THE Atlantic FOUNDED IN 1857
by Rowland Evans, Jr., and Robert D. Novak
If Richard Nixon had deliberately sought his antithesis to replace the disgraced Spiro T. Agnew as Vice President, he would have turned to Gerald Rudolph Ford. Ford is open, candid, blissfully self-confident, and dangerously guileless. The President is secretive, perpetually threatened, and dangerously insecure.
But the President had no desire to make his antithesis Vice President for the final three years of his presidency; he had a positive determination not to pick Jerry Ford, Minority Leader of the House of Representatives. Nixon’s first, and last, choice was John B. Connally of Texas, whose mesmerizing presence had long before captured Nixon’s deepest admiration. Connally possessed those qualities Nixon wished most for himself.
That Nixon overrode his desire and wound up with Ford instead of Connally can be traced in no small part to Melvin R. Laird, the consummate Republican politician who has played a vital offstage role in Ford’s career in the past and may well again in the future. After resigning as Secretary of Defense at the end of Nixon’s first term, Laird was induced back into service as White House domestic-policy chief when the Watergate scandal exploded in the spring of 1973. The arrangement was doomed from the start. Nixon disliked Laird’s uncongenial advice, distrusted his intentions, and never sought his counsel. For his part, Laird seldom pressed himself on the President, and before long, he was ready to leave.
But the vice presidential succession was another matter. Laird had never liked the idea of Connally carpetbagging his way into the Republican Party. Laird and Ford had been close colleagues since House days, occasionally friendly rivals but usually allies. So, on Wednesday, October 10, Laird entered the Oval Office to press his views on the President this one time.
Connally, Laird told the President, simply would not do. He had come too recently into the Republican fold; whatever his qualifications, he would never be confirmed by Congress. Democrats feared his ability and scorned him as an apostate. Republicans were not about to turn over to an acolyte the fortunes of the Grand Old Party for the next decade. Having warned Nixon for more than an hour that he had damn well better consider his party and not just himself, Laird then guaranteed that the Democratic Congress would confirm Ford as Vice President “within two weeks.”
When Laird finished his tough talk and left the Oval Office, he was followed by the two Democratic leaders, Senator Mike Mansfield and Speaker Carl Albert. They echoed Laird, though in more respectful tones. Connally, they warned, presented a problem; Ford presented none. He was universally respected and liked, and the Democratic Congress would be far more tractable with him than with any other Republican. Regretfully, the President set aside the choice of his heart and went to the choice of his head. On October 12 he nominated Ford.
Laird’s prediction of congressional confirmation within two weeks was the least significant of many October miscalculations regarding the new Vice President. Eight days after Ford’s nomination, the Saturday Night Massacre set off the impeachment crisis. Congress, faced with confirming not merely a Vice President but a putative President, investigated Ford with such thoroughness that he was not approved until December 6.
A more serious miscalculation explains the reason why Ford was so popular with Mansfield, Albert, and the other Democrats: they simply could not perceive him as a presidential threat for 1976. But the deepest miscalculation was Richard Nixon’s. If he could not have John Connally, the President decided, he preferred Ford as a ruggedly partisan good soldier who would never dare step out of line and would unquestioningly obey Oval Office orders. The President should have known better.
Nixon had been given a bitter taste of Ford’s independence just that summer, at the height of the clandestine White House effort to persuade Agnew to pack his bags and go home to Baltimore. That effort, in which Nixon played the leading role without showing his hand, was failing. The President then called Ford. Informed by a key White House aide that Agnew had been “confiding his troubles” to Ford, Nixon quietly beseeched Ford to go to the Vice President and tell him his resignation was imperative.
Ford refused. He told the White House he could never exploit Agnew’s trust in an underhanded way. Ford must have been aware that Agnew was finished. Accordingly, his refusal to take dictation from the President was a portent: even though the vice presidency might come to him (as Laird had predicted to Ford in mid-August), Ford refused to honor a White House request that was in his own interest.
There is no doubt that Ford wanted to become Vice President. Shortly before Agnew’s resignation on October 10, former Representative John Byrnes of Wisconsin, a longtime Republican power in the House and a close ally of Ford’s and Laird’s, suggested to Ford: “Let’s push Mel for Vice President.” Ford, typically forthright, said no, he couldn’t do that. “I’m interested in that job for myself,” he told Byrnes.
