Editor’s Note: Joel K. Goldstein, the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law at Saint Louis University School of Law, is the author of The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden (2016) and other works on the vice presidency. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
George H.W. Bush was America’s 43rd vice president when he became its 41st president. Although he will likely be most remembered for his four years in the White House, Bush’s two vice-presidential terms under Ronald Reagan were consequential. He contributed to the shaping of Reagan’s presidential policies, advanced the development of the new White House vice presidency – then in its early stages – and laid the groundwork for his own election as president. Whereas 14 vice presidents have become president, only four sitting vice presidents did so initially by election – John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, and Bush – adding to Bush’s unique historic stature.
Long before the presidency was a plausible option for his public service, Bush aspired to be vice president. Gerald Ford seriously considered Bush for nomination as vice president, after Ford became president following Richard M. Nixon’s resignation in 1974. As chairman of the Republican National Committee, Bush was popular among Republican politicians. Ultimately, Ford chose Nelson A. Rockefeller, based on his superior national stature, leaving Bush the disappointed runner-up.
Bush might well have been Ford’s choice two years later after Rockefeller was dropped from the 1976 ticket. Yet when Bush was nominated as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Senate Democrats made confirmation contingent on Bush agreeing not to participate in the 1976 campaign, presumably to depoliticize the agency. But for that pledge, Bush, rather than Sen. Bob Dole, might have been Ford’s running mate.
The prize seemed near again in 1980 after Bush was the effective runner-up to Reagan for the Republican presidential nomination. Ford came to the convention backing Bush as Reagan’s running mate. Yet widespread interest in a Reagan-Ford dream ticket consumed the Republican convention, and negotiators for Reagan and Ford explored such an unprecedented pairing. The dream ticket seemed inevitable even as Bush delivered his convention speech.
Yet when Reagan and Ford determined that the arrangement was unworkable, Reagan belatedly turned to Bush, though with some misgivings, because Reagan, and his wife, Nancy, had been unimpressed with Bush’s primary campaign and Reagan worried about differences in their positions. Bush accepted – without reservation – and handled the perception that he was Reagan’s second choice with characteristic grace.
Redefining the vice presidency
Bush’s determination, loyalty and skill, in governance and in interpersonal relations, soon won over the President, if not Nancy Reagan. In the process, Bush made important contributions to the Reagan presidency and the development of the vice presidency.
Bush embraced the new vice-presidential model that Jimmy Carter and Walter F. Mondale had created, whereby the vice president served in the White House as a close adviser and trouble-shooter for the President.
To do this, Bush established a friendship with Reagan and won the trust of the President and his circle by working loyally to advance Reagan’s agenda. His original vice-presidential staff focused on helping Reagan govern, not advancing Bush politically. Bush developed personal rapport with Reagan during their private weekly lunches, often bringing a good joke or two.
When an assassination attempt almost took Reagan’s life 10 weeks into their first term, Bush demonstrated model vice-presidential behavior. He overruled Secret Service plans that he helicopter to the White House, insisting that only the President lands on the South Lawn. He covered some events on Reagan’s schedule during the President’s convalescence but never aggrandized his role, a marked contrast with Secretary of State Al Haig’s “I’m in charge” approach. Once again, Bush knew exactly how to conduct himself.
Bush used his diplomatic skills to handle important foreign missions for Reagan. He was characteristically self-effacing regarding ceremonial duties like attending funerals of foreign dignitaries (“You die, I fly,” he said) but leveraged those occasions to establish personal relations with other leaders. His attendance at the funerals of three Soviet leaders allowed him to meet the Soviet successor on each occasion.
Contributing to the Reagan presidency
Whereas Mondale had avoided ongoing responsibilities in particular areas, Bush chaired task forces to reduce federal regulations and combat the importation of illegal drugs into the United States. These assignments allowed him to contribute in areas important to Reagan’s agenda and set a precedent, which later vice presidents like Dan Quayle, Al Gore, Joe Biden and Mike Pence all followed to varying degrees.
As a presidential adviser, Bush gave Reagan space, but he weighed in on matters important to him, sometimes by organizing meetings for Reagan or by asking questions to make sure Reagan had information. For example, he worked successfully to soften Reagan’s attitude toward the Soviet Union and China.
Bush’s work helped consolidate the changes in the vice presidency that Carter and Mondale had initiated, an effort he continued as President by establishing similar prerogatives for his vice president, Quayle, including regular private access and inclusion in meetings, as well as significant supervisory and foreign mission roles. Understanding the challenges of the second office, Bush defended Quayle from attack and resisted calls to drop him from the 1992 ticket.
Prepping for the presidency
Yet for Bush, like most others, the vice presidency was also attractive as a means to his own presidential term. Unlike others, he succeeded. Being vice president brought political baggage, as well as benefits. Bush could not separate himself from the Iran-Contra Affair and the perception that he either was complicit or out of the loop.
Yet Bush won the contest for the 1988 Republican nomination over an imposing field including Dole, Rep. Jack Kemp, Haig and others, and, with Reagan’s enthusiastic help, won the White House, becoming the first sitting vice president since Van Buren more than 150 years earlier to accomplish that feat.
Although Pence initially identified Dick Cheney as his vice-presidential model shortly after being chosen as Donald Trump’s running mate, by the time of his inauguration he had recognized that Bush was a far better choice. Whereas Cheney disclaimed presidential ambitions and was often seen as unduly powerful, a model Trump might not welcome, Bush was known for his loyalty – and he leveraged his vice presidency into presidential election.
Bush’s vice presidency helped institutionalize the historic changes in the second office that continue today. Not bad for a secondary line on a resume.