On Friday we published a guest-written package noting the centennial of Ronald Reagan's birth in the land of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln.
At the time, Cheney was White House chief of staff under President Gerald Ford. Reagan, who in later years would endorse an "11th Commandment" not to speak ill of fellow Republicans, had made the extraordinary decision to challenge a sitting president of his own party for the presidential nomination. Cheney's job, as Ford's top aide, was to snuff out the Reagan challenge.
"It's hard to convey the tension in Republican circles as Reagan geared up to challenge Ford," Cheney recalled. "It was a very big deal, and the fight for delegates never stopped until the third day of our four-day national convention." In the end, Ford won, but the fight left the party badly divided and dispirited. Reagan, who was 65 at the time, seemed finished. "Taking the nomination from a sitting president is a tough proposition," Cheney said, "and in the end not even Ronald Reagan could pull that one off."
Once Ford secured the nomination, Cheney hoped for a Ford-Reagan ticket. It wasn't to be, and now Cheney believes it would have been a bad idea. "It's probably just as well that it didn't happen, because in the next four years [after Jimmy Carter defeated Ford] everything came together to set the stage for the Reagan presidency," Cheney said. "By 1980, all of us were Reaganites."
Cheney makes few public appearances these days. He has lost a lot of weight since last summer, when he underwent the implantation of a ventricular assist device to supplant his failing heart. At the Ranch Center Saturday, he did not stand at a podium, instead sitting in a chair as he addressed the crowd. Still, his voice and manner seemed strong as he told the audience that he is finishing up work on his memoir. "With luck, it should be in the bookstores this fall," he said.
From being the man who helped stop Reagan, Cheney went on to become one of President Reagan's key supporters on Capitol Hill, where Cheney served in the House from 1979 to 1989. "I was one of the most conservative members of Congress," Cheney recalled -- so much so that he sometimes found himself fighting Reagan from the right, even on the issue of the Cold War.
Asked by Reagan White House veteran Frank Donatelli about the "grumbling at the time from conservatives that Reagan was being snookered by [Mikhail] Gorbachev," Cheney admitted that he doubted the wisdom of Reagan's efforts to reach agreements with the Soviet Union. "I was a skeptic, I must say, and I thought for a long time it was very important for us to stay focused on the traditional relationship," Cheney recalled. But Reagan's strategy -- not Cheney's -- ultimately led to the fall of the Soviet Union. "As much of a skeptic as I was, I would have to say that President Reagan got it right," Cheney concluded.
Cheney described another occasion in which he and other conservative lawmakers opposed a tax bill supported by Reagan. "We didn't want to vote against the president directly," Cheney said, so GOP leaders used parliamentary maneuvers to stop the bill. That led to a visit to House Republicans from Reagan. According to Cheney, Reagan gave a talk that barely mentioned the tax bill -- it was mostly about patriotism -- but it was so emotional and affecting that turned around 70 Republican votes. Reagan won over the doubters in his own party, and the bill went on to become law. "He nailed it," Cheney said.
Cheney would go on to serve as Secretary of Defense for the first President Bush, and then as vice president under the second Bush. But listening to Cheney reminisce Saturday, it's clear he learned many of his political lessons from Reagan, either as an ally or an adversary. Reagan is remembered for his many battles with Democrats. But at the Ranch Center Saturday, Dick Cheney's lesson was that some of Reagan's most impressive victories came over his fellow Republicans.