The other major Nixon miscalculation about Ford—that good old Jerry would never threaten Mr. Nixon’s leadership of the Republican Party or question his anti-impeachment strategy —had deeper roots. At sixty, Ford simply was not considered among the front rank of Republicans. That he had become the Republican leader of the House and kept the job for a decade was due to support from important friends in the House and the natural course of events rather than his own appetite for leadership. Through twenty-five years in the House, Ford had been noted for steadfast loyalty.
During his early years in the House, Ford was an undeviating supporter of Eisenhower Administration programs, domestic and foreign. Since that put him in opposition to conservative Republicans from Michigan and elsewhere in the Midwest on some questions (particularly foreign aid), Ford was perceived not so much as a conservative as an Eisenhower “Modern Republican.”Becoming ranking Republican member of the Army Panel on the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee in the late 1950s, Ford faithfully swallowed the Eisenhower Administration’s doctrine of massive nuclear deterrence and opposed rebellious Army officer corps attempts at infantry modernization. He was particularly critical of Army modernization doctrines preached by General Maxwell Taylor, a favorite of the Kennedys’.
Ford’s rise to prominence in the House stemmed from his membership in the Chowder and Marching Society, an influential club of young, conservative, and ambitious Republican congressmen chafing under unimaginative Old Guard leadership. Byrnes, Ford’s good friend and golfing buddy, was once thought the most likely of the new group to succeed, and in fact, was the first to reach leadership status as chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee. But in January, 1963, the frustrated younger Republicans wanted to test their strength with a surprise move to oust an aging, rural congressman from Iowa named Charles Hoeven as chairman of the Republican Conference. Ford, liked by all and hated by none, was tapped to beat Hoeven. He won.
Ford infuriated the men around the Oval Office by insisting that the President sooner or later must give the House impeachment inquiry everything it needs.
Having tasted blood, the Chowder and Marching Society Republicans went after far bigger game following the Republican election debacle in 1964: Minority Leader Charles Halleck. The coup against Halleck was openly engineered by Robert Griffin of Michigan, Charles Goodell of New York, and Glenard Lipscomb of California. But the real architect was Laird. Characteristically, Laird never publicly announced his support for Ford, and indeed, chose to run for Ford’s vacated conference chairmanship so that he could join the leadership no matter how the close struggle between Ford and Halleck ended. Ford himself played little part in planning the palace revolution against Halleck. He wanted to become leader, of course, but he never would have considered organizing the revolt.
From the day of his election on January 5, 1965, some of Ford’s supporters feared he would end up as little more than a briefcase carrier for Mel Laird. When Robert Hartmann, a tough, conservative Washington correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, suddenly showed up on Ford’s staff, he was regarded by many as a Laird agent. In truth, the tireless Laird did eclipse Ford as dominant Republican in the House, managing to acquire a large technical staff to perform the duties of what previously had been an honorific post. When Ford and Laird were joint hosts for private lunches with newsmen at the Capitol in 1965, Laird was never bashful about correcting or contradicting his Minority Leader.
Not until Laird went to the Pentagon in 1969 did Ford emerge as undisputed House Republican leader. But by then there were complaints in the Republican cloakrooms, by the newest generation of Republican congressmen, that Ford was representing the Nixon position to them instead of carrying their case to the White House. Before Watergate suspended all else, there were even whispers that perhaps ten years was a long time for one man to lead House Republicans.
His record, then, was less than brilliant. Nor did the Nixon White House view Ford as a heavyweight to be feared. The sharp tongue of Lyndon B. Johnson had done its work on Ford’s reputation. When Ford exasperated President Johnson with a nonstop attack on big-spending Great Society programs, Johnson replied that Ford’s trouble was that he had played football once too often without a helmet. Hence the Washington cliché: Jerry sure is a nice guy—just no brains.
Lyndon Johnson’s crack intrigued Yale Law School Professor Eugene Rostow, who (as he later told Ford) “violated your constitutional rights of privacy” and took a peek at Ford’s record, Yale Law School Class of 1941. Included among the 125 members of that class were Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, Sargent Shriver, Representative Peter Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, and former Governor Ray Shafer of Pennsylvania. About 100 in the class had been undergraduate Phi Beta Kappa’s, yet Ford (who did not make Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Michigan) finished in the top one third: “Mostly B’s, with a scattering of A’s,” Rostow reminded Ford when they happened to share the platform this year at the University of South Carolina Law School. “He’s not dumb,” Rostow told us. “He got high grades and he coached the freshman football team on the side.”
