It takes a special man to enjoy the vice presidency, but George Bush was the man for the job.
George and Bar decided without even talking: they were going to like the Reagans. And they did, right away. They loved the Reagans. The only surprise, Bush told his old friends, was how easy it was. Reagan turned out to be a great guy! The way he told those funny stories! You had to like the guy.
But it wouldn’t have mattered if there had been no charming jokes, if Reagan had been a vicious drooler; just as it did not matter that Reagan had no talent for friendship, no personal connections apart from Nancy. In fact, Reagan couldn’t remember his grandchildren’s names, and he had no friends, only the husbands of Nancy’s friends. It didn’t matter! Bush had the talent, a genius for friendship. And like every genius, he worked at it: if Ronald Reagan connected with others solely by means of funny stories, George Bush would bring him funny stories. In fact, the vice president’s staff knew he didn’t want briefing memos for the weekly lunch with Reagan: The way to earn a stripe in the OVP was to give him a joke for the president. This was no laughing matter to Bush. It was the core of his life’s method. Back in 1978, when George Bush was an obscure ex-CIA chief, just starting to run for president, someone asked him: What made Bush think he could be president? “Well,” Bush said, without pause, “I’ve got a big family, and lots of friends.” Later in that campaign, he learned the “proper” answer, some mumbo jumbo about experience, entrepreneurship, philosophy of government... But the first answer was true. George Bush was trying to become president by making friends, one by one if need be, and Ronald Reagan was a Big one.
It certainly didn’t matter that they disagreed—that Voodoo economics thing, and a few other differences, on civil rights, the environment, education, energy, and U.S. policy on Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Soviet relations. Of course they disagreed, because George Bush knew five times more about the governments of the world—his own included—than Ronald Reagan ever would. But it didn’t matter! The fact is, they didn’t disagree anymore, because George Bush would not disagree with the president. This was another of George Bush’s talents: accommodation. He had the capacity to act on the judgments of others, to live within the bounds of received wisdom. It was a talent that had smoothed his path from his parents’ home, through prep school and the U.S. Navy, where the lessons of life were delivered explicitly, and later through Yale, business, and politics, where things grew murkier, and the judgments one lived by had to be doped out. But he did divine them: he was always sensitive to the ethic around him. And to the extent he could accommodate himself, he flourished, and made friends every step of the way. In 1964, he first ran for Senate as a Goldwater man, and though Bush lost, Goldwater was still a friend 22 years later. In 1966, for a House seat from Houston, he ran as a Main Street Republican, then served and voted with the moderate mainstream, as a backer of Richard Nixon. And in 1970, when he ran and lost for Senate again (this time, slightly to the left of his rival), he asked his Big Friend, President Nixon, for a job at the UN, which he’d roundly reviled as a Goldwater man. By 1980, the accommodation to Ronald Reagan was just a walk in the park.
And it did not matter if the Reaganauts couldn’t see him as one of their own. They screwed most of his friends out of jobs, stopped talking when he came into the room, made jokes about him when he was absent. He knew it, just as surely as Lyndon Johnson had known it about the Kennedys. Hell, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out, the way reporters would ask his staff: “People, uh, in the Cabinet meetings tell me Bush never says anything… is that true?” Or they’d just print it: “Administration sources said the Vice President had nothing to contribute…” Of course he knew who the sources were. Some were the same hypocrites who came to his office before the meeting, asking him to back their schemes, talk to the President for them… Then, when he wouldn’t, they’d have some columnist in for breakfast and, just in passing, smiling, with a wedge of grapefruit on their spoons, they’d saw Bush off at the knees. Oh, he knew the game! Still, he never got into that White House cockfight: an eye for an eye, a leak for a leak. Could have had a pro, Jimmy Baker, do it for him. But he wouldn’t: It was a matter of loyalty to the team, loyalty to the President; most of all, a matter of discipline.
