This article appears in the July-August 2008 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.
July and August ought to see speculation about John McCain’s vice presidential choice reach a fever pitch — and it is not just a political game. Instead, vice presidential selections can be among the most consequential decisions in American history. Running mates are so often chosen with only short-term, purely political considerations in mind, so that even the presidential contender making the selection rarely realizes just how much he might be shaping long-term history.
Consider how little Dwight Eisenhower knew about the ramifications of choosing for his veep a man who had been in public office for fewer than six years. Fifty-six years later, even from the grave, Richard Nixon is shaping Republican politics still. It was Nixon who took a particular shine to three 1960s-era congressmen, making two of them his personal choices as chairmen of the Republican National Committee and the third one a high administration appointee. The names Bush, Dole, and Rumsfeld will surely ring a bell.
It was 28 years after Ike chose Nixon — and 28 years ago this summer, perhaps meaning that the time is exactly due for another momentous veep selection — that another GOP presidential nominee made a choice that would shape his party long, long after he left office. It also happened to be probably the wildest, most dramatic decision in modern convention history. All week long in Detroit in 1980, as conservatives celebrated their long-awaited takeover of the Republican Party via the presidential nomination of Ronald Reagan, speculation had been growing inside the convention hall and on the public airwaves that Reagan would choose former president Gerald Ford as a running mate. Never had a former president run on a national ticket again as a deputy to someone else, but Ford was more popular out of office than he ever had been in office, and he seemed sure to reassure voters worried (wrongly) that Reagan was too ideological for the job.
Longtime conservative activist and writer Craig Shirley this fall releases a book that will include the single best moment-by-moment, insiders’ account of how Reagan and Ford went right up to the very brink of a historic ticket, only to reject the idea at the very last moment, so late in fact that national media already were reporting it as a done deal. But what Shirley describes happening at the highest campaign levels in his book Rendezvous with Destiny was matched in excitement at the lowest level of the convention also, outside a holding room for convention pages, one of whom was the then 16-year-old Yours Truly.
THE SITUATION WAS THIS: The convention hall earlier in the week had been all but on fire in support of Rep. Jack Kemp for vice president, while Ambassador George H. W. Bush, who had run a strong second to Reagan in the primary season, was seen as a logical choice but one who would be a bitter pill for many conservatives to swallow. Rumsfeld was somewhere in the mix as well, and Ronald and Nancy Reagan themselves really wanted Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada, their good friend, on the ticket, but Laxalt was seen as adding almost nothing to the ticket geographically, philosophically, or otherwise politically. And some hard-line conservatives, appalled at the idea of either Ford or Bush, were agitating for Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina. All day long, though, the “dream ticket” negotiations went on between Reagan and Ford, with Ford even going on TV with Walter Cronkite to describe what commentators began calling a virtual “co-presidency.”
But sometime nearing midnight, it all fell apart. Reagan and Ford pulled the plug — and because some of Reagan’s key aides still doubted whether a Reagan/Kemp, actor/football player ticket would sell in a general election, the Reagan team settled on Bush, the primary runner-up, almost by default. Laxalt was one of the first to get the news, on a telephone in a trailer just outside the VIP back entrance to the convention hall. Laxalt was no Bush fan. He was angry and so stunned that he looked white as a ghost as he entered the convention hall. That entrance happened to be right next to the page holding room, where I saw the senator and approached him in hopes of getting an autograph.
A random reporter got to Laxalt just as I did. “Senator, senator,” he shouted, “please tell us about the Ford arrangement; is it true that Reagan is giving Ford total control of foreign policy?”
Through clenched teeth, Laxalt said, “It’s not Ford; it’s Bush.”
“Huh? What, whaddya mean it’s Bush? We all know it’s Ford,” the reporter spluttered.
“Not Ford, Bush. Not Ford, Bush,” the senator repeated. “That’s all I know. It’s Bush!”
And with that he pushed through what suddenly had become, out of nowhere, a huge throng of reporters and, somehow with me in tow, crossed into a private hallway closed to the Fourth Estate but not to pages. A convention official who had materialized must have assumed I was an aide to Laxalt, because he hustled me along right beside the senator. I just kept following, for another 30 yards, hoping somehow to hear Laxalt explain to somebody, somehow, the meaning of what seemed to be utterly unbelievable news. Finally Laxalt looked down at me, as if to say who are you? and he and the convention official ducked into some office, finally leaving me behind. But not before, somewhere along the line, I had heard somebody say something about Reagan himself coming to the conventional hall.
This was bizarre. This was Wednesday night, only the second-to-last night of the convention. Nominees never made convention-hall appearances until the evening of their acceptance speeches, the final night of the gathering. But now, at midnight no less, the nominee-to-be was headed to the hall to address the delegates. Reagan figured he just had to put the Ford rumors to rest and announce the Bush selection before the Cronkites of the world could sign off for the night with the “dream ticket” being the last word. Reagan would have looked no longer in control of his own convention, and 250 million Americans would have awakened to headlines announcing a Ford selection that just wasn’t so.