Ford’s ponderous way with words, his inability to turn a nice phrase, and the slow pace with which he receives and tries to answer questions cloak a respectable intellect. But they led the White House to expect a Vice President at least as docile as Spiro Agnew.
In the newsspeak still prevailing at the White House, one senior aide puts it this way: “Jerry is on board sometimes but not all the time. He’s still a [Capitol] Hill type who thinks like they do on the Hill in terms of compromise. We’d like to see him on board all the time, like Agnew was—like we all are.”
In translation, that means Nixon is anything but pleased with the independent thinking Ford puts on display from time to time to question the Nixon anti-impeachment strategy. While avoiding the extremes—outright disloyalty to the President on the one hand; becoming the President’s number-one public defender on the other—Ford infuriated the men around the Oval Office by insisting that the President sooner or later must give the House impeachment inquiry everything it needs.
Ford’s footwork has not been perfect by any standard. Nixon-haters deride him for having proclaimed Mr. Nixon’s “innocence” without having heard the White House tapes. Hard-core Nixonites have called him an ingrate for daring to question Nixon’s right to withhold whatever documents he wants under the guise of executive privilege.
In response to pressure from one side or the other, Ford often has traveled an erratic course, as on May 17 when he chastised the President for not giving the House what it wanted but then, after a hastily scheduled hour in the President’s Executive Office Building hideaway, emerged to chastise the House committee for not fully exploring all evidence in hand before demanding new tapes and documents.
Put simply, Jerry Ford is not a hater and Richard Nixon is. A Ford “enemies list” is inconceivable.
Erratic, perhaps, but, as the late Stewart Alsop commented last spring, “as shrewd and clever as any man on a tightrope could be.” Despite ups and downs, tos and fros, Ford has managed to publicize private disagreements with Nixon’s strategy (which run far deeper than he publicly admits) without plunging the dagger into the President’s back.
Almost any member of Congress picked as Vice President—and most particularly the Republican leader in the House—would rebel over an impeachment defense built on dubious grounds of executive privilege. “Jerry can’t sit still on that one,” says a top Republican in the House. “The doctrine of executive privilege in a presidential impeachment case violates the most fundamental powers of the Congress. Ford is a creature of Congress.”
That may well have been in the back of Nixon’s mind when he tried to wiggle out of naming Ford over Mel Laird’s angry remonstrance last October 10. It is inconceivable that Connally would not have become Nixon’s total advocate today, no matter what his impeachment strategy. Connally is a presidential man, but Ford is a congressional man, now at the halfway house of the vice presidency but far too freshly removed from long service in the House to accept Richard Nixon’s doctrine of executive privilege as a defense against impeachment.
Yet, even if Ford’s entire career had been outside Congress, his instincts about presidential power would have posed inevitable conflict with Nixon. Ford is a genuine conservative who until now has shared traditional Midwestern Republican suspicion of executive power. His suspicion of personal political power is starkly at variance with the three power-minded Presidents who followed Ford’s own political hero, Dwight D. Eisenhower, to the White House. He has no desire to stretch still further or even maintain the present far boundaries of executive power successively established by John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon. Nor does he seem to share their instinctive fascination for politics and politicians.
That is evident in Ford’s response when asked his opinion of past Presidents. His favorite is Eisenhower, but he cannot articulate the precise reason aside from saying he liked Eisenhower’s personality and his style. Eisenhower was “a people’s President” because “he liked people,” he told us. What else? Well, very little. How about FDR? “I have mixed emotions about him,” Ford replied gravely. “He handled the office very politically.” Jack Kennedy? “I don’t think he was in office long enough to really tell.” Truman? “I had a lot of admiration for Harry Truman. Truman was direct and I felt more attached to that.” Anybody else? Well, he admired President Nixon on foreign affairs, Teddy Roosevelt as an activist, Lincoln because he saved the Union.
One old friend of Ford’s replied in his defense that the Vice President won’t speak kindly of FDR for fear of alienating Republicans. The friend recalls Ford telling him that when Roosevelt died, he wept in sorrow in his U.S. Navy lieutenant commander’s uniform. But the real reason Ford has so little to say about FDR or any other President is his lack of interest in the sources and uses of presidential power. The proof lies in his quick selection of Eisenhower as his favorite President—Eisenhower, the only President in forty years who actually ran the federal government in a comfortable power-sharing relationship with Congress; who often rested above the political battle; who was—in sharp contrast with President Nixon and the late President Johnson—direct and candid with the American people.
