Gerald Ford: Both Steely and Nice


Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author, most recently, of Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady. The paperback edition of his book, Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s will be published this spring.

The late President Gerald Ford certainly earned the tributes he has received from Republicans and Democrats alike. His decency, his humility, his integrity made him an exceptional politician and human being. But even as we celebrate his life, we should not delude ourselves into thinking that one can become a veteran Congressman, the House of Representatives Minority Leader, and eventually, the President of the United States, even indirectly, without considerable backbone and ego. Nor should we paper over the serious fissures in the Republican Party, then and now, between Jerry Ford moderates and Ronald Reagan conservatives.

When researching my book Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s, I discovered a fascinating exchange in the Margaret Tutwiler Papers of the Ronald Reagan Library between former President Ford and two key Republicans who served in both the Ford and Reagan Administrations. The previously unpublished round of letters and memoranda from the 1984 campaign revealed the steely side of Ford’s personality and the tension between Ford and Reagan.

Ronald Reagan built his administration around what I called the Reagan narrative -- a simple story divided into three parts. The first part told the sad tale of America in the 1960s and 1970s, a country demoralized, weakened, wracked by inflation, strangled by big government, held hostage by Iranian radicals, outmaneuvered by Soviet communists, betrayed by its best educated and most affluent youth. The result was four failed presidents: Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Part two had Ronald Reagan riding in to save the day, with a mandate for change. His revolution, in his telling, lightened the tax burden crushing Americans, cut many regulatory shackles handcuffing American business, and revived America’s military. The result, part three, was Morning in America – the great party known as the 1980s when the stock market soared, patriotism surged, the Soviet Union crumbled, and America thrived.

Reagan and his followers told their tale so frequently, and so brazenly, they alienated some fellow Republicans, who had, after all, occupied the White House from 1969 to 1977. Veterans of the Nixon and Ford administrations did not like hearing President Reagan call the 1970s a “decade of neglect,” a time when “those in charge seemed to be operating under the notion that a weaker America is a more secure America.”

During the 1984 campaign, former President Gerald Ford scolded both Vice President George Bush and Chief of Staff James Baker. After yet another attack on the weak defense policies of the 1970s, by Vice President Bush on April 28, 1984, during the recommissioning of the USS Iowa, Ford reminded the two that he -- and they -- had been in charge. Ford claimed that “the seeds of a Defense program” had been planted during his Administration, despite opposition in a Democratically-controlled Congress.

Bush, who had served as Ford’s CIA Director, apologized on May 14 “for not having elaborated more in my remarks.” Still, the Vice President insisted, “There was certainly no intention to diminish your Presidency nor to question your personal commitment to a strong defense.” That same day, Baker, who helped run Ford’s 1976 campaign against Reagan, defended Reagan’s statements as “technically accurate.” To prove his point, the Chief of Staff sent along a memorandum from the White House speechwriting department detailing various “references to defense spending in the 1970’s.” Nevertheless, Baker said he “instructed the speechwriting staff to modify the standard language.”

Usually, such exchanges end there. The aggrieved party complains, the officials explain, and all is forgiven. This time, however, Gerald Ford fired off a second round to both Vice President Bush and James Baker. "It is not accurate to lump the Ford administration in the same category with President Carter on defense matters," the ex-President reiterated. “If you are going to criticize Carter-Mondale, as you should, differentiate between their errors and my attempt to strength our defense programs.”

More pointedly, Ford replied to Baker, “In all honesty, the suggested language is not satisfactory.” A throwaway line that “President Ford attempted to address this downward trend” did not adequately “put the blame on the Democratic controlled Congresses that reduced the Defense Department authorization[s].” Ford was fed-up. “The bottom line is that I resent being lumped in with Carter and the Democratic Congresses on this vital issue,” Ford seethed. “I believe better speech language can be drafted and used.”

While tension usually develops between presidents and their successors, such conflicts are rarely spelled out in even one round of correspondence let alone two. Gerald Ford understood that his historical reputation was at stake. And in 1984, as at various other junctures in his career, this “nice guy” refused to live up to the cliché and “finish last.” That Ford was able to cross swords with others when necessary and still retain his reputation for decency, is in fact, all the more of a tribute to a politician who effectively hid his skills and willpower while climbing America’s political ladder.

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