Inside Washington's Headlines

by Ken Feltman

Radnor Inc.

January 2007

 

Legislative insight

Political intelligence

 

 

 

Ken Feltman is Chairman of Radnor Inc., a political consulting and legislative relations firm in Washington, D.C. He is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists.

 

 

 

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Just decent?

We were in an elevator in a Chicago hotel, headed to a political dinner. President Ford was flanked by an assistant and a local Illinois Republican politician. I was next. Two secret service agents stood in front, one facing us. Two more stood behind. The local politician was requesting the firing of a Ford Administration official who, it seemed, had made a mistake. Ford listened and said, ?If he can?t make a mistake and learn from it, he will never have the courage to make decisions. Good people learn from mistakes. I think he's good. I think he'll learn.?

No football player at the University of Michigan will wear number 48 again. Michigan retired that number, which was worn by an outstanding player who became president of the United States. They did not retire 48 just because it was the jersey number of a U.S. president who happened to play football at Michigan. The folks at Michigan got their priorities right. The man who wore 48 was one of Michigan?s best-ever players.

Gerald Ford was an outstanding student athlete. He starred on three Michigan teams, including two national champions, and he was named the team?s most valuable player. His prowess at football earned him offers to play professionally from the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers. But his academic prowess earned him a spot at Yale, attending law school and coaching football, and Ford accepted that opportunity. He ranked in the top quarter of his graduating class and became a Naval officer in World War II.

Just as at Yale and at Michigan, he soon stood out. His fellow officers recognized his skill at making friends and leading others. Quietly, effortlessly, he seemed to be surrounded by the most capable men and women, who in turn seemed to understand that, somehow, this unassuming Midwesterner could bring out the best in them.

Leadership tested

That leadership was tested in the Pacific during a typhoon when his aircraft carrier, the Monterey, its fuel tanks ruptured and burning, was ordered abandoned by Admiral Halsey. But the captain insisted on one last try to salvage the carrier and ordered Lt. Ford to lead a fire brigade into the cauldron below deck. His men were aware of the order to abandon ship. They could see and smell the burning fuel, everywhere around them. They understood the danger. Yet they followed the young officer. Another officer aboard the Monterey that day said later, ?He was the only man they would follow.? Hours later, the fire finally out, the Monterey saved, Ford led his men, many burned and having trouble breathing, back to the deck. Then, despite exhaustion, Ford reported to the captain for additional duty. Like so many of his generation, Ford seldom spoke of his military experience. He was uncomfortable if it was brought up.

He returned to Grand Rapids and soon challenged a popular incumbent in the Republican primary for Congress. He surprised the district by winning. He was popular with his fellow Congressman and soon rose to leadership. Ford was typical of the moderate Midwestern Republicans who led the national party in those days. He followed an Indiana moderate as House Republican leader. The Senate Republicans were led by an Illinois moderate who, with Ford?s help in the House, pushed through to enactment much of the Kennedy-Johnson civil rights legislation.

Eventually, he told his wife that he planned to serve one more term, to finish some critical legislation that he was working on with the Democratic House leadership. But Richard Nixon called to tell him he was needed as vice president. Paranoid, Nixon may have believed that the Senate was so poisoned against him by Watergate and Vietnam that they might not approve his choice to replace the disgraced Spiro Agnew, who had just resigned. Former House Speaker Carl Albert (D-Okla.) later admitted that he, among others, had delivered that message to Nixon in no uncertain terms. The popular Ford was the only Republican that Nixon could be sure the Senate would approve.

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Everyone who knew him or worked with him respected him. No one, it seemed, disliked him. He inspired no jealously. His colleagues were happy to see him advance to the vice presidency. He was first among equals. They were willing to follow him.

Difficult start

The pardon of Nixon got Ford off to a difficult start. In the media and in the public mind, he never recovered, despite backing programs that set the U.S. on a sounder fiscal course and wound down the Vietnam War. Against Congressional resistance, he set up a resettlement program for Vietnamese who had escaped the fall of the South. He established personal relationships abroad with allies and Cold War adversaries. Soon, people talked about how Ford was restoring a sense of calm, trust and dignity to the presidency and to the nation.