Ford is now reaching hard conclusions over Nixonian abuses of power. The beginning was on March 30, with Ford’s famous Chicago speech attacking the “arrogant, elite guard of political adolescents” who ran the Committee for the Re-election of the President (CREEP). Although Ford carefully ignored the formative and controlling roles of the Nixon White House at CREEP, his message was clear. He was indicting not only CREEP’s “political adolescents” but also the White House majordomos, from H. R. Haldeman and Charles Colson on down. The Chicago speech showed only the surface of Ford’s disillusionment. He intended to follow it with a second speech attacking the abuse of power inside the White House itself, again carefully exempting Nixon except by implication. Although he took the route of discretion and postponed the second speech indefinitely, Ford’s private outrage over the excesses of the Nixon presidency is real.
When Ford received us in his office across West Executive Avenue from the White House, we asked whether he felt the vast extension of power had endangered the presidency as an institution. Ford went to his desk and picked up a copy of The Twilight of the Presidency by George Reedy, Lyndon Johnson’s onetime press secretary, given to him the week before by reporter Marjorie Hunter of the New York Times. In a gloomy pre-Watergate view of presidential decline, Reedy indicts the remoteness of the kingly presidency in the last third of the twentieth century.
Yes, Ford said, no doubt about it—and he wasn’t singling out Richard Nixon. What has happened, Ford said, is that “Presidents develop this aura of infallibility. They all sort of operate the same way’"—even Eisenhower. “Anybody that’s hired over there ought to read this book,” because what it describes is “avoidable.”
“Well, by [the President’s] day-to-day operations, and particularly through his staff . . . I’m simply saying that I think Presidents and their staffs have to have a somewhat different attitude to the Congress and to the job. . . . Some staffs get carried away just by the fact that they occupy an office over there, whether the President wants them to operate that way or not.”
Then, ever aware of his own political vulnerability to the Nixon hard core, Ford quickly added: “But President Nixon couldn’t watch every day-today move of a John Dean; probably wishes he had.”
Ford’s fundamental disagreement with the President over the nature of the presidency stems not from differences on issues. Ford is fully as conservative as Nixon on most issues and even more conservative on a great many others. He has been considerably more cautious about civil rights legislation than Nixon and is now passionately opposed to forced school busing; seems more worried than Nixon about the unstoppable rise in federal domestic spending; and rigidly opposes federal operating subsidies for mass transit. Whereas Nixon has been fascinated by nonconservative innovations such as Family Assistance payments and revenue sharing, Ford tends to distrust them. But he is not cast in iron. Although a hard-line Cold Warrior and strong national defense advocate for twenty-five years, Ford readily accepted Nixon’s decision to open the door to Communist China and his pursuit of détente with the Soviet Union. Whether such acceptance was dictated by flexibility or party regularity remains to be seen.
But there are profound differences between Ford and Nixon quite unrelated to issues. Ford does not share Nixon’s intense and ineradicable suspicions and hatreds toward his “enemies”: the Eastern Establishment, Ivy League intellectuals, liberal Republicans, and most intensely of all, the media. Unlike Nixon, he would not arrive in the White House determined to amass its awesome power to pay off in kind all those who had impeded his progress to the Oval Office. Put simply, Jerry Ford is not a hater and Richard Nixon is. A Ford “enemies list” is inconceivable.
While Nixon as President plotted total war against the media, Ford prides himself on maintaining cordial relations with correspondents ideologically to his left—relations that are cordial because of Ford’s genuine candor and honesty. When the pro-Nixon South was enraged by the military court-martial conviction of Lieutenant William L. Calley, Jr., in 1971, Nixon placed a sly nighttime telephone call from San Clemente to Ford on Capitol Hill asking whether he would make some discreet soundings of congressional opinion on possible clemency—a blatant distortion of the President’s quasijudicial reviewing authority in the case. Tipped off to the telephone call, we telephoned Ford to check it out for accuracy. He paused, swallowed hard, and then admitted it. A Nixon White House aide could deny it without a second thought.
