Gerald R. Ford, formerly of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, returned to his old Washington stomping grounds yesterday like a politician on the make.
Looking fit and relaxed with a slight California tan, Ford elevated his role as a senior statesman almost to a high art. And he appeared to enjoy every minute of it.
He did almost everything a former president could be expected to do. And he did it with an engaging oldshoe style.
Ford issued warnings and advice on the nation's defense and SALT II. He reassured leaders of his own party. He warned Democrats about embracing Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). He teased the press with political gymnastics about his own presidential intentions. And he poked fun at himself and the current occupant of the White House.
Retirement has been good to him and his wife, Betty, he said at one point, suggesting that Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter should try it.
When the day was all over, nothing had really changed. But the show had been a good one and Ford had left enough conflicting signals around to keep the political networks abuzz for days.
He began it with a breakfast meeting with Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, where there was talk of President Carter and of Ford's speech Wednesday outlining his opposition to the strategic arms limitation treaty.
Finally Rep. E.G. (Bud) Shuster (R-Pa.) asked the $64,000 question. Was Ford going to run for president in 1980? The uncertainty over the question, said Shuster, a Ford supporter in 1976, was giving Ronald Reagan an edge over a host of challengers in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
Ford, according to five different sourcns at the breakfast, assured the Republican leaders that he is not a candidate and has no plans to become one. But he added, "I learned a long time ago to never say never."
This was good enough for Shuster, who is scheduled to become the head of John Connally's Pennsylvania campaign tomorrow, and for Senate Minority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.).
"I didn't ask the question, but I was hanging on every word of his answer," said Baker, an unannounced but probable candidate for the GOP nomination. "I'll take him at his word. He isn't a candidate."
Ford said much the same thing during a speech at the Washington Press Club a few hours later. "I haven't asked Betty's permission to run for anything lately, and I can't even remember the last time I was attacked by a bunny rabbitt," he declared.
But his carefully crafted address could have been written as an acceptance speech at the GOP nominating convention. It was full of partisan slaps at Carter and dire warnings of sagging national capabilities.
He called Kennedy's potential candidacy an example of political nostalgia and escapism. "It would be dangerously wrong for the Democratic Party to seek escape from the problems of the 1980s in a nostalgic retreat of the 1980s in a nostalgic retreat to the dreams of the 1960s," Ford said, referring to the presidency of John F. Kennedy. .Nostalgia cannot bring back the leader of the early '60s. He's gone."
As for Carter's handling of the economy, Ford said, "They've blown it, really blown it . . . They had the economy handed to them on a platter. They've just made all the wrong decisions."
When questions about his possible candidacy came up after the speech, the firm assurance Ford earlier had given Republican leaders turned to mush. He said he might quickly reconsider his position if he became convinced that a lot of people "thought I'd do a good job . . . and if there was some general support across the political spectrum, from Democrats, independents and Republicans."
Asked how this support might develop, the former president noted that a draft-Ford committee was formed last week in New Hampshire. The he added:
'I guess it [support] has to happen spontaneously. It would be nice to have it happen, though."
As for Reagan, the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, Ford said, "I don't think he's got it locked up, no, not anywhere near. Governor Reagan is far away from being a sure winner."