Two weeks ago, when the pressure built to a point that it no longer helped, the senator from Kentucky decided to take no more calls from natural gas lobbyists.
That decision may have simplified his life a little, but it did not prevent Wendell H. Ford from becoming the Man in the Middle in the interminable gas price-deregulation deadlock.
Ford is in that spot - and not disliking it completely, it appears - because he is the one man among 18 Senate energy conferees who is openly saying he'll compromise.
The House and Senate conferees have been tangled for weeks, trying without success to find an approach that gives a bit to each side and yet resolves the issue of natural gas pricing.
This is not a conference split along the classic lines of the House wanting it one way and the Senate another.
In this case, the House wants a continuation of price controls on natural gas, with an increase in prices. But the Senate conferees are split. Nine of them, including Ford, want an end of those controls; the other nine don't.
So the question has become additionally complicated by the need for the Senate conferees first to find a common ground before they can talk turkey with the House.
The Senate group has huddled at length, to no avail. Some of the senators met with some House conferees in private yesterday throughout most of the day. But no progress was reported when they adjourned last night. They will meet again today.
These private meetings are where the pressure builds, where the chits of friendship and camaraderie of te Senate are called in, the twisting of arms and hard-hearted bluff and cajolery are out into play.
Sitting in the middle of this test of muscle and wit is Wendell Ford, a frirt-term senator from Kentucky who gets a genuine thrill from the sweat-and-grunt of political combat.
he is ware that his long-standing personal friendships with officials of the Texas Gas Transmission Corp., in Owensboro, his hometown, have given rise to suggestions that he carries water - or gas, if you will - for industry.
He is aware that not all of his Kentucky constituents like what he's doing, supporting legislation that inevitably would raise their gas prices Senior-citizen groups in the state are complaining loudly.
In this mix, Ford is aware of several other key points. One of them is that he'll be responsible in part if the energy conference collapses.
Another, perhaps more to the point is tha Ford and one other Democrat, Sen. J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, have aligned themselves with the seven Republican conferees to split the Senate panel.
"It has really bothered him to be with seven Republicans on this, because he's always been a Democratic team player," one of Ford's aides said yesterday.
This has not been lost on the Democrats.
It explains why President Carter invites Ford down to the White House for a chat or two. It explains why Robert Strauss, a Democratic chum of Ford's who is now Carter's chief trade negotiator, calls to talk about gas. It explains why Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger Jr. calls solicitously, as he did yesterday morning, to offer any kind of help of information Ford might need.
Ford said during a break yesterday that he answer those calls because he doesn't deem them undue pressure. "They want to know what's goingon. . ." he said; when information is offered, he says he all he needs.
"Most of any problems come from people who don't represent substantial groups. I've taken the position that if I want information, I'll call for it."
While those external pressures may be great - even though Ford no longer takes calls from the gas industry - he is slso gas object of attention from within, deregulation issue who want to win his heart and mind.
From the side of he senators who want to continue price controls came thie comment: "Ford is bendinf more than Johnston . . . Ford seem seems to want a bill, but he's not compromising very much."
The Ford-Johnston axis is the puzzler. Their closeness became noticeable earlier this year when Johnston walked an extra mile in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee to help Ford get his way on crucial amendments to the strip-mine control legislation.
Now Johnston is involved in a battle carrying deep implications for Louisiana's natural-gas producers, just as Ford's strip-mine fight did for Kentucky coal strippers.
Such alliances of convenience are a way of life in the Senate, often built on the fragile underpinnings of limits that are toppled when the right moment comes.
For Ford, who has been saying for days that he is willing to compromise, and sendung tremors up and down both sides of the bitterly divided 18 senators, the moment seems to be coming.
A Ford aide said, "The informal pressures around here are enormous - the friendships, the force of personality, the nature of this place being to find compromise that suits everyone. . . . He's trying to thread his way through all this and get to a position that will give us a bill."
Ford put it this way: "I want an energy bill and I'm ready to go home now. Without a bill it will cost the consumers more in the long run than it will if we get a bill. I can comptomise, but I can't take the House version . . . I can come down in between."
Then, in one of those neat rhetorical twists that senators seem to love, Ford evokes a name from the past: "I come from the state that produced Henry Clay, the great compromiser. I guess all of us Kentuckians have that in our blood."
Parenthetically, for whatever it's worth, Clay was also known, not fondly, as the Judas of the West.