In contrast to the White House guerrilla war to make life as difficult as possible for the media, Ford woos newsmen. When three reporters turned up unexpectedly at Andrews Air Force Base for Ford’s golf-and-politics trip to Hawaii, thanks to sloppy staff work by the Vice President’s staff, Ford determined who would get seats on the overcrowded plane with a Solomonic decision inconceivable in the Nixon White House. He bumped Chief of Staff Bob Hartmann, Mrs. Hartmann, and Mrs. Paul Miltich, the wife of Ford’s press secretary, who had planned a Hawaii vacation with her husband to celebrate their thirtieth wedding anniversary.
When applied to liberal Republicans, this contrast between Nixon and Ford resolves itself into wholly different attitudes about the nature of the Republican Party. In Richard Nixon’s Hades, the hottest spot of all is reserved for liberal Republicans. Nixon has genuinely wanted a realigned party structure, with the Republican Party purified along conservative lines. Ford has taken the older, more traditional view that in a two-party system, the Republicans can achieve dominant status only as a broad-based party covering the full ideological spectrum.
While most House Republicans viewed the switch in parties by Representative Donald Riegle of Michigan in 1973 as good riddance, Ford attempted unsuccessfully to convince him to stay Republican. In 1970, Nixon and Agnew collaborated in branding then-Senator Charles Goodell of New York as a liberal heretic, and in engineering his defeat. But Goodell remained at least nominally a Republican and a friend of Jerry Ford’s. When Goodell opened his new Washington law firm this year with a well-publicized reception, the Vice President arrived to greet his old friend. They talk on the telephone frequently, and Goodell presumably would be resurrected from the political dead for a role in any Ford Administration.
The most dramatic illustration of Ford’s ecumenical Republicanism came this year when he ignored the wishes of conservative California Republican Party leaders and publicly embraced— indeed, virtually endorsed—maverick liberal Representative Paul (“Pete”) McCloskey, Jr. McCloskey seemed destined for sure defeat in the Republican primary until the Vice President’s California visit, so Ford is given full credit for his narrow victory on June 4. Ford acted out of friendship for McCloskey, out of his pragmatic realization that McCloskey’s Stanford University district would probably go Democratic if his friend was not renominated, but also out of a deeper determination that the party is doomed without the McCloskeys on its left wing. No act in Ford’s early vice presidency stirred so much hostility from the Republican right. Human Events, the right-wing weekly, stormed in fury, some old colleagues in the House Republican cloakroom anxious to see McCloskey gone clucked disapprovingly, and Clarke Reed, the influential Republican State Chairman of Mississippi, was outraged.
Ford feels none of the paranoia that pervades Nixon’s White House—the feeling of being constantly under siege by hostile forces—and so would see no reason for plotting against enemies. One cannot imagine even a pale version of Nixon’s political intrigues in a Ford White House. By nature about as conspiratorial as an assembly line worker in Chevrolet’s Fisher body plant in Grand Rapids, Ford employs nobody in his office remotely akin to Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, or Chuck Colson. On the contrary, Ford’s men are roundly criticized by his cronies on Capitol Hill as unimaginative, insouciant, and too clerkish to challenge him. That is the way Ford wants it, and that is the way he had it for a quarter of a century on Capitol Hill. Ford also tends to be a soft touch as a boss, rather benign, orthodox, and gentle.
These same easy qualities account for Ford’s healthy, normal family of three boys (aged twentyfour, twenty-two, and eighteen) and pretty, seventeen-year-old daughter, Susan. His good-looking wife, Betty, had a teen-age career as a dancer in Martha Graham’s company. Her first marriage ended in divorce. She has suffered from a variety of minor physical and nervous ailments, including a painful pinched nerve in her neck, which seems improved since Ford moved into the vice presidency. Betty Ford suffered also from an often critical disease affecting wives of busy politicians: the never-see husband, want-to-go-home syndrome.
It was Betty’s influence that persuaded Ford to announce that 1974 would be his last campaign for the House. The plan: return to Grand Rapids and enter the practice of law, or, more likely, join a big, rich industrial concern and make some money—but not in Washington.
Despite Betty’s occasional indisposition, the family has stayed close and warm, remarkably free of the generational divisions and culture shocks that have wrecked so many contemporary families. The Fords like a couple of cold martinis before dinner, dine simply with children who happen to be home or with old pals like Mel Laird or Johnny Byrnes and their wives—strictly Grand Rapids, with Betty pushing her husband to go to their Episcopalian Church (Emmanuel On The Hill) more often than he has time for.
