In an Oval Office interview in 1976, I asked President Gerald Ford about charges made to me and many others by Indira Gandhi, prime minister of India, that the CIA was trying to overthrow her.
Ford said it was nonsense but declared that Gandhi was pro-Soviet and no friend of the United States. As he spoke, an aide sitting by got noticeably fidgety.
“Ah, excuse me,” the aide said. “Can we please make that off the record? It will cause no end of trouble with India.”
I agreed – then put the question to Ford again for what I expected would be a more diplomatic answer. The second answer was practically identical with the first and the aide just threw up his hands.
That was Ford – straightforward, honest, uncomplicated, salt-of-the-earth Midwestern, an Eagle Scout nearly incapable of dissembling.
He was just what the country needed after the traumas of Watergate – the product of former President Richard Nixon’s deviousness and paranoia.
Ford’s pardon of Nixon also was pure Ford. He saw that Nixon’s fate – prosecution and possible suicide – would preoccupy the country and dominate his presidency.
“This American tragedy could go on and on,” he told the country. “Someone must write an end to it. I have concluded that only I can do it, and if I can, I must.”The pardon cost Ford dearly in political support, but he thought it was the right thing to do and he did it. As history has proved, it was not part of a deal to make him president – though one was offered to him – and it was the right decision to heal the nation.
He was straightforward and right-minded, too, in handling the country’s second great trauma – Vietnam. When North Vietnam launched its final offensive against the South in 1975, Ford wanted to stand by an ally in distress and asked Congress for $650 million in emergency military aid.
Congress refused. South Vietnam’s army collapsed and all Ford could do was rescue as many Vietnamese as possible. When some American communities balked at accepting refugees, he said such attitudes were unworthy of America.
Ford’s straight-forwardness limited his imagination, too. As a regular Republican Congressional leader, he voted against federally funded housing, aid to education, the Medicare program and former President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty.
Johnson, a highly complex character, declared that “Jerry Ford can’t fart and chew gum at the same time,” which the press cleaned up to read “walk and chew gum.”
When Ford was president, his first domestic preoccupation was inflation, which rose to 7 percent. Ford termed it a menace to the country as great as any foreign enemy and launched the ill-fated “Whip Inflation Now” campaign that had no effect whatsoever.
Then, when unemployment rose to 9 percent, Ford kept to his conservative fiscal principles and tried to restrain federal spending, which Democrats thought could temper the recession.
Ford vetoed 66 bills passed by the Democratic Congress, most of them appropriations designed to relieve unemployment. Ford said he’d saved the Treasury $9 billion.
In foreign policy, Ford was a realist, not an idealist like Presidents Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush. Ford followed the guidance of his (and Nixon’s) secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, who had a pessimistic view of human nature and the prospects of the West.
Kissinger believed that detente and co-existence with the Soviet Union were the best arrangement the United States could achieve. Reagan, by contrast, thought that the West could defeat the “evil empire.”
Reagan, it turns out, was right. And Ford’s detente policy, as much as the pardon, may have cost him his presidency.
Ford turned back Reagan’s challenge in GOP primaries in 1976, but questions about detente undoubtedly caused the debate gaffe that elected President Jimmy Carter.
In 1976, Ford signed the Helsinki Accords, which critics attacked as guaranteeing Soviet control of Eastern Europe. Ford was trying to refute that charge in the debate when he denied that Poland was Soviet-dominated.
Going into that debate, Ford had pulled even with Carter. The gaffe – and his stubborn refusal to walk back from it for days – caused him to lose the election by a hair.
If Ford had won, chances are he would have been at constant war with Congress. And, probably, Reagan never would have been president. He would have won the 1980 GOP nomination, but the country would have blamed Republicans, not Carter, for the nation’s stagnant economy and would have wanted a change after 12 years of GOP rule.
In character, Ford presided over one of the most open White Houses ever. His first chief of staff, Donald Rumsfeld, was capable of intrigue, constantly trying to oust Treasury Secretary William Simon with leaks.
But after Rumsfeld became Defense secretary, Ford installed Dick Cheney as chief of staff, and Cheney was one of the most accessible figures ever to hold that job – amazing as that now seems, given Cheney’s now-deserved reputation for secrecy.
The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward reports that Ford told him – in an interview to be published only after his death – that he opposed the Iraq War launched by his old proteges and President Bush.
It’s a mark of Ford’s decency that he didn’t try to undermine a successor by speaking out as Bush was preparing for war. But it’s also a flaw: He might have given the country pause.
(Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.)
Copyright 2007, Roll Call Newspaper
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