May 14, 2015


TESTED UNDER FIRE : When Ronald Reagan was shot, Al Haig famously declared that he was "in control," but it was the vice president from Texas who stepped calmly into the breach. (Alan Peppard, May 13, 2015, Dallas Morning News)

One year earlier, it had been inconceivable that Reagan's and Bush's destinies would seamlessly merge and propel them both to the White House.

In the Pennsylvania GOP primary, Bush uttered three words that almost doomed his political rise. At Carnegie Mellon University, he dismissed Reagan's plan to cut taxes, increase defense spending and balance the budget as "voodoo economic policy."

"That really pissed off Reagan," says Richard V. Allen, who was the Californian's foreign policy specialist.

A month later, Bush dropped out of the race. In his diary, he pondered, "What's it going to be like? Driving a car, being lonely around the house?"

But on a July night when Reagan was nominated, fate intervened. At 11:35 p.m., a plan to pick Gerald Ford as his running mate collapsed during a meeting between Reagan and the former president.

After Ford left the nominee's 69th-floor suite at the Detroit Plaza Hotel, Reagan explained to his inner circle, "All this time, my gut instinct has been that this is not the right thing."

The room was silent until Reagan asked, "Well, what do we do now?"

"We call Bush," said Allen, who had already put out feelers to see if the Texan could embrace the platform -- voodoo economic policy and all. He could.

At 11:38 p.m., Reagan grabbed the phone and invited Bush to be his running mate.

"Bush found in Ronald Reagan somebody who himself valued friendships and good relations, so they hit it off splendidly," said Untermeyer.

"I already looked at Ronald Reagan as a friend and someone I respected," Bush told The News. "There was no doubt who was the senior partner in our relationship, but our trust and friendship had grown with each passing day."

Conservatives around Reagan, however, were suspicious of the moderate Ivy League vice president and his former campaign manager Jim Baker, the new White House chief of staff.

At a meeting in the West Wing, the Harvard-educated Untermeyer introduced himself to Deaver.

"Chase Untermeyer?" Deaver said. "Sounds like a George Bush staff name. Are you a third or a fourth?"

"The administration was becoming divided between 'us,' the Reaganites, and 'them,' the moderates, recalled Reagan's longtime assistant Helene von Damm.

Reagan joked about his team at his first Gridiron Club dinner: "The right hand doesn't know what the far-right hand is doing." [....]

In the stateroom aboard Air Force Two, Matheny, the crewman, and Pollard, the head of the security detail, told Bush of the arrival plans for Washington. The plane would taxi into Hangar 7 at Andrews Air Force Base. The vice president would walk outside under the gaze of sharpshooters to a Marine helicopter. It would fly him to the South Lawn of the White House.

Bush firmly overruled them.

The helicopter, he said, would land at the vice president's residence at the Naval Observatory. He would go by car to the White House.

"Something about landing on the South Lawn didn't sit well with me," Bush told The News. "It might well have made for great TV, but I thought it would have sent the wrong message to the country and to the world. As I told my military aide, 'Only the president lands on the South Lawn.'"

The South Lawn landing area was directly under the bedroom window of the president.

"I was also thinking about Nancy Reagan," Bush added, "and how she probably didn't need that kind of distraction at that time."

Around 6 p.m., Air Force Two was over Virginia when Bush took a call from Meese at the hospital.

"That's wonderful," Bush said. "That's very good. See you at the house."

"They got the bullet out," Bush told Untermeyer. "The president is stable."

At 6:30 p.m., nine hours after leaving Andrews, Bush's plane returned. As it taxied inside the hangar, a steward handed Bush the raincoat he had last seen that morning.

Secret Service Agent John Magaw exited first, followed by Bush and Pollard. Magaw pointed to the big hangar door. Bush walked under the plane's white nose and boarded Marine Two.

As the sun set, the helicopter lifted off. That morning, Washington had been shrouded in clouds and rain. With the rain now gone, the illuminated Capitol and Washington Monument pointed the way home.

When the wheels touched the pad at the Observatory, Barbara Bush was there with the couple's cocker spaniel, C. Fred. She and her husband embraced.

Meese waited with a full, presidential-scale motorcade to whisk Bush to the White House.

"At almost exactly 7, the vice president came to the Situation Room and very calmly assumed the chair at the head of the table," Weinberger recalled.

The tapes reveal that Bush never hinted that he had seen Haig's press briefing. The secretary of state was the first person he greeted.

"Hi, Al, how are you?" he said warmly. "Good to see you."

"Haig completely changed demeanor," Allen said. "He shut up when Bush came in. Then, I briefed."

In the 4½ hours since the shooting, the situation had clarified. The planned strike in Poland had been postponed. Allen and CIA Director Casey provided fresh satellite images of Eastern Europe that showed no hostile troop movements near Poland.

It was learned that five months earlier, Hinckley had stalked President Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale in Nashville, Tenn.

"Apparently, he's one of those fellows who's just after somebody of note," said Attorney General Smith.

Bush suggested they all adjourn to their offices.

"My view," he said, "is the more normal everything is, the better it is."

"He came in with perfect equanimity," said Allen.

Soon, the reassuring face of George Bush appeared on television sets across the country. Introduced by Speakes, he entered the Briefing Room and read a short statement.

Back in his office, he called the congressional leadership.

"Then, as becomes him," Untermeyer recorded in his diary, "the wives of the D.C. policeman and Secret Service agent gunned down in defense of the president."

Before leaving for the night, Bush walked over to the White House residence for a visit with Nancy Reagan.

"She looked tiny and afraid," he told Untermeyer.

"While it was clear the day's events had taken an understandable toll on her," he told The News, "I also had a feeling everything would work out."

Later, Mrs. Reagan firmly directed Deaver and the Secret Service to ensure that a shooting never happened again.

"They saw to it," recalled Sam Donaldson, the newsman. "He never walked across an airport tarmac. He never worked a fence line. He never got out of his limousine on a public sidewalk. But it began to close down the presidency."

The assassination attempt did little to calm the temperament of Haig, who continued to threaten resignation. In June 1982, Reagan accepted.

"We were high-fiving inside the Oval Office," Deaver said.

"He wanted to be president, which was fair enough," recalled Weinberger. "I think he just felt he was being undermined by a cabal of the White House."

In 1988, Haig ran for the GOP presidential nomination. He never polled above single digits.

On Nov. 8, 1988, George H.W. Bush was elected 41st president of the United States.

Posted by at May 14, 2015 2:53 PM

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