Most people thought the 1980 Republican National Convention would be a bit of a snoozer. Hollywood actor-turned-presumptive presidential nominee Ronald Reagan had nearly pulled off the improbable feat of snatching the 1976 nomination from the incumbent, Gerald Ford, four years earlier. And he had ripped through the competition throughout the primaries this time around. So how did the convention end up becoming one of the most interesting places in the 1980 space-time continuum? There was still one bit of lingering suspense when the GOP headed to Detroit in July for the convention: Who would be Reagan's running mate?
Reagan's camp had an offbeat choice to fill out the ticket: former President Ford.
By having Ford run for the vice presidency, the Republicans could trot out a "dream ticket" against Jimmy Carter. Ford's midwestern roots would provide some geographic balance for a Californian like Reagan, and Ford obviously had tons of Washington experience—something Reagan lacked.
The plan quickly hit a snag, though: Ford was apparently amenable to the idea of jumping back into the political ring, but he wasn't going to just roll over and be Reagan's second-in-command. Ford allegedly agreed to run, but only if he would be given such vastly expanded power as vice president that he and Reagan would form a team of de facto "co-presidents."
The idea didn't sit well with Reagan's advisers, but Ford had a pretty strong team to make his case. Ford's representatives in these negotiations reportedly included Henry Kissinger, Alan Greenspan, and Dick Cheney, who had been Ford's White House chief of staff. Ford's team allegedly wanted a heavy say on foreign policy matters; rumors later emerged that Kissinger would have become Secretary of State in the co-presidents' cabinets. As one might imagine, Reagan and his team weren't too keen on giving up their foreign policy powers. (The same problems supposedly derailed talks of a deal for John McCain to run as John Kerry's vice-presidential candidate in 2004.)
On the Wednesday afternoon of the convention, Ford sat down for an interview with Walter Cronkite, and by the end of the recording, the whole nation had received signs that the "dream ticket" might be coming together. Excitement built throughout the convention's halls, and the deal seemed imminent.
Behind the scenes, however—according to both Reagan and Ford's camps—by the time the country got the news, the idea of a co-presidency was already all but dead. Reagan had realized that getting Ford on the ticket probably wasn't worth giving up so much autonomy, and Ford had concluded that such an arrangement probably wouldn't work anyway. In fact, Ford was surprised when Cronkite brought the rumors up during their interview. "I was quite shocked, and so on the show with Walter I tried to balance it out so that there wouldn’t be any misunderstanding," Ford later said.
In the end, of course, the Reagan camp chose George H.W. Bush to fill out the ticket. The choice was a sensible one, particularly since Bush had run a (distant) second to Reagan in the primaries. Like Ford, Bush would help give the ticket geographic balance and provide valuable experience in the federal government. Unlike Ford, he wouldn't want to become a co-president. Still, for a few hours in 1980, it looked like we might have ended up with a team of presidents, which has to be one of the most fascinating "What if?" scenarios in American political history.