generation who grew up watching TV shows like "Happy Days." To us, Gerald Ford was the man who symbolized new happy days -- stability in the White House after what seemed like the endless sordidness of Watergate.

For those who enjoy a bit of old GOP intrigue, there remains a behind-the-scenes and little-talked-about debate. It is about whether George H.W. Bush's presidential career, and the Bush dynastic rule it inaugurated, would ever have happened were it not for a quirky night at the 1980 Republican National Convention.

Let me say up front that most of the "players" on this given night vehemently deny that President Ford was in any way, even unknowingly, a part of any plan to force then-Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan into selecting the man he had just defeated for the nomination, George Bush, to become his running mate.

There are a few witnesses to the events that unfolded during that particular convention who still suggest that what occurred was nothing short of the longstanding "mainstream" GOP -- the party faction known as "Rockefeller Republicans" -- making darn sure that they had a seat at the table for what they viewed as the unknown and mistrusted "cowboy Republican" world of Ronald Reagan.

This much we know: Reagan had assembled a team to evaluate potential vice-presidential prospects. According to former Attorney General Edwin Meese, then a top Reagan campaign intimate, Bush's name was already at the head of the list.

But Richard Allen, Reagan's foreign policy adviser and later national security adviser, claims he was the only person who was a constant observer of what led to Bush's selection at the convention. He suggests that Bush was not at the top of Reagan's list, but, in fact, was chosen at the last minute.

This much both men have publicly agreed upon: Talk of a "dream team" of former President Ford joining up with his 1976 nemesis, Ronald Reagan, as his vice-presidential nominee, had gone from mere conjecture to an expected reality in a matter of days at the convention.

Rumor had it that Ford would accept this unusual position of running for vice president after having served as both VP and president, but only if he were given the uncommon role of managing Reagan's foreign policy.

Both Meese and Allen have agreed in public writings that an interview of Ford by then-CBS News great Walter Cronkite had an impact on the vice-presidential selection process. Meese claimed it merely accelerated the announcement of Bush as a running mate; whereas, Allen claimed the interview forced Reagan to turn to Bush.

Either way, it was clear that Reagan was appalled at the impact of the Ford interview, in which the former president hinted strongly at his willingness to run with Reagan. Suddenly the convention was abuzz with excitement. Delegates waved seemingly homemade "Reagan-Ford" signs on national television.

Allen claims Reagan was upset over demands by Ford advisers that Henry Kissinger be guaranteed the role of secretary of state and Alan Greenspan, treasury secretary. Allen writes that he was with Reagan as he expressed horror over a "co-presidency" with anyone, but especially Ford. He initially recoiled at the prospect of selecting Bush as his running mate, whom he had been campaigning against just months earlier and had labeled a Republican "liberal."

Meese insists Bush had already been selected, but that the Ford interview forced Reagan to make a surprise trip to the convention hall that night to announce Bush as his running mate. Meese said Reagan did so to avoid delegates becoming disappointed over Ford not being on the ticket should that expectation continue past that night.

My best guess, knowing how this party has traditionally operated, is that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I don't doubt Meese when he says there was already an orderly process of evaluating potential VP candidates underway, and that Bush was toward the top. But I also believe Allen when he says Bush wasn't initially Reagan's first choice and that the Ford interview forced him to make a swift and perhaps different decision.

Either way, the story illustrates that Gerald Ford, from his service as a Republican member of the Warren Commission to his healing manner in the wake of Watergate, was a far more powerful force than most observers ever recognized.