The Most Important Phone Call Ronald Reagan Ever Made
Historian Craig Shirley sheds important light on a pivotal move that literally changed the course of American history
Detroit, July 1980. Ronald Reagan, the presumptive Republican Party nominee, did not want to call Ambassador George Bush.
Neither did the candidate’s wife, Nancy Reagan.
For many, Reagan’s call to Bush was inevitable.
For others, it was impossible.
Over the past several years, the contest to win the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 1980 between the former California governor, long the conservatives’ hero, and the proper, moderate preppy from Greenwich, Connecticut, had often been brutal, ideological, cultural and personal.
There had been other candidates vying, but it was really about these two adversaries.
It was Reagan’s third try for the GOP presidential nomination. The 1968 effort was late-starting, ill-conceived and came up a loser to the eventual nominee, Richard M. Nixon.
Reagan was always publicly loyal to his fellow Californian, but privately he shook his head about the antics of the Nixon White House.
The 1976 effort was better conceived. Reagan was a better candidate and he was running this time against the hapless and star-crossed Gerald Ford, often referred to by snarky scribes as “His Accidency” due to his bizarre path to the White House. But in the end, Reagan came up short due in large part to hanky-panky in the New York, Pennsylvania and Mississippi delegations.
He lost by just 67 delegate votes out of 2,267 cast on that hot August night in Kansas City.
But by 1980, Reagan had “grown” — though not in the way that would have pleased his arch enemies at The Washington Post.
Reagan was actually a self-proclaimed “libertarian-conservative,” as he championed the individual over the state. He was interested in ideas. He read everything handed to him, listened and spoke to policy experts ad nauseam, and wrote constantly. If he had a problem, he wrote and once said he “wrote his way through problems.” Reagan loved the spoken word and the written word, while Bush, as his longtime aide Ron Kaufman recently said on Fox News, wasn’t comfortable with the spoken word, although both men were famous for their handwritten letters to family, supporters and friends.
Whereas Bush was no movement conservative, his nephew, John Ellis, said Bush’s ideology was “close friends.” Actually, he was a moderate conservative, as opposed to being conservative moderately. But the GOP had changed greatly since Nixon, moving to the populist Right following Reagan’s lead.
Reagan loved the spoken word and the written word, while Bush, as a longtime aide said recently, wasn’t comfortable with the spoken word, although both men were famous for their handwritten letters to family, supporters and friends.
But in 1980, Reagan was 69 years old and while he rode horses, repaired the roof of his ranch, swung a chain saw and an ax with aplomb, and generally acted as a man half his age, the attacks and innuendos mounted over his age and capacity.
Bush, not knowing he could compete for Reagan’s fervent followers, had to create his own persona.
His campaign settled on a theme that he was younger, more physically active, and just a tad to the left of Reagan, especially on tax cuts, Soviet aggression and abortion.
So Bush jogged. Bush jogged for the news cameras. Bush jogged in the dead of the New Hampshire winter. It got to the point where it really sometimes bugged Reagan and really, really drove Mrs. Reagan up the wall. It was the source (and other things) for her division with Barbara Bush, which never healed. They just plain didn’t like each other.
The jogging and exercising ploy almost worked. Reagan’s campaign was very defensive over his age for months until the Gipper took the bull by the horns and began his own frenetic campaigning. The issue faded, but not before Reagan counterpunched, “We don’t elect presidents to run foot races. We elect them to show judgment and maturity.” Pow.
So by the time Reagan won the nomination in June, relations between Reagan and Bush had become a dead letter and Nancy Reagan was fuming over what she perceived as personal attacks on “Ronnie.” When anybody suggested to Reagan that he choose Bush as his running mate, he jumped all over them, citing Bush’s poor performance at the Nashua debate months earlier, Bush’s crack about Reagan’s tax cut proposal as “voodoo economics,” and abortion. The Reagans were dead-set against Bush going on the ticket but would be probably glad to buy him a ticket out of Detroit.
Bush’s manager Jim Baker summed up the Reaganites’ attitude toward Bush: “It was ABB — Anybody But Bush.”
So it took a lot of gumption for Reagan while in Detroit at the GOP convention to overcome all of this and pick up the phone and call Bush. But Reagan was out of options. He and former President Gerald Ford had gone through a bizarre kabuki dance over Ford’s becoming some sort of weird “co-president,” but that finally collapsed of its own weight.
Then the Reagans really wanted their friend, Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada, on the ticket, but with its paltry three electors votes, plus the legalized gambling and prostitution in the state, the Bible thumpers in the GOP would have raised — well, hell. Others, including New York congressman Jack Kemp and Reagan favorite Sen. Dick Schweiker, were ruled out — or had ruled themselves out.
So only reluctantly did Reagan, surrounded by his closest aides like Peter Hannaford and Dick Allen and Mike Deaver and several others, call Bush.
Conservatives, dismayed over the choice of Bush, threatened a walkout until Reagan’s men talked them back from the ledge.
But Reagan asked Bush — and it turned out to be the best first decision by the 1980 GOP nominee. They overcame their differences and forged a partnership and a friendship that helped change the world.
The decision led to a President George H.W. Bush after Reagan’s two successful terms — and Bush’s subsequent defeat in 1992 as a result of his breaking his pledge on taxes, which he felt forced to do as a bipartisan compromise and which he did for the greater good of the country. It led to the revamping of the Democratic Party, which led to the election of the deeply controversial Bill Clinton — which led to to the rise of the re-Reaganed GOP and the Newt Gingrich revolution.
It led to the election of George W. Bush as governor of Texas and Jeb Bush as governor of Florida — which led to the election of George W. Bush as president of the United States in 2000 in the most contested election in over 100 years.
Bush 41’s election led to a neocon foreign policy, which lead to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, which led to the contradictory “Big Government Republicanism,” a rationale for, “Now that we have the papacy, let us enjoy it” mentality as exhibited by a less-than-savory pope during the Dark Ages.
It also led to for a time to the grammatically challenged “compassionate conservatism.” That, in turn, led to prescription drug benefits, a whole new government entitlement program, and the dramatic reconstitution of the GOP as the second big government party in America and a new refracturing of the Republican Party — which led to the rise of the Tea Party Movement.
And there was — and is — so much, much more.
It also kicked off the rise of the neocons, like Bill Kristol and others, during the Reagan conservatives’ salad days, causing a split in the GOP — which led to the rise of Donald Trump.
The famous philosopher Karl Jung called it “synchronicity.” It’s the interconnectivity of one seemingly unrelated event to another, which produced a radically different outcome than the trajectory on which the original track the first event had been.
Reagan’s history-altering phone call to Bush kicked off a series of events — none of which anyone thought or conceived or could have imagined there in Detroit on that sweltering July evening when Reagan asked Bush to be his running mate.
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Craig Shirley is a presidential historian and Reagan biographer, having written four books on the 40th president, including the widely acclaimed “Rendezvous with Destiny,” a minute-by-minute account of the fight between Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush for the 1980 GOP nomination and their unlikely pairing at the party convention in Detroit, as well as the fall campaign and the stunning victory of Reagan and Bush.