Jerry Ford, as part of his fitness program, hasn't touched a drink in nine months. He has lost 10 pounds and looks better than he did as president. "I feel super," he said in an interview at his home here the other day.
But there is no new Ford. He comes on now as he did when president. He is likeable and steady and good at lowering expectations. But he remains without flair and shows a continuing capacity to look inept.
"The next four years," Ford says, "are going to be very tough years for this country." In foreign affairs he sees the loss of military superiority -- "the ace in the hole." He believes the United States has to rebuild its strength, especially in the Middle East, where he thinks the Russians have rich possibilities. But he still believes the peace depends on dealing with the Russians, and probably the strongest argument that can be made for Ford -- and against Carter -- lies in the ability to get on with Moscow.
"This administration," Ford says of Carter, "goes from one extreme to the other. First euphoria, then a turn of 180 degrees and then we close off the dialogue. Inconsistency precludes any constructive solution of problems. We had many problems with the Russians, and I was always realistic about them. But I kept the dialogue open."
The domestic economy seems to Ford to be in a crisis that verges on panic. He harks back to the four-point plan of his own administration -- reduction in the growth of federal spending, tax relief, a tight monetary policy and an "adamant" stand against wage and price controls. He points out that inflation fell from 12 percent in 1975 to 4.8 percent when he left office. Though the situation is obviously different now, Ford would go with the same mix. "There is an old football adage," he says of his own prescription. "When the play works, you keep running it."
Energy strikes Ford as an area where "very difficult choices" remain to be made. But he shrinks from strong and immediate measures to promote conservation. He writes off a high tax on gasoline as "unrealistic. It would never get through the Congress."
Ford's fondness for his own record undoubtedly derives largely from a strong sense of failure on the part of the Carter administration. "Carter," Ford said to me in a notable winding up of his rhetorical tone, "has been a disaster. The country has to get him out of there. If I'm the only one who can do it, then I'm available."
As that comment implies, Ford's interest in running is strong -- but not unconditional. Before committing himself, Ford wants to be sure he has the support of leading Republican governors. William Milliken of Michigan, Ford's home state, is, as Ford himself says, "crucial." In addition, it is a fair surmise that the former president will be watching closely to see what support is forthcoming from Thompson of Illinois, Rhodes of Ohio, Dreyfus of Wisconsin and Dalton of Virginia.
Furthermore, Ford is not likely to come in until he is sure there are no other Republicans with a good chance to head off Reagan and beat Carter. That means waiting to see whether George Bush can retrieve his sinking fortunes and -- even more important -- whether John Anderson can go places. So Ford will probably wait until the Illinois primary next Tuesday before making a decision.
Even if everything works out and Ford does enter the race, the road will not be easy. He has to go up against Ronald Reagan, and he has alienated the Reaganites by asserting that the former California governor was "too conservative" to carry the country. In talking to me, Ford implicity acknowledged he had misspoken. "What I meant to say," he said, "is that Reagan is perceived as being too conservative. Whether he is or not, that's the fact. More importantly, I meant to say, if I didn't say it, that the polls reflect it. That's not my judgement. That's what the polls say."
But a couple of hours after that not-very-adroit effort to ease tension with the Reaganites, Ford had Henry Kissinger to lunch. He won Kissinger's endorsement, and he indicated to me -- as he has to others -- that he would name Kissinger secretary of state again. I happen to think that would be an excellent choice -- the best man for the job indeed. But Ford doesn't have to announce it now. By doing so, he only further alienates the Reaganites who have never like the former secretary of state, and may have the capacity to compromise Ford's hopes for both nomination and election.
So, much as events tend to vindicate the Ford presidency, and appealing as he may be as a person, the maladroitness that did so much harm has not disappeared. Nobody can be altogether pleased if it develops that Ford is the only way to get Carter "out of there."