Lessons from America’s Oldest President

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Mr. Mieczkowski is the author of Gerald Ford and the Challenges of the 1970s (University Press of Kentucky, 2005) and an associate professor of history at Dowling College in New York.

Last week a number of events converged that should remind Americans of Gerald R. Ford.

On November 12, 2006, Ford became the oldest former president in history. He turned 93 years and 121 days, surpassing the record Ronald Reagan set. Only four past presidents have lived into their nineties (John Adams, Herbert Hoover, Reagan, and Ford). Among them, Ford had the shortest term in office, 895 days.

Yet Ford’s brief presidency had lasting lessons. Although he had no executive experience before becoming president, he displayed a critical executive skill once in the Oval Office--spotting and promoting talent. Many staff members whom Ford mentored rose to prominent roles in business and politics, including members of George W. Bush’s administration. Ford’s associate budget director was Paul O’Neill, who became Alcoa CEO after leaving government and then served as Bush’s first treasury secretary. More notably, Ford’s chief of staff was Dick Cheney, whose patron, Donald Rumsfeld, worked as Ford’s defense secretary, later becoming the only man in history to serve twice in that post.

Rumsfeld’s second Pentagon tour of duty ended last week, amidst controversy and criticism. This coda was unlike his placid departure at the end of Ford’s presidency. The difference stems partly from Rumsfeld’s failure to follow principles that his former employer embraced.

Ford practiced political moderation. He described himself as “a moderate, middle-of-the-road Republican” who espoused sound fiscal policies. He wanted to reduce budget deficits, lower inflation, and encourage energy conservation among consumers and production among suppliers to reduce dependence on foreign oil.

Above all, Ford wielded presidential power with moderation. After Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon’s abuses, Congress regarded the White House with suspicion, and Ford carefully carried out his presidential duties within constitutional bounds. Rumsfeld seemed to have taken after the style of Nixon, his first White House boss, rather than Ford. Critics lambasted Rumsfeld for heavy-handed, arrogant leadership, a charge reminiscent of Nixon. By contrast, Ford promised “communication, conciliation, compromise, and cooperation” with Congress. Moreover, he respected critics. A favorite Ford refrain was “I have many adversaries, but not one enemy” on Capitol Hill. The 38th president also enjoyed pleasant relations with reporters, striving to be accessible to them after Johnson and Nixon had often shut them out to retaliate against their criticism. Rumsfeld’s parting shot at his critics, quoting Winston Churchill’s line that “at no time have I suffered a lack [of them],” seemed vintage Nixon, not Ford.

Rumsfeld failed to learn another Ford lesson: maintaining peace. Ford achieved that partly by nurturing good relations with America’s friends, inaugurating the tradition of G-7 summits with industrialized allies and endorsing the 1975 Helsinki Accords, which 34 other nations signed and which stressed human rights.

A World War II naval veteran, Ford also knew firsthand the horrors of war, and he used military power cautiously. The wounds of Vietnam were still raw when he was president, and he deployed American troops overseas only once, a limited, four-day engagement against Cambodian pirates who had seized the U.S. merchant ship Mayaguez and its crew. During the last of his three 1976 presidential debates with challenger Jimmy Carter, Ford proudly proclaimed, “We are at peace—not a single young American is fighting or dying on any foreign soil. . . .We have peace with freedom.”

Ford’s achievements came despite political adversity; he never had the fortune of the recent Republican generation. As a congressman, he almost always labored in the minority. While House minority leader during the late 1960s and early 1970s, he aspired to become House speaker but conceded that the GOP would remain in the minority for the rest of his political career. Even after serving as president, Ford still wished he had had the chance to be House speaker. “I still would have liked to be speaker. . . .It would have been a great achievement,” he said during retirement. “To be speaker is the number one job in the country.” Ford has lived long enough to see Republican House speakers, and soon, the first female House speaker.

As president, Ford never had a Republican Congress as Bush has enjoyed for most of his presidency. Yet Ford employed lessons he had learned about working with the opposition. To limit spending and express dissatisfaction with Democratic bills (and most importantly, to reduce the deficit), Ford used the veto. During two and a half years, he issued 66 vetoes, which he said saved taxpayers $43 billion. Often, Ford’s vetoes forced Congress to revise and improve legislation. Bush furnishes an astonishing contrast. During five and a half years, he has vetoed just one bill, not to reduce spending but to limit stem cell research.

Ford’s vetoes generated no personal acrimony on Capitol Hill. “He was too well liked,” recalled John Anderson, the Illinois congressman who ran for president in 1980. Carter began his inaugural address by paying tribute to Ford, thanking him “for all he has done to heal our land.” Whereas Johnson and Nixon were imperial presidents, Ford was the congenial president, the antidote to the combative and powerful leadership styles that boomeranged on both of Ford’s predecessors, driving them from office.

Something similar happened to Rumsfeld. During Bush’s last two years as president, he will face a Democratic Congress, as Ford did. A litmus test of Bush’s leadership will be whether he can work with—and at times, oppose—Capitol Hill as congenially as Gerald Ford did.

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Sean M. Samis - 11/20/2006

I always liked Gerry Ford, he was just the right man for the job after Nixon. Ford was never regarded as bright (or graceful) but he was respected and liked because he seemed to understand his limitations and listened to the advise of many (including his critics).

Some think Ford was a bad President, but he really was a good president; Bush the Little (AKA Dubya) isn't good enough to carry Ford's shoes. Bush could learn a lot from Ford but I suppose the idea of being genial and easy-going doesn't poll well in our contemporary politics, which can best be described as cannibalistic.

Well done.

sean s.