By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 28, 2006
Gerald R. Ford's administration passed from the scene relatively quickly in the 1970s, but, like much of the decade's popular culture, it left an imprint that would be felt for years to come. In fact, when George W. Bush arrived at the Oval Office 24 years later, it felt at first as if he were shooting a remake of the Ford White House.
Ford's White House chief of staff, Dick Cheney, was now vice president. Ford's defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld, was again the master of the Pentagon. Young aides who had learned the Washington game under the 38th president -- such as Paul H. O'Neill, John W. Snow and Stephen J. Hadley -- were to head the Treasury Department or National Security Council for the 43rd chief executive.
There were other familiar faces as well. James A. Baker III, who as Ford's campaign manager saved his nomination from an insurgent Ronald Reagan in 1976, had come to the rescue when Bush's election headed into recount overtime. And Alan Greenspan, a Ford economic adviser, was the incumbent Federal Reserve chairman who would help Bush sell his signature $1.35 trillion tax-cut program, a far cry from the $10 billion in tax cuts promised by Greenspan's onetime mentor, Ford.
"It's quite amazing how many people from his administration have gone on to big things," said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who was national security adviser for both Ford and President George H.W. Bush, then served as chairman of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board under George W. Bush.
But if the Ford administration proved an incubator for future Republican talent after the demise of Richard M. Nixon's presidency, it turned out not to be much of a model for the current Bush administration in terms of style and ideology. Where Ford governed close to the political center, working with congressional Democrats and presenting a pragmatic, cautious domestic and foreign policy agenda, Bush has styled himself as more of a crusader for change at home and abroad -- bold in the eyes of his admirers but reckless in the view of his critics.
Bush has led the nation in a more polarized time and more polarized fashion, largely eschewing Democrats and focusing on keeping his GOP base behind him. Initially at least, his administration excited conservatives, while moderates who found his approach too radical were cast out, including O'Neill, who was pressured to resign as treasury secretary, and Scowcroft, who was dumped from the intelligence board.
Ford, who spent years in the Republican minority in Congress, put a premium on collaboration to make the system work. "He was just great at that," said Scowcroft. "And as you can see, this administration doesn't believe in that and doesn't practice it. And not just this administration -- the whole town of Washington has changed."
Not that Ford had it easy. He assumed office amid the trauma of Watergate and Vietnam without being elected and, unlike Bush till now, had an opposition party running Capitol Hill. "He had a hostile Congress to deal with and, to a certain extent, a large segment of his own party that was at odds with him in the Reagan wing," said David Horrocks, a historian at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum.
And just as Bush's team has at times been riven by deep disagreements over issues such as the Iraq war, Ford's circle had its share of internal competition. Rumsfeld was Ford's first White House chief of staff but later turned over the office to his young aide, Cheney, so that he could join the Cabinet, a possible launching pad to becoming the vice presidential nominee in 1976. George H.W. Bush, meanwhile, was made CIA director in what some colleagues saw as a move by Rumsfeld to get rid of a potential rival for the nomination.
But none of that compared to the political divisions of the current era, and Ford in his last years found the changes in the capital culture disheartening. When Time magazine journalist Hugh Sidey, who covered the Ford White House, died in 2005, the former president wrote a piece in The Washington Post lamenting the passing of a Washington where politicians and journalists could respect and even be friends with one another despite disagreements.
"It's hard to imagine how different Washington was in those days," said Ron Nessen, who was Ford's press secretary. "It's so nasty and polarized these days, and everything's political. Ford had a lot of friends in the other party."
In an interview before Ford's death, Nessen said the former president was "not happy" about the polarization of politics. "He has been definitely put off by the tone and mood in Washington, because he does come from that different era when Republicans and Democrats . . . would have a drink together."
Bush also has rued the partisanship of his tenure, though he and his aides generally place the blame on Democrats. Some of his advisers see no virtue in the sort of accommodation they associate with the Ford administration, dismissing it as an approach that would not work in an era that demands more daring leadership.
Whether Cheney sees it that way is uncertain, but of all the Ford veterans inside the Bush White House, no one appears to have changed more. Scowcroft, among others, has said he no longer recognizes the man he knew as a laid-back, good-humored pragmatist who was the nation's youngest White House chief of staff. As Bush's grim-faced vice president more than a quarter-century later, Cheney has articulated a dark view of the world and the threats to the United States while advocating preemptive war in Iraq and a free hand for interrogators grilling prisoners.
Cheney does not explain the seeming evolution, but he continued to pay homage to his former boss throughout his career. "We were at a reunion dinner . . . and Cheney told my husband and me informally, 'I owe everything to Ford,' " said Elaine K. Didier, director of the Ford library.
In a speech to the Wyoming legislature in February, Cheney seemed wistful for his days in the Ford White House. "In Gerald Ford, I had yet another fine role model," he said, "and I still look up to the man for his steadiness, for his kindness and complete lack of pretense, for the way he conducted himself during one of the most serious constitutional crises in the nation's history."