Ford’s nonpolitical life, in short, has been routine, uneventful, and comfortable—characteristics he takes to the office with him. Thus, on October 12 when Mr. Nixon offered him the vice presidency, one of Ford’s first acts was to inform Hartmann, his rumpled, chain-smoking chief aide (long since absolved of being a Laird agent), that he would retain his title of chief of staff in the vice presidential office. As a former newspaperman, Hartmann knows he is not the man to run a burgeoning vice presidential staff. His political judgment is shrewd, but his ability to manage the daily routine of a Vice President traveling 76,000 miles to twenty-nine states in his first six months in office is questionable. With Hartmann concentrating on political strategy and speeches, management was taken over by William Seidman, a family friend and business executive from Grand Rapids, who worshiped Jerry Ford as captain of the University of Michigan football team (when Seidman was quarterback at East Grand Rapids High). Seidman, unsuccessful candidate for Auditor-General of Michigan in 1962 and later a top staff aide to Governor George Romney, is learning his new job on the job, and some of Ford’s Hill cronies don’t think he is learning fast enough.
Ford might try to run the vast federal government like some friendly country store.
The third of the big three around the Vice President is Philip Buchen, Ford’s boyhood friend, his law partner in a short-lived firm which they established between graduation from law school and World War II, and still his best friend. Buchen was first imported on a rush order in October to help Ford through the grueling confirmation hearings. He stayed to handle the top staff job in President Nixon’s Cabinet-level commission on privacy, headed by Ford—the one substantive job Ford holds as Nixon’s Vice President. But Buchen’s ultimate role surely will be more important than running an obscure presidential commission.
Buchen would join Hartmann and Seidman on the senior staff at a Ford White House. But neither they nor anybody else would approach the influence or authority which Nixon deliberately delegated to Haldeman and Ehrlichman. “Of course,” one Ford principal says for the record,
we haven’t had a minute to think about possible future events, and certainly we don’t sit around planning a Ford White House. But one thing is certain. Ford won’t have any “counselors,” either in name or in form. He doesn’t like the title, for one thing. It’s too highfalutin for Grand Rapids. And he won’t have a single Haldeman type with power to close the Oval Office door and turn away seekers or sinners. Ford’s door on Capitol Hill was always open, and it’s a habit he can’t stop now. Listen to a mythical Ford tape and you won’t hear the kind of querulous indecision you hear on a Nixon tape. He doesn’t sit around chewing a problem endlessly like that. He makes a pretty quick decision and he makes it himself. He’s never been much on organization, and he’s too old to change. My prediction is that a Ford White House will have much more than its share of confusion, and there will be crossed jurisdictional lines and a wide-open door to competing forces. But that’s the way he ran the Republicans in the House, and that’s how he’d run the country.
So, succeeding to Nixon’s kingly presidency, Ford might try to run the vast federal government like some friendly country store.
Consider, for example, Ford’s naïve candor as it turned up in the April 13 issue of the New Republic magazine. Sitting beside “Nixon Watch” columnist John Osborne on one of Ford’s cross-country political junkets, the Vice President spelled out possible changes of a Ford Cabinet: Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, of course, would stay in his customary spot at the top, but Secretary of Defense, James Schlesinger? Osborne wrote that Ford might drop Schlesinger from his Cabinet.
Accustomed to the easy, almost incestuous politician-and-press relationship on Capitol Hill, Ford never dreamed Osborne would report his indelicate remarks to the world. Particularly disturbing to Ford was seeing in print his offhand comment about the President’s propensity to ramble on and on in private conversation with the Vice President. But Ford never did spell out ground rules to Osborne. Osborne wrote what he heard, leaving no doubt that Ford was his source. For a while thereafter, both Ford and his staff worried about repercussions from the White House, but Nixon chose to let it pass. As for Schlesinger, Ford soothed him with a long telephone call.
Ford as Vice President stays close to the counsel of old congressional intimates: Johnny Byrnes, Mel Laird, and his successor as House Minority Leader, Representative John Rhodes of Arizona. It is inconceivable that Laird, invited along with other dose friends to Betty Ford’s birthday party last winter, would not return to full-time government service in a Ford Administration.
Ford also has pursued closer personal ties with Kissinger, certainly more personal than Kissinger’s correct and distant relationship with Nixon. In the winter and spring of 1974, Ford, in between frenetic journeys, met Kissinger about once every two weeks to talk about détente, arms control, and world strategy.
