How Ford's Legacy Still Serves
The standard tribute to Gerald R. Ford 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 his way to building a legacy 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 has endured for many of them for the three decades since they served under him. The annual gatherings of Ford administration alumni 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 remained active in government. 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 defense secretary Don Rumsfeld, both former chiefs of staff to Ford, and former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, Ford's chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers.
In all his years, 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 Eagleburger, later secretary of state himself, and L. Paul Bremer. William Colby headed the CIA, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan was U.N. ambassador.
When Rumsfeld served as Ford's defense secretary, his deputy was William P. Clements Jr., later governor of Texas. The economic policy team included James 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 Labor Department, Carla Hills at Housing and Urban Development, Rogers C.B. Morton at Commerce, Clayton Yeutter at the Office of the Special Trade Representative, and Russell Train at the Environmental Protection Agency.
The Justice Department was headed by Edward H. Levi, a 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 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 he was finished, he had a remarkably cohesive, competent group. 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 progressivism 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, whose ambitions nearly thwarted the incumbent at the Kansas City convention. When Ford lost 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 friendships, which were far deeper than any partisan or ideological lines. Only days before Nixon resigned under threat of impeachment, Ford traveled to the home state of his political rival but friend, Democratic Rep. Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill of Massachusetts, to play with him in a golf tournament.
In the final days of the Nixon presidency, Ford made a memorable visit to The Post. As vice president, he had defended Nixon against the Watergate charges, but he recognized in our meeting that he had a responsibility larger than any further claims of personal loyalty from Nixon. "I want you to know I am someone who enjoys having adversaries who are not enemies," he told reporters and editors.
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.