A Different Political Climate
Lessons From the Class Of '48: Ambition, Comity
Thursday, December 28, 2006
Gerald R. Ford's rise to the presidency, far from being the accident it seems, reflected the politics of an era markedly different from today's, according to the memories of survivors from that time.
Ford was part of an influx of young politicians elected in 1948. It was the first national election year after World War II, and the freshmen had the common bond of military service and an impatience with the old ways of Washington.
They made themselves felt almost immediately on Capitol Hill. In Ford's case, it was by winning a seat on the Appropriations defense subcommittee, where he could help shape the Pentagon budget and U.S. policy in the opening years of the Cold War.
The House in which the young lawyer from Grand Rapids, Mich., began his service was very different than the Congress of recent years. Democrats were in control, but party lines were not sharply drawn and friendships blossomed across the aisle -- over golf games, poker parties and sometimes dinners with spouses.
When politics intruded, it was often in the form of disagreements within parties rather than fights between the parties.
It was one of those intraparty battles that launched Ford on the path to the presidency. He and other "Young Turk" Republicans in the House chafed under the leadership of Minority Leader Charles A. Halleck of Indiana. While John F. Kennedy was president, there were occasions when some of them had to reprimand Halleck for being drunk on the House floor.
After the 1964 election, when Barry Goldwater's candidacy produced heavy GOP losses up and down the ticket, the rebels decided to move. As Melvin R. Laird, then Ford's colleague on Appropriations and later defense secretary, recalled in an interview yesterday, a secret poll among the rebels showed Ford to be the second choice to challenge Halleck. The winner of the poll was Rep. John W. Byrnes of Wisconsin, then the senior Republican on the Ways and Means Committee.
But when the conspirators -- led by Laird, Charles E. Goodell of New York and Glenard P. Lipscomb of California -- approached Byrnes, he was reluctant to gamble his career by taking on Halleck. So they turned to Ford, who was more than willing to run. In the secret-ballot Republican Conference vote, Ford prevailed.
The politics of his selection as vice president was equally dramatic. When Spiro T. Agnew was forced to resign in 1973 because of bribery charges, President Richard M. Nixon told aides that his choice to fill the vacancy would be John B. Connally, the former Texas governor who had served as Treasury secretary.
But when word of Nixon's intention reached Capitol Hill, there was a rebellion.
Democrats regarded Connally as a turncoat who had left their party to support Nixon and serve in his administration. Republicans also regarded him as an interloper, much like his mentor, Lyndon B. Johnson.
With backstage help from Bryce Harlow, the influential White House aide, Laird and others orchestrated a series of visits to the president. Leading congressional Democrats and Republicans told Nixon that Connally was unacceptable to them, while Ford would be easily confirmed by both the House and Senate, as the 25th Amendment required.
Nixon cursed in frustration but ultimately yielded, and Ford became vice president. That in turn made him Nixon's successor when Nixon was forced to resign after Watergate.
Highlighting the difference between that era and this is the simple fact that a Democratic Congress enthusiastically used its power to place in the vice presidency a Republican who had been the leader of the minority opposition.
It could occur, Laird commented yesterday, "only because of the comity that existed" between the parties. He recalled that John W. McCormack, then the Democratic speaker, had provided funds to name an "assistant postmaster" in the House, assigned to the minority party -- a job that went to Robert Hartmann, who served as Ford's press secretary and later as a White House adviser.
"The feeling then was that they wanted both sides to have the staff and expert help they needed, so they could do their jobs and contribute to the legislation," Laird said.
Ford was shaped in that environment, and he largely pursued the same approach in the presidency.