As an avid reader of history, I’m fascinated by how history often turns on a dime, something of which I was recently reminded reading “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush” by Jon Meacham.
Hard work and personal character certainly played a role in Bush becoming vice president and president, but our forty-first president arguably owes his ascent to power far more to a remarkable and entirely unexpected turn of events that occurred in the very late stages of the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit.
We ended up with a decent and gifted man as vice president in 1980, but we could have achieved something even better: a radically reformed U.S. presidency.
Bush entered that convention as a failed contender for the Republican nomination for president, but he had still achieved much, namely, the name recognition he needed to be a serious contender for the vice-presidential nomination.
This was achieved largely through his early success in Iowa. Borrowing a page from Jimmy Carter’s 1976 political playbook, Bush and his staff undertook a remarkably effective grassroots organizing effort to produce a Bush upset in the Iowa Caucus. And despite a rallying of the Reagan effort in New Hampshire and the Southern primaries, Bush also managed to pull off respectable victories in a few Mid-Atlantic, Midwestern and New England states where moderate Republican sentiment still remained strong. While failing to secure the nomination, Bush had earned the grudging respect of many conservatives leaders as one who could secure the support of centrist voters in what was expected to be an unusually tight general election in November.
But, as I said, Bush owes his selection as Reagan’s running mate primarily to a twist of future in the late stages of the convention.
Reagan, like all presidential nominees, was playing to win. He knew that incumbent presidents, even a weak ones such as Jimmy Carter, presented formidable obstacles. A Reagan-Ford ticket was regarded by many pundits as the ultimate dream ticket, one that would virtually ensure a Republican victory in November.
But to serve in the rather ego-diminishing role of vice president, former President Gerald Ford asked for several concessions from Reagan: a veto power over Reagan’s appointments of key cabinet officials and a key role in formulating domestic and foreign policy.
Reagan, in the interests of realpolitik, initially appeared willing to accede to these arrangements.
Then, as so often happens, events turned on a dime.
During an interview with Gerald Ford, CBS anchor Walter Cronkite described Ford’s proposed vice-presidential role as more akin to that of a co-president. That proved enough for Reagan, who was watching the interview with his aides in his convention suite. He was so disturbed by Cronkite’s characterization that he ended negotiations with the former president and offered the vice-presidential nomination to Bush instead. This was an especially gratuitous turn of events for Bush, one that very likely saved him from political oblivion.
But it was arguably as fortuitous for the nation as it was for Bush. For while the country ended up with an exceptionally qualified vice president, it was deprived of an arrangement that very likely would have transformed the American presidency — decidedly for the better, in my humble opinion.
Granted, I may be a party of one in terms of my views on the U.S. presidency, but I believe that the institution has developed far beyond its optimal level of efficiency. To put it bluntly, the U.S. presidency, in several notable respects, has failed conspicuously.
No mortal on this planet is capable of summoning the omnicompetence to govern the United States effectively as president. And for this reason, I believe it’s time that the American presidency underwent a thoroughgoing overhaul. Perhaps we should even consider the unthinkable: modeling the American presidency after the ceremonial presidencies of Germany, Ireland and Israel, one that would enable its occupant to function as a unifying rather than a divisive figure and to embody this nation’s global preeminence much as a monarch does by standing above sordid partisan politics.
Barring such a radical reform, I would be happy with a U.S. presidency patterned after France’s semi-presidential system, one in which the president retained control over foreign policy while his or her appointed prime minister (in our case, the vice president) was entrusted with oversight of domestic policy.
And that is why I regret that history turned on a dime in 1980. A Reagan-Ford “co-presidency” really could have pointed the way toward a critical reordering of presidential power.