A YOUNG REAGANITE to the core, I of course wanted desperately to hear Reagan’s impromptu speech. But only eight pages at a time (out of about 200) were stationed on the convention floor, with another few passes available for specific messages. I already had used up all of my floor time, so I hotfooted it around the bowels of the convention hall to the other side of the building, where I at least could go up to the balcony “guest” area — with many more seats than the convention floor itself — to try to secure a spot. Even walking fast, it was a good 10-minute journey. Finally up in the balcony concourse, my brisk walk through growing crowds of returning conventioneers was interrupted by a polite but insistent voice: “Page. Page! Excuse me, page, would you come over here?” Amazingly enough, I found myself looking up to see that the voice belonged to none other than Senator Helms. He seemed distressed.
Long story short, he had given up his floor pass for the evening, but he desperately wanted to summon Tom Ellis, famed director of the Helms-affiliated Congressional Club, from the North Carolina delegation for a meeting. I first told Helms I had no floor pass, but his distressed look made me reconsider. “I don’t know how I’ll do it, sir, but wait right here!” I said. “I’ll get the message to Mr. Ellis — but it might take 20 minutes to get there and back!”
Helms, ever courtly, thanked me — and off I didn’t walk but ran, darting around people, through the concourse, down escalators and stairs, like a broken-field runner in a pick-up football game. Arriving back at the page holding room, panting like a dog, I tried to explain that I needed a floor pass for a message from Jesse Helms. “Who’s Jesse Helms?” asked the functionary behind the desk. Over-hyped up as only a 16-year-old can be, I decided I didn’t have time for this foolishness. I spied one stray floor pass on the functionary’s desk and, like a petty thief, snatched it and ran, yelling behind me that “I’ll be back!”
Yes, I found my way to the floor; yes, I found Mr. Ellis among the North Carolina delegates; yes, I convinced him that Helms was indeed stuck in the balcony awaiting him; and yes, I hustled Ellis through the crowds and back up to where Helms stood. And I still didn’t know what any of this was about.
Waiting with Helms by that time was Maryland’s Rep. Bob Bauman, then chairman of the American Conservative Union. And, nosey as ever, I stood right close and eavesdropped as, right there in the middle of the concourse, the three conservative leaders discussed whether or not to launch a “Stop Bush” movement. The tentative idea was to call a press conference for the middle of the next morning, blast the choice of Bush, and call on the delegates to reject Bush in favor of another nominee, probably Helms himself. Bush was anathema to Helms because he had campaigned as being pro-choice, because he had called the Reagan tax-cut plan “voodoo economics,” and because, culturally, the patrician Northeasterner Bush could not have been more different from the North Carolina son of a small-town police and fire chief.
At some point as I eavesdropped, somebody scribbling notes asked my name — at which point Helms looked up, saw that I was still there, and thanked me profusely before making clear I was no longer needed. (The scribbler was a reporter for the Detroit News, which ran a front-page story about that Helms-Ellis-Bauman confab in the next day’s late editions.) But I already had a story, a huge story: A fight was a-brewing! A real, honest-to-goodness convention fight!
I DIDN’T KNOW IT at the time, but the fight was not to be. Reagan’s unexpected, ad hoc convention appearance just a few minutes later was a masterful stroke. The Gipper somehow turned a fiasco into a triumph, and made it sound as if the choice of Bush was a logical and even brilliant way to carry the fight to the Democrats in the fall. With the wild and enthusiastic reception Reagan received from the delegates, it would have seemed like bad sportsmanship, surliness, and a direct affront to Reagan for Helms and Company to carry out their plan. Overnight, the idea fizzled, and the Reagan-Bush team went on to victory in the fall over Carter and then victory in the Cold War over the Soviets.
At the time, the whole experience, exciting as it was, soured me on Helms’s judgment. Even if Bush were not the senator’s first choice, I reasoned, it was just bad form, at the very moment that Helms’s dreams of a Reagan-led ticket were coming to fruition, for the North Carolina conservative to be raising a stink.
On the other hand, Laxalt — who was so angry that he left Detroit without even waiting to hear his friend Reagan’s acceptance speech — and Helms were absolutely right that the running mate selection was of vast importance. They were operating on the “Prince of Wales” theory, named after the next-in-line to the British throne, which is that the running mate is the heir apparent for the party’s next nomination. And they turned out to be not just correct but doubly so. Not only did Reagan’s choice create an heir apparent, but that successor bred, literally, a quite apparent heir who inhabits the Oval Office today. For better or worse, then, here we are 28 years after that momentous day in Detroit, still seeing repercussions from Reagan’s choice that would never, could never have happened had Reagan selected Kemp or Laxalt or even Rumsfeld instead.
That’s all the more reason why John McCain should think long-term when he picks his running mate — and why conservatives ought to pressure McCain to choose a Reaganite, one under age 60, to be the newest Republican Prince of Wales. In retrospect, I learned something important from my chance encounters with Laxalt and Helms that night: Vice presidential selections mean a great deal. Without a good one in the hand, you can end up with two Bushes.