There are no reports, either substantiated or unsubstantiated, that Gerald Ford and Edward Kennedy have held any private meetings recently. But Jerry Ford has obviously learned something from Kennedy's own experiences and at his expense. Only six months ago, all kinds of very important Democrats were whispering into Ted Kennedy's ear: the other guy is gone; you're the only hope for the party; you have to run. Democratic committee chairmen who agreed with Kennedy on little more than that Washington deserved major-league baseball were privately importuning the Massachusetts senator to save the ticket (and incidentally their chairmanships).
In his interview with Adman Clymer of The New York Times, Ford indicated that whispers will not suffice for him. He is insisting on public pledges before he commits to the race. Ford, whom very few people have historically credited with political shrewdness, learned one valuable lesson from watching the post-announcement travails and lonesomeness of Ted Kennedy. Every potential candidate who is about to become an active candidate must try to avoid the Political Voyeur Syndrome: minimize the serious risk of "peaking" at the moment of announcement, followed by a giant slalom in the polls.
Others may have forgotten, but Ford has not, that in 1976 he came within a switch of 13,000 votes of pulling off the most remarkable comeback in American political history. Remember the formidable obstacles confronting the Ford campaign just 10 weeks before election day?
By a margin of 2 to 1, Americans believed the nation was "on the wrong track."
By a margin of 3 to 2, Americans did not believe Jerry Ford was doing a satisfactory job as president.
The only memorable act of his presidency was his pardoning of the man who had appointed him and who had resigned the office in disgrace.
Ford had won the Republican nomination by only 50 delegates after a year-long struggle with the most charismatic figure in his party, a party that then had the admitted loyalty of only 18 percent of the nation's voters.
Ford's opponent had the solid support of the South, which had been the only area of real Republican political growth over the previous 25 years. For the first time in 12 years, the Democrats were apparently united behind their national ticket.
Unemployment had doubled and inflation had tripled since Republicans had taken control of the White House.
Because of a new campaign law (thanks to the unfond memories of Richard Nixon), the Ford campaign was denied the traditional Republican advantage of raising and spending more money than the Democrats.
And while pollsters may bicker about the precise margin, there is little argument that Ford was at least 20 percentage points behind Jimmy Carter on Labor Day of 1976. Twenty points in a presidential race translates into 16 million votes. Between that time and the election, he was gaining votes at the rate of better than one million a week.
The Ford campaign team, arguably the best ever in a presidential campaign, offered the voters a very simple message: "Jerry Ford is a decent human being who took office under terribly difficult conditions. He may not be Lincoln or Roosevelt, but neither is he Johnson or Nixon. You know him. He will not turn your world upside down." The message, especially in its televised version, was masterful in its simplicity. The old shoe against the new suit. The solid veteran against the mercurial and scary newcomer. The known against the unknown.And if only 7,233 Mississippians and 5,559 Ohioans had voted Republican instead of Democratic, Jerry Ford would be president today.
All the Glen Campell Celebrity Pro-Ams in the world and all the five-figure lecture fees since do not change those numbers or the hurt. Like the rest of us, Ford has heard his inflation rate of 4.8 percent bragged about by all the 1980 Republican candidates. The Ford inflation rate has got to qualify for the Guinness Book of World Records as "Shortest Incubation Period Before Inclusion in Any Party's Basic Rhetorical Litany." The record of Jerry Ford has become, in just three years, something every Republican can point to with pride. It should surprise no one, least of all the candidates who have been canonizing him, that Ford is opening every available window hoping to feel a genuine draft.
But the warning signs for political disaster and personal embarrassment are everywhere present for the former president. First, Ford must deal with the understandable resentment of George Bush and now John Anderson. The remarkable 1976 Ford team -- strategist Stu Spencer, communicators John Deardourff and Doug Bailey, pollster Bob Teeter and convention director Jim Baker -- are not all free to enlist with Ford.In addition, because of his own awkward leaks to the press, Ford is risking the tarnishing of his most valuable political quality, his openness and lack of scheming. In many respects, Ford had a tougher race against Reagan in 1976 than he did against Jimmy Carter. This time, if Reagan should stumble as he did in New Hampshire in 1976, any defections would not go directly to Ford. Bush and Anderson and anyone else still alive would be fighting Ford for his share.
Like so many of life's experiences, the contemplation of a Ford candidacy may prove to be far more satisfying than the reality of it.