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The Republican Convention That (Almost) Launched a “Co-Presidency”

After the 1924 Democratic convention, which notoriously went to 103 ballots over sixteen days before choosing John W. Davis of West Virginia, satirist H. L. Mencken had had enough and wrote, “There is something about a national convention that makes it as fascinating as a revival or a hanging. It is vulgar, it is ugly, it is stupid, it is tedious, it’s hard upon both the higher cerebral centers and the gluteus maximus, and yet it is somehow charming. One sits through long sessions wishing heartily that all the delegates were dead and in hell—and then suddenly there comes a show so gaudy and hilarious, so melodramatic and obscene, so unimaginably exhilarating and preposterous that one lives a gorgeous year in an hour.”

On Wednesday, July 16, 1980, the Republican National Convention put Mencken’s disparagement of conventions to shame, though no one would be sitting on his keister this day. You couldn’t gossip sitting down.

As the sun rose over Detroit’s boarded-up slums and shuttered factories on July 16, the buzz was growing about the Dream Ticket of Ronald Reagan and former president Gerald Ford. The gossip had been stoked by a Bill Plante report on CBS several nights earlier. Plante ran through the list of prospective running mates and concluded, “Everyone does agree . . . around here, that the Dream Ticket would have been Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford. And that rumor surfaced again today.” A young Reagan aide, Michele Davis, wrote in her diary, “We are all abuzz about the Ford rumors. . . . I think it’s nuts.” As it turned out, she was way ahead of the gray heads at the convention.

* * *

According to Dick Wirthlin, Reagan’s longtime pollster, the idea of asking Ford was never meant to be a serious proposal. Wirthlin and former Ford pollster Bob Teeter cooked it up, he said years later, as a sign of good faith on Reagan’s part. Wirthlin and Teeter expected Ford to graciously turn down the offer, and that would be it. Among Reaganites, the consensus was definitely against Bush. As Jim Baker saw it, it was “ABB—Anybody But Bush.” Reagan’s men were narrowing down the list quickly, and it seemed there were no good alternatives to Ford.

Almost everybody in Detroit was talking about Reagan-Ford now. On Wednesday morning, a Reagan aide told Al Hunt and Jim Perry of the Wall Street Journal that the deal was “90 percent done.” The story picked up additional
momentum when Ford began sending public signals in chats with reporters and politicos that he might, just might, be interested. A mass self-hypnosis—or mass hysteria, depending on your point of view—began to take hold among the Republicans, so caught up were they in the romance of Reagan and Ford bringing the party together and putting Carter away in the fall.

Time was of the essence for the Dream Ticket, which only added insanity to the already hectic convention schedule. As Reagan aide Neal Peden recalled, convention are always “a blur of faces. People just go ‘vroom’ around you day and night.” Now the Reagan and Ford camps worked furiously to come up with a proposal that would be acceptable to both sides. Ford’s men—economic adviser Alan Greenspan; former secretary of state Henry Kissinger; John Marsh, a former Ford White House aide; and Bob Barrett, Ford’s former military aide, who was in way over his head—aggressively pursued the deal. Reagan’s men were more passive. Bill Casey “was insisting it didn’t make a difference” who Reagan chose, although at other times he was pushing for Ford. Ed Meese “was prepared to do anything Mr. Reagan wanted.”

In the not-so-secret meetings high atop the Detroit Plaza Hotel, the Ford high command happily and the Reagan high command now less so began to slice up the White House, the cabinet, and apparently the Constitution. 

The proposal as it evolved over just a few short hours called for Ford to act as a super-empowered chief of staff and Reagan as a benign chairman of the board. All information for Reagan would flow through Ford, and Reagan’s White House staff would have to go through Ford first. The proposal also gave Ford veto power over Reagan’s cabinet choices and authority over the budget, the Domestic Council, the National Security Council, the Pentagon, and the State Department—where Ford insisted that Kissinger be reinstalled. There would also be a “mutual veto” scheme. Left untouched at this point was the White House gardener, but who knew?

The deal in the works essentially emasculated Reagan and would have made him seem what he wasn’t but what his critics charged he was: an empty suit who just sat there while Ford and his cronies really ran the government. A joke was already making the rounds that Reagan would be “acting president” from nine to five and Ford would be president before nine, after five, and on weekends. Jim Baker could only watch the insanity from the sidelines. He mirthfully wondered how Ford would be addressed. Would it be “Mr. President–Vice President” or “Mr. Vice President–President”?

