Former President George H.W. Bush says there is a "deification" process going on among some conservative activists to portray Ronald Reagan as an ideologue who never deviated from right-wing orthodoxy. But Bush has another interpretation of the nation's 40th president that he says is much more accurate. Bush, who served as Reagan's vice president for eight years before succeeding him, says that while Reagan adhered to fundamental principles, especially when he pushed Congress to cut taxes, he compromised when necessary to make progress on his agenda. All this is particularly relevant today because compromise so often seems to be a dirty word on Capitol Hill. Contrary to the mythology, Bush says, Reagan didn't feel that way.
Even though he has been criticized for being insensitive to the poor and minorities, Reagan in private was gentle and kind, his associates say. Bush adds that an important part of the Reagan approach that has gotten lost was his considerate and savvy treatment of his vice president, which set the pattern for such relationships ever since. One of Reagan's contributions was to schedule a weekly private lunch with Bush, and the former vice president explains that it helped both of them. "There was no agenda," so Reagan could talk about whatever he pleased without aides hovering in the room and without being channeled toward topics that were important to others. The goal was "just to talk privately" in a "natural" way, Bush says, adding that "presidents don't get to do that very much." White House staffers and policy advocates would urge Bush to bring up certain topics during the luncheons to lobby Reagan, but he refused. "I said we don't do that," Bush says. He preferred to let the chats unfold however Reagan wanted. [See a photo gallery of Ronald Reagan.]
Nor would Bush disclose what was said at those meetings, even if it might have enhanced his reputation as a powerful insider, and he thereby retained Reagan's trust. "He understood what the job entails," says former White House Chief of Staff James Baker, who was a confidant to both men. To succeed, Baker says, Bush needed the "trust and confidence of the boss," and both men appreciated that. It appears that President Obama and Vice President Biden have a similar relationship of mutual trust today, which helps to explain why Obama has given Biden so much responsibility, from negotiating with Republicans on the budget to representing the United States in talks in Moscow this week.
In the case of Reagan and Bush, the background is illuminating, and it explains a lot about their flexibility. "The history was one of intense competition between the two," recalls Baker, a longtime political strategist who worked for Bush against Reagan in the 1980 campaign and then worked for Reagan as both White House chief of staff and Treasury secretary. He became Bush's secretary of state in 1989. As Baker says, "Reagan would have liked to pick somebody other than Bush," his rival, to be his running mate in 1980, but he went with the man who had lasted longest against him in the primaries. And Reagan concluded that Bush could help him unify the party and, most important, help him to govern if he won the election because Bush had what was called a golden résumé. Not only was Bush a veteran of Congress, he was also a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and had been director of central intelligence, U.S. envoy to China, and chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Bush honored Reagan posthumously last week with the George Bush Award for Excellence in Public Service, given at the Bush Presidential Library on the Texas A&M University campus. Referring to the Reagan he knew behind the scenes, Bush says: "He was kind. He was considerate. He was thoughtful." Bush says Reagan never acted like "a big shot"—one of the highest compliments the self-effacing Bush can bestow.
In his eulogy at Reagan's funeral in June 2004, Bush said: "As his vice president for eight years, I learned more from Ronald Reagan than from anyone I encountered in all my years of public life. I learned kindness; we all did. I also learned courage; the nation did. . . . He fought hard for his beliefs. But he led from conviction, but never made an adversary into an enemy. He was never mean-spirited." In today's hyperpartisan, vitriolic atmosphere in Washington, that would be a welcome change.