The world is just now learning just how close George H.W. Bush came to being Richard Nixon's vice president in 1968, a choice if made could have changed that administration's legacy of corruption, potentially avoided the Watergate crisis and made Bush president instead of Ronald Reagan.
J. William Middendorf II, a longtime GOP fundraiser and confidant of Barry Goldwater, Nixon, Gerald Ford and Reagan, tells Whispers that he had worked the 1968 GOP convention to get support for Bush, a family friend and first term congressman from Texas. On the day after Nixon was nominated, Middendorf said he and associate Jerry Milbank went to Nixon's hotel room to talk about the vice presidential choices. "It was pretty early, I think it was about 7:30, I think it was his bedroom, actually, reading the paper. I said we've got delegates pretty much lined up for George and it looks like he'd be a very popular choice among the delegates," Middendorf recalled. "That's when he told me that, 'Oh gee fellas, I'm going with my man Spiro T. Agnew,'" the the little-known governor of Maryland who would later resign in a scandal.
Middendorf, who touches on that and many other political and diplomatic stories in his new biography Potomac Fever, A Memoir of Politics and Public Service, told Whispers that he didn't have a clue that Agnew was even being considered. "Zero," he said, adding: "He did it entirely out of the blue." Middendorf said that he had been friends with Bush's father, a former Connecticut senator, and that he had respect for Bush's achievements as a World War II pilot and Texas oilman.[Read more about the 2012 presidential election.]
In his book, he writes that Bush's youth and Texas roots would be a good match for the Californian. And when he asked Bush about taking the job, the eventual 41st president and running mate of Reagan 12 years later said "who wouldn't?" Nixon's thinking at the time, was that Agnew would be attractive to the supporters of Nelson Rockefeller, an ally of Agnew, who Nixon beat for the nomination. It was one of the examples of Nixon displaying his out reach to "RINOS," or Republicans In Name Only. Had Bush won the job, Nixon would have avoided Agnew's bribery scandal and resulting resignation, and possibily Watergate since Bush was such a "straight shooter." What's more, had Nixon not been forced to resign, Bush could have succeeded him, essentially ending or certainly delaying Reagan's bid for the the White House. Ironically, Middendorf told Whispers that back then the vice presidential choice wasn't such a big deal. "Whoever you put on the ticket for vice president doesn't matter," he said. Middendorf's book, published by Naval Institute Press, is a colorful trip though Washington history from the 1960s to today. Initially a Wall Street executive, he served as a top aide and campaign fund raiser for the four Republican presidents, and went to serve as Navy secretary and U.S. ambassador in several European posts. [See what the GOP 2012 field thinks of the recent debt downgrade.]
Talking to Whispers, he suggested that Goldwater could be the model for the current Tea Party. "He wasn't looking at the next election. he was looking at how to help the country," said Middendorf. Now 86, he quoted former Sen. Prescott Bush, the former president's father, in his epilogue: "It's not important how many friends you make when you're in the job, any important job—you'll have lots of them. What's important: How many of them you have after you leave."