But the pardon and the perception that he was prone to pratfalls made Ford vulnerable. During the 1976 primary campaign, former California Governor Ronald Reagan challenged and nearly beat Ford, coming within a handful of delegates at the Republican Convention in Kansas City. I was one of many ?delegate guards? in Kansas City. My job was to stick close to two wavering Ford delegates who were committed to Ford but were talking about switching to Reagan. I kept the Reagan people away as best I could. Even delegates committed to Ford believed that the pardon of Nixon and the pummeling Ford took from the media, and from television comics such as Chevy Chase, would doom him. They talked openly that Reagan at least offered a chance for victory in November.

Amazingly, despite the hunger for victory, loyalty to Ford prevailed. The wavering delegates stayed with him. By the time of the first roll call vote, we and the Reagan forces knew that Ford would hold off the challenge, but just barely. Ford was nominated by a slender margin. Then, he made up over 30 percentage points in the polls and ended up losing a heart-stopper to Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter. New York State slipped away, probably due to Ford?s principled stand on the bailout of the reckless spending of the City of New York. Then, Mississippi and Ohio were lost by a combined total of fewer than 12,000 votes. It was another election in which a few thousand votes in a couple of states would have changed the result.

The election marked the end of Ford?s public service and also marked the last hurrah of moderate Republicanism. Reagan?s infectious optimism inherited the party and, today, there are few moderate Republicans left in Congress. Democrats dominate the former moderate strongholds in the Midwest and Northeast.


Bonnie Whyte, who retired from Radnor as president of the Employers Council on Flexible Compensation in March of 2006, was close to President and Mrs. Ford. In fact, the Whyte and Ford families have been friends for three generations now.

President Ford and Bonnie's father-in-law were the best of friends. As they got older, they decided to check up on each other if they had not heard from the other for a time. If President Ford could not reach Bill Whyte, he often called our office to reach Bonnie.

Once a temp answered the telephone and asked who was calling.

'Jerry Ford.'

'As in President Ford?'

'Yes,' replied President Ford.

'Yeah, sure,' said the temp as she slammed down the phone.

President Ford called back and used his code name to reach Bonnie. He laughed as he told her what had happened.


Slowly, people began to assess and reassess the Ford presidency. Early on, they usually concluded that he was a great guy but not a great man. They often chose the word ?decent? to describe him. That word ?decent? originally was really a pejorative term as applied to Ford. Faintly condescending, it suggested that he may have been unaccomplished as president, but he was, well, a decent enough fellow.

People remember other things as well, of course: His pardon of Richard Nixon (which historians now credit with healing the country more quickly and which President Clinton cited as courageous in awarding Ford the Presidential Medal of Freedom); his ?Drop Dead? refusal to bail out New York City (which he never said); his occasional stumble (yes, he had a ?trick? knee, an old football injury, and it gave him more trouble than he admitted, just as it gave comedians gag lines); and his ?freeing? of Soviet-dominated Poland (which he noted in 1990 ?finally got here a little too late for me?).

Now he is dead and many still say that, above all, he was decent. Indeed, he was the most decent of men and a most unassuming leader. He brought into his administration Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Alan Greenspan, Brent Scowcroft, Paul O?Neill, John Snow, Stephen Hadley, George H. W. Bush, James Baker and many more who went on to serve in leadership positions in later administrations. No matter what you may think of these people today, they were and are our nation?s leaders. Usually opinionated and strong, they worked for, learned from and followed a decent, unassuming man. Was it just chance that so many leaders just happened to surround this one accidental president for a few years?

Courage for the long run

Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens summed up Ford as ?A wise president who had the courage to make unpopular decisions that would serve the country?s best interests in the long run.? Despite some ever-decreasing detractors, Ford grows in stature as the years pass. There is a reason:

A president may appear to be accidental, but the people who have the accidents happen to them are, somehow, in the right position at the right time. That is not accidental. They are where they are because they merit that spot at that time. Then, events put them into action as surely as the snap of a ball on a Michigan football field or the order of a superior officer on a blazing aircraft carrier. Even in the traumatic chaos that was Watergate unraveling, the accident that became the Ford presidency happened to a man who was right for the job at the time.

On Inauguration Day not quite 40 years ago, his successor turned to him after taking the oath of office. Then, President Carter said, ?For myself and for our Nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land.?

Somehow, reflected against Carter?s simple, eloquent truth, words like decent seem inadequate. Perhaps decent does not so much describe Ford as Ford gives decency a good name. But Ford wanted no grand words.

He was, as he reminded us, ?a Ford not a Lincoln.?

 

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