The Reagan-Ford deal, if it had been consummated, would have changed America's form of government. With the acceptance speeches of Ronald Reagan and George Bush out of the way, the platform adopted, and moderate conservatism in full control, delegates reviewed one of the most extraordinary political conventions in modern history.
Until it was halfway through, the 32nd Republican National Convention, in the near-bankrupt automobile capital of Amerira, was one of the dullest. Suddenly, as the arrangement was all but worked out for a former president, Gerald Ford, to run as vice-president on the ticket with his former rival, Mr. Reagan, it became one of the most exciting.
With the nation watching the televised spectacular, the events flowed into each other in mountain excitement with bulletins coming to the competing television networks. Then the bubble burst, the living-room audience watched with almost unbelieving eyes, and George Bush, former UN ambassador (who was just going to bed) got the telephone call which every vice-presidential aspirant hopes for. And Mr. Reagan rode to the bewildered but tumultuous convention hall to make the news formal. Inevitably, it made the final events of the convention , the perfunctory nomination of Mr. Bush and even the acceptance speeches, something of an anti-climax.
In many ways, Reagan-Ford would have made a dream ticket. But to achieve it, well- loved Jerry Ford would have had to swallow his pride and weigh the relative importance of being an influential ex-president against the uncertainties of being vice-president, one of the most thankless jobs in the world.
"It would have to be a far different structure, a far different role than any of the vice president-president relationships I have know in the past 30 years in Washington, D.C.," declared Ford to ABC news correspondent Barbara Walters on the evening of July 16 as the extraordinary negotiations were under way. In a similar frank televised discussion with CBS commentator Walter Cronkite, Mr. Ford noted conditions for taking the job.
Reagan was willing to transfer a degree of authority in what was immediately nicknamed by the stunned press as a "co- presidency;" but he declined to go as far as the proposals apparently advanced by Ford's former secretary of state and intermediary, Henry Kissinger.
Mr. Ford was once vice-president himself and ran political errands for President Richard Nixon.
"I was a vice-president and I had problems," he recalled ruefully to Barbara Walters. He said, "I must say we didn't give Nelson Rockefeller the kind of responsibilities that he should have had, and I am not going to be a part of it on either end."
So collapsed a project that might have made vice-president Ford a powerful figure as the presiding officer in the Senate and a consultant of Reagan with a foot in both executive and legislative camps.
Throughout the convention, the exceptional scorn and bitterness toward the Carter administration was an outstanding feature. As keynote speaker Rep. Guy Vander Jagt of Michigan noted -- whose speech was postponed and finally delivered July 16 -- Republicans have been a minority in Congress for 25 years; now there is an exultant expectation of victory in the White House and perhaps in Congress. With power just within reach, battle cries are savage.Mr. Vander Jagt, for example, referred to unemployment and recession and declared:
"The tragic news is that all of this was deliberately brought about by the Carter administration, really on purpose. They increased interest rates on purpose; they tightened credit, and on purpose. Last fall, the Carter Congress adopted the Carter budget of despair which their chairmen said was deliberately designed to slow the economy down. Slow the economy down means put people out of work."
The GOP platform specifically accepts the Kemp-Roth tax cut plan -- a 10 -percent cut in income taxes each year for three years, with accompanying reduction in corporate taxes. Some middle-of-the-road or conservative economists consider this is a radical proposal in view of inflation. An unsolved problem of the new Republican drive is how it will reconcile its respective goals of reduced taxes, increased defense expenditures, and a balanced budget.
Nominating Mr. Reagan, Sen. Paul Laxait of Nevada asked rhetorical questions of the audience: "We have been crawling through a four-year tunnel, but finally we can see the light of hope at the end," he declared. "Who is the man who can restore America's birth- right?" "Reagan!" roared the crowd.
"Who is this candidate who says children should not be forbidden to pray in their schools? . . . Who is this man who will not make any more weak, ill-advised decisions like the Panama giveaway? . . . Who is this man who will stand by our allies and not indulge in any more 'Taiwan sellouts?'"
"REAGAN!" shouted the enthusiastic crowd.
With the convention all but over, the highlight for historians will almost certainly be the dramatic Reagan-Ford negotiations.
* The platform opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, after 40 years of support. Also, the proposed constitutional amendment to ban abortion except in certain extreme cases.
* The almost universal feeling that America has swung to the right to the right and that now -- this time -- the Republican will regain control, first of the White House, and then of Congress.
* The full fruits of the expansion of the primary system, which virtually nominated Mr. Reagan before delegates met.
* The continuing and growing power of television in shaping the approach pattern and even (some argue) the selection of candidates by promoting certain types. In the theater of politics, it is noted, for the first time a former actor has been nominated. He was also, of course, a successful governor of California.