Jerry Ford came through town last week, trailing common sense and goodwill as usual. But something strange has happened to the former president.
At 85, the man from Michigan, who for a full generation embodied everything that was solid and unspectacular in American government, increasingly finds himself dismayed by the cynicism of our politics and by the way things are going in his own party -- especially in the House of Representatives, his longtime home.
That Ford is clearly uncomfortable as a critic of the system and the party that nurtured him adds force to his words. Listening to his speech at the National Press Club and then sitting down with him for an interview in his hotel suite, I was struck by the way candor compels this senior citizen to speak out against much of what is happening in our politics.
The biggest applause at the Press Club came when Ford decried the character of modern elections -- "candidates without ideas, hiring consultants without convictions to run campaigns without content." That line draws cheers in every speech he gives. "The public understands," he said, "and if I were a newsman, I would be damned mad that candidates are under the control of these paid [campaign] people. The press ought to say that's wrong."
When I observed that those consultants are often protected as sources and not rarely become pseudo-journalists themselves, as is the case with Dick Morris -- onetime guide dog for both Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and President Clinton -- Ford responded dryly: "I've never met him, but I've read a lot about him. I haven't sought out his friendship."
He turned the conversation to campaign finance. In his old Grand Rapids district, Ford noted, congressional candidates now "will spend over half a million dollars. I would hesitate to be a candidate if I had to go out and raise that much money. I always had a guilt complex when I raised $20,000."
I reminded him that the opposition to campaign finance reform is coming mainly from Republicans. Ford said, "I don't understand why that fellow from Kentucky, [Sen. Mitch] McConnell, is so adamant. I think soft money in the magnitude that is made available is dangerous, but he's going to filibuster almost anything that will close that loophole."
Ford's major theme was the need to restore civility to the House of Representatives -- at least enough to pass the basic spending bills and bring back a modicum of bipartisanship in foreign policy, if not a full return to the days "when Tip O'Neill and I [as majority and minority leaders] used to fight like cats and dogs on the floor of the House on legitimate issue differences and then go out and have a beer."
Ford blamed the bitterness on Capitol Hill in part on "a hangover" from Vietnam and Watergate, but also faulted former House speaker Newt Gingrich. "He came by to see me in California, and I said, `Newt, the tradition is the speaker is the speaker of the House -- all 435 members -- and he's not the party leader.' . . . But he clashed with Clinton and the Democrats pretty strongly. They had those terrible, terrible days [late in 1995] when the government was shut down. . . . It was similar to the atmosphere at the time of Vietnam and Watergate."
Ford also had a message for his party. "We will never win the White House if we rely on the extreme right wing for our candidate and philosophy," he said at the Press Club. When I reminded him that the last two nominees, George Bush and Bob Dole, were regarded as mainstream conservatives like himself, he replied, "Except they were a little too sympathetic toward the hard right on the issue of abortion, which is a catalyst for disagreement." Pro-choice himself, Ford said, "I think the whole issue ought to be out of the political arena. I think it's a matter of personal conviction."
Ford was equally outspoken on another controversial issue -- guns. "We never had a gun in the house while bringing up children, and we sure don't have one now," he said. "A reasonable, constructive gun control program should be enacted."
The former president said he had no plans to endorse for the Republican nomination but thought Texas Gov. George W. Bush "has handled himself extremely well . . . [and] is trying to be a little more flexible than his father was on a couple issues," including abortion.
Ford reminded the Press Club audience that it had been a half-century "since I arrived in Washington as the lowest-ranking creature in the political food chain -- a freshman in the minority party in the House. I never claimed to be a visionary. I was instinctively a moderate, because my generation had paid a high price for extremists who wanted to conquer the world."
That voice of moderation is welcome now.