Gerald Ford's old pals on Capitol Hill are overriding protests from his potential rivals for the 1980 presidential nomination to dip into party campaign funds for him - stirring up dying embers of the blazing Ford-Reagan bitterness two years ago.
Without announcement or authorization. Ford's friends who control th Republican Congressional Campaign Committee are paying the $36,500 salary this year for Ford's political aide. While supposedly hired to help Ford campaign for 1978 congressional candidates, the aide will be invaluable in preparing a 1980 presidential run by Ford.
Neither one political aide nor $36,500 will make Ford president again, but they could represent something much bigger. His backers clearly intend that Jerry Ford will be chief beneficiary of Republican gains in congressional elections providing momentum for his presidential comeback. The campaign committee fulfilled a similar function for Richard Nixon in the dramatic Republican congressional gains of 1966.
What bothers many Republicans, however, is not the example of Nixon in 1966 but of Ford in 1976. To Reaganites, the incident all too closely resembles Ford's use of the party apparatus to beat back Ronald Reagan's challenge two years ago.
The decision to start paying for Ford's political aide in April was made by Rep. Guy Vander Jagt, the committee chairman, and Steven Stockmeyer, its executive director, without notification of other committee members; like Ford, both are from Michigan. The aide is Charles Greenleaf (still another Michigander), who was a Ford delegate hunter and campaign assistant in 1976. Greenleaf is answerable to Ford only, and is located in Palm Springs, the former president's home.
Nobody would have suspected this cozy arrangement except for a June 2 account by New York Times reporter Adam Clymer. Bob Barrett, Ford's former military aide and present executive assistant, revealed to Clymer what an experienced politician would have concealed. Greenleaf's work, said Barrett, "would make it easier for Ford to exercise his options in 1980."
That set off grumbling in Republican cloakrooms, even among such Ford stalwarts as Rep. Bob Michel of Illinois, house minority whip. But another Illinois congressman, Rep. Philip Crane, did more than grumble.
Crane, a Reagan supporter in 1976 and a possible candidate himself in 1980, on June 8 fired off to Vander Jagt a series of blunt questions: Who made the decision? Who else is eligible for such help? How much will Greenleaf be paid? Is this consistent with the objectives Congressional Campaign Committee?
Vander Jagt replied on June 14 by sidestepping Crane's questions. Indeed, he used that hoary politican's device of attacking the news story while claiming Greenleaf "is part of our Congressional Advocates program."
Stockmeyer told us helping Ford has two precedents: Nixon in 1966 and John B. Connally in 1976. But the subsidy for Nixon (variously estimated at $30,000 to $80,000) was specially raised and did not come out of committee funds. The help for 1976 congressional campaign activities by Connally (not a presidential prospect) was around $80,000 to pay a scheduler hired by the committee and located in Washington.
Are the other 25 congressional advocates eligible for their own Greenleaf? "We'll do the same for anybody who asks," Stockmeyer told us. Not so, says his boss. Vander Jagt told us Ford is "a special case," lacking funds or staff.
Actually, Ford has more resources than his potential rivals: 12 staffers, seven of whom are fully paid for by the federal government with no statutory restrictions on their political use. Defending the arrangement, Ford wrote Vander Jagt June 15 that paying Greenleaf should not "be imposed on the tax-payer." If so, he has leftover funds from the President Ford Committee's campaign fund of 1976.
Vander Jagt has put out the fires in the cloakrooms, at least among Ford stalwarts. "After all, he is an ex-president," Michel told us, adding, however, that he wants no more special help for Ford. But Crane was considerably less satisfied after talking to Vander Jagt, who turned down a Greenleaf for congressional advocate Crane.
Vander Jagt has yet to answer a similar request from Lyn Nofziger, Reagan's longtime political adviser. "We feel that this kind of preferential treatment (for Ford) will be disturbing to many who have contributed to the Congressional Committee," Nofziger warned in June 21 letter. So, "in an effort to treat all of its fundraisers (congressional advocates) equally," he called for the committee to pay Greenleaf for Ronald Reagan. For Republicans, the unpleasant echoes of the summer of '76 had returned.