This was another of Bush’s great talents: personal discipline. There were no leaks from the OVP: There was not one story saying George Bush was unhappy with this or that decision, or the President overrode objections from George Bush. In fact, there were no stories suggesting Bush had opinions at all, even before a decision came down, even when it would have gotten him off the hook. It would have been so easy: when Ed Meese was filling Reagan’s ear with some Neanderthal antiblack screed, sticking the administration’s nose into a civil rights fight, putting them all in the soup… on the wrong side of the issue! And here’s a reporter in Bush’s armchair, gently inviting: “Mr. Vice President, it seems that you might be less comfortable with something like this…” But Bush wouldn’t bite. Never. Christ, the reporters were easy. One of his own aunts came at him, drove him right out of his chair, trying to have a serious discussion—why Ronald Reagan refused to have arms talks with the Russians. Years later, she was still half-convinced Bush was willfully stupid, or had the attention span of an eight-year-old. Didn’t matter. They could all think so, and he wouldn’t lift a finger to prove them wrong. He wouldn’t even let his staff help. His first chief of staff, Admiral Daniel Murphy, used to haul every staffer in for a talk, to let them know they had only one job: to help George Bush do his job, and his job was to help the President. There would be no disagreement between members of the Vice President’s staff and the President’s staff. They could not argue with anyone in the White House. Admiral Dan had them all in, down to the girls who’d answer the phones. And with the same flair he’d once shown as Commander of the Sixth Fleet, he’d warn: “Honey, tonight you’re gonna to go out with your boyfriend. And you’re gonna go to a bar, And you’re gonna have a drink. And you’re gonna want to tell him want a wonderful guy you’re working for, and what a great thing he did today… and how he saved the President from the most awful thing that somebody else was trying to do… Sweetheart, you don’t know who’s in the next booth, do you? So… don’t SAY A GODDAMN THING!”
It got so the whole OVP was a whisper zone in that gray granite building across the street from the White House. People and paper moved back and forth down the dark, lofty halls of the old EOB—earnest young people, of good families, sons and daughters of George Bush’s friends, would run between the offices, flushed with the press of business for the Vice President. And nothing came out! George Bush would go out to speak, all over the country, twenty, twenty-five days a month (he wouldn’t duck a chance to help the party, the President)… and nothing would be heard of him! True, the speeches weren’t about George Bush, or what he was doing, or what he thought. They weren’t about anything, really, except what a great country, and a great President, we had. That was fine with Bush. All the positions, all the speeches, were just politics to him. The rest, the friendships, or loyalty to the President, those were personal matters—matters of the personal code. That was where Bush’s talents lay, and the only thread of steel running through his life to his seventh decade. He wasn’t going to let politics change the way he was. God forbid! It was all personal with George Bush. he couldn’t see things any other way.
Of course, he would accommodate. After he came off like such a stiff in the ’84 reelection, and his personal polls took a dive, and reporters on his plane got so nasty, then his friends ganged up and made him change the staff: They told him he had to, if he ever wanted to be president; they called it a more “political” support team. that’s when he signed on Lee Atwater—neither son nor friend to any old Bush friend—to run the PAC and the campaign to come. That’s when he had to let Dan Murphy go, and hire Craig Fuller as the new Chief of Staff. Fuller was a young White house pro: neat, calm, organized, and people said he knew how to stick the knife, if he had to. But he was another stranger. Jeez, Bush would call the office now, and half the people who answered were strangers! He’d live with it, if that’s what it took. But it just wasn’t… friendly. And it wasn’t really fair to Dan. Those rules weren’t Dan’s rules, they were Bush’s. Bush told him just how he meant to do the job, even before he got elected. It was the fall of ’80, at the same lunch where he offered Dan the job. Murphy had been his deputy at the CIA. They could talk frankly. And Bush told him point-blank, wanted him to know how it was going to be, had to be…
“I’ve thought a lot about it,” Bush said. “I know I’m not gonna have much input on policy, nothing substantive to do at all…
“And I’ve decided, I can be happy with that.”
And he had been happy. That’s what no one could get through their heads, except Bar, of course. That’s one of the reasons he loved her: She understood things without talking. She was better at it than he was!
What was the Vice Presidency? A wonderful adventure. He had decided—they had decided—that it would be, just as he had decided how he was going to do the job. This was the ultimate triumph of discipline, and George Bush’s greatest talent: the power of mind-set. he could decide—they could decide—how it was going to be, and then it was that way… because no one, no one, would ever see them treating it any other way.
They loved the Reagans. Why? Because they loved the Reagans. They had decided. And it didn’t start in 1980. Talent like that comes from a lifetime. There was the time George Bush’s career picked them up and moved them to Houston, and the wife of a business friend gave a tea for Barbara, to show her off to the ladies.
So they came to meet her, and one after the other, they asked: “And where do you come from?”
Bar said sweetly: “I live in Houston now.” “Oh. Yes, but… where do you come from?” And Bar, with her smile still placid, beatific, replied: “Houston is my home now.” They weren’t going to put her in that box, thank you. And they weren’t going to hand her husband a carpetbag, either, she had decided.
But the brilliance of it was, it wasn’t one party, one lunch with Admiral Dan, or one talk to the staff. It was there every day, unwavering.
What is the Vice Presidency? A wonderful adventure. Every day.
Excerpted from Being Poppy: A Portrait of George Herbert Walker Bush. Copyright © 2013 by Richard Ben Cramer. Published by Simon & Schuster.