All this is patently haphazard, informal, and not widely admired. “The way they schedule Jerry is atrocious,” says one congressional crony. “Every little tinker’s barn that asks for a speech from Ford, they book him.” His travel schedule has indeed been chaotic, but that was Ford’s own choice, not a result of edicts of his staff.
Ford saw two important political reasons for removing himself from Washington during his early vice presidency. First, keeping his distance from Nixon would reduce opportunities for those long talks in the Oval Office, where the President would enlist him in the defense of Richard Nixon. Second, Ford’s great concern has always been the health and welfare of the Republican Party, and these are perilously low in 1974. The President, for his part, had envisioned Ford gladly sacrificing his own interests to the President’s schemes to cling to office. But Nixon’s pointed suggestion on May 10 that Ford was “working too hard at the job" and had “better slow down a little” was politely ignored by the Vice President.
Two characteristics have dominated Ford’s wanderings: a disorganized nuts-and-bolts political operation and unmistakable signs everywhere of a wide breadth of real affection for him by voters of many different persuasions. Last spring when he arrived in Manhattan for a gimmicky public relations affair called the annual National Father’s Day Luncheon to receive the Father of the Year award, Ford was rushed into an unscheduled press conference. Amid the din, Ford could scarcely hear questions from the local press. But he did answer a young girl reporter asking about those tapes the House Judiciary Committee was trying to get from Nixon. In his tediously ponderous way, Ford replied: “I would like before commenting to see or hear the actual content of the tapes.” Before the Vice President had left the room, Press Secretary Miltich, a genial holdover from Ford’s congressional days, who was hard put to handle routinely confusing press relations, was “clarifying.” Ford did not really mean, Miltich explained, that he wanted to hear the tapes himself (for Ford had always refused to expose himself to any White House tapes).
Later that day, in Wilmington, Miltich found himself constantly quibbling with the national correspondents traveling with him. During a closeddoor meeting between Ford and top executives of the Du Pont Company, Miltich was asked, “What’s he doing in there alone with all those fat cats?” When the session ended, Miltich lamely explained that “those fat cats” would have been happy to have had a few representatives of the traveling press present but “no one asked.” That night Ford was star attraction at what was erroneously billed to the press by Ford’s staff as a fund-raising party at the Wilmington racetrack for Representative Pierre du Pont. Actually, it was a state Republican Party fund-raiser, but the error in Ford’s printed schedule irritated both Delaware regular Republicans and Congressman du Pont’s people; Pete du Pont, putting a $100 limit on contributions to his own campaign, was not raising a cent through the state party.
Then another hassle. There were actually three separate functions, one attended by the super fat cats at $500 a head (press excluded), another attended by run-of-the-mill fat cats at $100 a head (press excluded), and a $5-a-head rally for the rank and file (press admitted). The press protested to the guiltless Miltich, who persuaded the fat cats to open up their $100-a-head function. The super fat cats, despising the media, turned down Miltich and kept the doors of their $500 party closed.
To end the evening, Ford spoke at the $5 party. When Ford asked how long he should talk, Delaware Republican National Committeeman Tom Evans suggested twelve to fifteen minutes. Ford spoke and took questions for fifty typically disjointed minutes—far too long for that or any other political gathering. While giving network television correspondents a nugget of news with his strongest statement yet that Nixon ought to give the House what it wanted, Ford nevertheless defended the President in ritual fashion, winning routine applause. Boring, rambling, windy, and humorless though he was, the crowd seemed to love him. The genuine affection was unmistakable. Ford listed the “big stable” of Republican presidential candidates—“the Rockefellers, the Reagans, the Connallys, the Percys, the Brookes.” But before he could finish, the crowd was shouting, “Ford, Ford, Ford.”
Nor is such affection limited to partisan Republicans. Ford has been examined as Vice President through the lens of a Watergate microscope: Is he like the rest of those sleazy, corrupt, lying politicians who cheat on their income taxes and promise law and order while they break the law? Or is he different? Jerry Ford does seem different to them. As one astute public servant who has served each of the past three Presidents says, “His candor and decency make him vulnerable to scheming politicians, but that is also his greatest strength.”
For now at least, candor and decency are elevated above cleverness and glibness. What might have seemed weaknesses two years ago are political strengths today. “Jerry doesn’t really have a first-class mind,” commented one of his former House colleagues. “But, then, neither did Eisenhower.” □