As the day wore on, Reagan’s men experienced more and more doubts. They began to believe that they were being snookered by Kissinger and Company, and wondered whether Ford really knew what his team was pushing for. Bill Timmons, who was in charge of the convention, had already typed up several iterations of what later became known as the “Treaty of Detroit,” although at the time the documents were referred to benignly as “talking points.”

* * *

George H. W. Bush started out Wednesday morning thinly hoping that he’d get the phone call asking him to go on the ticket. He didn’t know then that informal conversations had already begun between Ford’s men and Reagan’s men. Bush had read the stories of the past several months about the Reagans’ concerns about him, yet many running mates in the past hadn’t gotten along. Just ask anybody in the Kennedy family what JFK really thought of Lyndon Johnson. Politics, Bush knew, was about compromise and finding common ground. That’s how you won elections.

Yet as the morning wore on and talk of the Dream Ticket drifted up to Bush’s suite on the nineteenth floor of the Pontchartrain Hotel, Bush grew testy. He became convinced that Reagan and Ford would run together, which didn’t help his mood as he prepared for his speech that evening. It seemed as if all forces were arrayed against Bush: the Reagans, the conservatives, the politicians, the media—and now apparently Ford, who had previously touted Ambassador Bush in two meetings with Reagan.

With nothing to lose now that Ford apparently was getting the VP spot, Bush was publicly relaxed, calm, and effective. Privately, he seethed. While Bush waited underneath the stage to give his remarks, a convention aide said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Bush, really sorry. I was pulling for you.” Bush curtly replied, “Sorry about what? ” “You mean you haven’t heard? It’s all over. Reagan’s picked Ford as his running mate.” Bush snapped, “Well thanks a lot!”

Reagan, on the other hand, was becoming more and more pensive. Just before 8 p.m., the presumptive nominee was munching his preferred snack of jelly beans and watching former Ford running mate Bob Dole on ABC saying, “Ford and Reagan can work it out.” Reagan replied to the television, “No, Bob. I cannot give him what he wants.” Yet he did not halt the negotiations. Reagan was invested in his own proposal and wasn’t about to quit now, since he was, as Mike Deaver once said, “the most competitive son of a bitch who ever lived.”

The Reagan-Ford deal was unraveling, but nobody in the hall knew it. Former Michigan governor George Romney was a Bush delegate, but this did not stop him from spreading the word on the floor that Ford would be on the ticket with Reagan. Romney had gone so far as to tell Bush face-to-face that morning that he was dumping him for Ford.

* * *

Ronald Wilson Reagan was finally nominated for president at 11:13 p.m., when the Montana delegates put him over the top. A prolonged demonstration of almost forty minutes took place. The band played “California, Here I Come,” and 12,000 red, white, and blue balloons fell. Delegates joyously popped them. For sixteen years, since Reagan’s speech for Barry Goldwater, conservatives had waited for this moment. Their man, their leader, had finally won the Republican Party’s nomination for president of the United States.

Around 11:30, Ford, with Bob Barrett in tow, arrived at Reagan’s suite. Reagan and Ford closed the door and went into the dining room by themselves. Five minutes later they emerged and shook hands, and Ford departed after they bade each other goodnight.

“I have to say the answer is ‘No,’” Reagan told his men. Ford had told Reagan that his “gut reaction” was that it “just wouldn’t work.” Maybe Reagan was acting. No one will ever really know. He had outmaneuvered the fearsome Hollywood moguls as head of the Screen Actors Guild, and it was possible he’d just forced a former president’s hand, leading Ford to pull out of the co-presidency concept.

Reagan adviser Peter Hannaford said years later that it was typical Reagan to let all the “elements play out.” In any event, Reagan had just dodged a bullet. He was relieved.

The Candidate said, “Well, what do we do now? ”

After a prolonged silence, Hannaford said, “Governor, maybe it’s time to call George Bush.”

Seeing no objection from his most trusted advisers, Reagan reluctantly said, “Well, let’s get Bush on the phone.”

The Dream Ticket was dead.

As for what had scuttled the Reagan-Ford negotiations, both camps stayed tight-lipped. The line coming out of Team Reagan was “The governor finally decided the price they wanted was too high.” Maybe.

The official line from Team Ford was that the former president had never wanted to do it in the first place and had finally said, “Goddamn it all, it’s not going to work. I knew it wouldn’t work.” Maybe.

Craig Shirley is the bestselling author of several books, the most recent of which is Last Days: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan. This article is adapted from Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America (ISI Books), which the Weekly Standard calls “the definitive history of the 1980 campaign.”


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