The Bush and Reagan Families ... Not Really Very Close

Roundup: Talking About History

Elisabeth Bumiller, in the NYT (June 9, 2004):

... Although [both the Bush and Reagan families are] ... offering nothing but tribute to the other during this week of Reagan nostalgia, over the past quarter-century the relationship between the families has been strained for periods by political ambition, social resentment and a lack of chemistry between two formidable first ladies....

When asked in an interview with Tom Brokaw the other day about his best memory of Mr. Reagan, the president came up with a public rather than a private moment. "I'd just gotten out of college in '68, and I went to a Reagan rally in Jacksonville, Fla.," he told Mr. Brokaw, recalling that Mr. Reagan had "electrified the crowd" and that there had been something "unbelievably charismatic about him."

The intense personal emotions came from Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush, one of Hollywood, the other from the blue-blooded precincts of the East Coast. Both were fiercely protective of their husbands.

"Bush and Reagan had a very amiable relationship, and he had access to anything Reagan had, but Mrs. Bush felt she had been slighted by Mrs. Reagan," said one former Reagan adviser who knows both families.

The Reagans, who moved in a circle of old Hollywood friends but were still an intensely private couple, never had the Bushes in for dinner in the private quarters of the White House, Republicans recalled.

"It's hard being second lady," said a person who worked for both the Reagans and the elder Bushes. "And Barbara Bush did a hell of a good job at it. She stayed back and was deferential. But what I've found is that the wives of political people have long memories. They tend not to forget."

The relationship between the families dates from the 1980 campaign, when Mr. Reagan and George H. W. Bush were political rivals running for the Republican presidential nomination. Mr. Bush accused Mr. Reagan of promoting "voodoo economics," a charge that so angered Mr. Reagan that he later did not want Mr. Bush on the ticket with him. But when a plan for a "co-presidency" with former President Gerald R. Ford fell apart at the party convention, Mr. Reagan and his aides turned to Mr. Bush as one of the only men left standing, according to accounts from Richard V. Allen and other Reagan advisers at the time.

Once in the White House, Mr. Bush established himself as the deferential second fiddle who rarely disagreed directly with the boss - at least once even to the exasperation of Mrs. Reagan. In her autobiography, "My Turn," Mrs. Reagan recalled Mr. Bush's telling her that Donald Regan, Mr. Reagan's chief of staff, should be fired. Mrs. Reagan then recounts this scene:

"I agree with you," I said, "and I wish you'd tell my husband. I can't be the only one who's saying this to him."

"Nancy," he said, "that's not my role."

"That's exactly your role," I replied.

Mrs. Reagan then concludes, "But as far as I know, George Bush never spoke to Ronnie about Don Regan."


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