Ronald Reagan and George Bush waged a fierce battle for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination, but that summer they forged a personal and political alliance that greatly assisted Reagan and eventually led to Bush winning the White House eight years later.
“No president ever had a better vice president, a more loyal vice president, a more hand-working vice president than George Bush,” said former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese III, who served as counselor to Reagan in California and Washington before being confirmed to lead the Justice Department in the second Reagan term.
Reagan and Bush battled for the nomination for months before Reagan eventually clinched the delegates needed to win the nomination. Some in the GOP pushed for former President Gerald Ford to be Reagan’s running mate but the negotiations fell through. Reagan then turned to Bush, with one condition.
“Before [Reagan] asked him to serve and announced him as his requested vice presidential candidate, it was made clear by George Bush that he was willing and able to support Ronald Reagan in all his policies and positions that he had taken during the campaign,” said Meese.
That was an adjustment on some issues, including economic policy. During the campaign, Bush had derided Reagan’s supply-side agenda as “voodoo economics.” But Bush came around on that too.
“I had later explained to people that in Detroit at the convention that Mr. Bush had an exorcism,” laughed Meese.
After Reagan and Bush defeated President Jimmy Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale in the general election, Reagan and Bush put their team together. Meese became a counselor to the president as part of the famed “troika” that also included longtime Reagan aide Michael Deaver and Bush confidante James Baker III, who served as Reagan’s chief of staff in the first term.
Meese says Baker and the other former Bush personnel became loyal foot soldiers in the Reagan Revolution.
Crisis struck the Reagan administration in March 1981, when the president was shot and nearly killed by John Hinckley, Jr. As Reagan underwent surgery, Secretary of State Alexander Haig declared himself to be in charge until Bush returned from a trip to Texas.
Meese says Bush’s handling of that moment spoke volumes about his character, including his refusal to fly to the White House in Marine One.
“He said, ‘No, have them land at my official residence up at the Naval Observatory and I’ll come in by car.’ He wanted to be sure that nobody thought he was usurping or trying to take over the position of the president,” said Meese.
He says Bush also showed deference by not engaging in verbal disputes with cabinet officials during meetings but would share his concerns privately with the president.
Bush also assisted Reagan in developing relationships abroad, as the vice president represented the U.S. at many different funerals for leaders around the world. It happened so frequently, that Meese says Bush staffer had a motto of “You die, we fly.”
He also took the lead in more concrete policy areas like combating the influx of drugs into Miami and across our southern border. He also led the administration’s regulatory reform efforts.
Listen to the full podcast for more on those issues and to hear Meese explain why Reagan was confident Bush would be a good running mate and political partner even after a tough primary fight, how they collaborated in fighting the Cold War and more. He also shares his thoughts on Bush’s emotional tribute at Reagan’s funeral.