By Peter Baker
Monday, November 5, 2007
He may have been his White House chief of staff in the 1970s, but by 2004, former president Gerald R. Ford harbored serious reservations about whether Vice President Cheney should be kept on the ticket for reelection. According to a new book, senior Republican figures approached Ford about getting President Bush to dump Cheney in 2004 and, while Ford rebuffed them, he seemed sympathetic to their cause.
"Dick has not been the asset I expected on the ticket," Ford told journalist Thomas M. DeFrank in an off-the-record conversation in March 2004. "As you know, he's a great friend of mine, he did a great job for me, but he has not clicked, if that's the right word. God knows he works at it."
Ford told DeFrank he had heard from Republicans seeking his help to push Cheney out. "Other people are talking to me about making a change, but I have not promoted it myself," he said. Still, he allowed that "I'm apprehensive as to his help to the ticket." Asked about possible replacements, Ford readily named two New York Republicans -- then-Gov. George Pataki and former mayor Rudy Giuliani.
The comments are included in DeFrank's new book, "Write It When I'm Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Record Conversations with Gerald R. Ford." DeFrank started covering Ford before he became president and remained close with him over the years. Now the Washington bureau chief for the New York Daily News, DeFrank kept records of their post-presidential talks that Ford told him he could use after his death. Ford died in December at age 93.
DeFrank's interviews were not the only ones Ford gave for use after he was gone. Ford had harsh assessments of the Iraq war and Cheney during an interview with our colleague Bob Woodward that were published in The Washington Post just after Ford's death. The cumulative impression left by his conversations with those two journalists suggests that the 38th president was struggling to understand what had happened with Cheney, who served as his deputy chief of staff and, later, chief of staff.
"I don't think personality-wise he's changed," Ford told DeFrank. "I don't think he's moved way over to the right; that's not my impression. I don't like his view on why they went to war, but I think he's still a good man, but that doesn't mean he's the best candidate for vice president."
The tone of that 2004 conversation varied sharply from one just two years earlier. Ford bristled when DeFrank asked in 2002 about the prospect of replacing Cheney on the 2004 ticket. "It would be wrong politically and substantively," Ford said then. "Dick Cheney's got a support group out there in the country that I think feels that Cheney was a big asset and would be an asset in the future." What happened in the interim, of course, was the invasion of Iraq.
During their talks over the years, Ford had a generally good impression of Bush, although he was not above criticizing him. In 2000, when Bush was still fighting for the nomination, Ford worried he would not stand up well against Al Gore. "He doesn't look tough enough," Ford said, "and I must say bringing in his dad and mother was a tactical error."
In subsequent conversations after Bush took office, Ford expressed alarm at how the president turned budget surpluses into record deficits, and he criticized the rationale given for the Iraq war, saying the White House should have focused on S addam Hussein's brutal behavior, not on weapons of mass destruction that would never be found. He also seemed troubled by signing statements attached to bills in which Bush suggested he might not enforce laws he thought intruded on his executive authority. And Ford questioned the need for warrantless surveillance.
"I would never do it," he said after revelations of the National Security Agency program. "It surprises me they worry that they think they have to do it. I was dumbfounded when I heard they were. I didn't think it was necessary. Where does he get his advice?"
From Cheney and his circle, DeFrank answered.
"Explain to me who this fella Libby is," Ford said, referring to the vice president's then-chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. "I never heard of him, and I thought I knew Dick Cheney."Give and Take, Surrender-Style
Cynics who think that they, too, know Cheney and assume he does not believe much in the art of negotiation can now rest easy. Asked during a rare question-and-answer session after a speech to the World Affairs Council of Dallas-Fort Worth on Friday why the United States should invade countries such as Iraq and Iran rather than sit down and talk with their leaders, he said he would be more than happy to talk with them -- on certain rather favorable terms.
"Well, I would love to have one giant peace conference, to see our adversaries come sit down on the other side of the table, and negotiate a treaty here -- like we did at the end of World War II onboard the USS Missouri -- and have the problem solved," he said, before going on to explain why he did not think that was possible.
Of course, the "treaty" signed on the Missouri was actually an instrument of "unconditional surrender" in which Japan agreed to "obey and enforce all proclamations, orders and directives" issued by the Supreme Allied Commander, Gen. Douglas MacArthur. If only Iran would be reasonable and agree to something like that, everything sure would be a lot easier.No Surrender but an Open Bar
Speaking of tell-all books and not surrendering, it looks like former U.N. ambassador John R. Bolton has not been excommunicated from the House of Bush despite his score-settling new memoir, "Surrender is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad." Bolton details internal debates over foreign policy, taking aim at Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
That hasn't stopped a group of Bush associates from throwing him a book party. Ken Mehlman, the president's former political director and a former Republican National Committee chairman, is hosting a launch party for Bolton at his Washington house Nov. 19. Co-hosts include Mary Matalin, the former Cheney counselor who still advises the vice president from time to time, as well as former congressman Vin Weber (R-Minn.) and American Conservative Union chief David Keene.The Bushworld Shuffle
Barry Jackson, the White House official who took on many of Karl Rove's duties, has a new deputy. Brian V. McCormack, 33, whose many jobs in the administration included a stint as Cheney's personal aide, will be deputy assistant for strategic initiatives and external affairs. Jackson said in a statement that McCormack did an "amazing job" and "knows that getting the job done is more important than who gets the credit."
In another move of familiar faces, former White House deputy press secretary Trent Duffy is setting up a new communications firm with Chad Kolton, the former spokesman for the director of national intelligence, and GOP operatives Terry Holt and Jim Morrell. Their initial clients include the Real Estate Roundtable and America's Health Insurance Plans.Quote of the Week
"This morning I was with the vice president. I was asking him what costume he was planning. He said, 'Well, I'm already wearing it.' Then he mumbled something about the dark side of the force."
-- President Bush during Halloween speech to grocery manufacturers.