Good Will, Loyalty Marks of Ford's Legacy
Wednesday, December 27, 2006; 10:54 AM
The standard tribute to Gerald R. Ford Jr. is that he served the nation best simply by stepping into the presidency for the disgraced and banished Richard M. Nixon.
But to those who served with the man from Michigan, his achievements did not begin or end with his being available to help "heal our land" from the wounds of the Nixon presidency, as his successor, Jimmy Carter, said on the day he took over from Ford.
The alumni of the Ford administration -- a notable group -- insist that though he had never particularly aimed for the presidency, the "accidental president" developed a considerable mastery of the job and was on the way to building a legacy for himself when the voters sent him into early retirement.
Instead of great deeds, they say, he left behind a great model of decency and integrity in office -- and a generous gift of friendship that endured for many of them for three decades since they served under him. The annual gatherings of Ford administration alumni, which moved from Washington to California as the former president aged, are unique in the modern presidency and offer evidence of the loyalty he commanded.
Many of those alumni who first exercised real power under Ford have remained active in government through the years. For all that he has borrowed from Ronald Reagan, President Bush owes the greatest debt to three stalwarts of economic and national security policy inherited from Ford -- Vice President Cheney and former secretary of defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, both former chiefs of staff to Ford, and former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, who was chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.
In all his decades of public service, Greenspan observed, he has never been part of a more talented administration. Henry Kissinger was secretary of state and Brent Scowcroft headed the National Security Council staff. Kissinger's personal staff included Lawrence S. Eagleburger, later secretary of state himself, and L. Paul Bremer, eventually to be U.S. viceroy in Iraq. William E. Colby headed the CIA, and the ambassador to the United Nations was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, later a Democratic senator from New York.
Rumsfeld's deputy at the Pentagon was William P. ClementsJr., later governor of Texas. The economic policy team included James T. Lynn and Paul O'Neill at the Office of Management and Budget, William Simon at Treasury, L. William Seidman and Greenspan at the White House, John Dunlop at the Department of Labor, Carla Hills at Housing and Urban Development, Rogers C.B. Morton at Commerce, Clayton Yeutter at the Office of Special Trade Representative and Russell E. Train at the Environmental Protection Agency.
The Department of Justice was headed by Edward H. Levi, the former University of Chicago president and perhaps the most nonpolitical attorney general in modern times. Serving under him, in various high staff positions, were such people as Rudolph W. Giuliani, Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia.
And Nelson Rockefeller was vice president
It took a while for Ford to replace some of the key players he had inherited from Nixon, but when his work was finished, he had a remarkably cohesive and competent group.
Rockefeller -- whose top aide, James Cannon, also headed the White House domestic policy staff -- was not a comfortable fit in the No. 2 role, clashing with Rumsfeld and perhaps chafing at the loss of the autonomy he had enjoyed during his years as governor of New York.
But the overall tone of the Ford Cabinet and White House reflected the moderate conservatism of Ford's own Grand Rapids, Mich., background -- with more than a tinge of the progressiveness embodied in the term "Rockefeller Republicanism."
In terms of the subsequent development of the Republican Party -- and the character of later Republican administrations -- it is difficult to say that Ford left a lasting imprint.
He was challenged for the 1976 nomination by Reagan, and he barely managed to thwart the Californian's ambitions at the Kansas City convention. When Ford lost in November to Carter, Reagan was perfectly positioned to inherit the party leadership and, ultimately, the presidency.
So Ford's legacy lies more in his personal character than in his political inheritance. That character was epitomized by the strength of his personal friendships, which were far deeper than any partisan or ideological lines. Characteristically, his first trip outside Washington as president was to the charity golf tournament sponsored by Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, the Democrat who held the one job Ford had always coveted for himself -- speaker of the House.
Those of us who worked at The Washington Post remember the visit Ford paid to the newspaper in the final days of the Nixon presidency. As vice president, he had loyally defended Nixon against the Watergate charges that were launched in this newspaper. But as the evidence against Nixon mounted and impeachment loomed, Ford recognized that he had a responsibility larger than any further claims of personal loyalty from Nixon.
To the reporters and editors, Ford said, "I want you to know I am someone who enjoys having adversaries who are not enemies."
It was a signal, understood by everyone in the room, that a new -- and welcome -- era was about to begin.
It turned out to be a shorter period in office than Ford expected, but the standard of civility and good will he set for himself is an example that endures.