Mark Shields: Missing Gerald Ford in 2016

Mark Shields

During my more than a half-century of living and working in Washington, D.C., in my semi-humble opinion, Gerald Ford was the most emotionally secure president I have observed. To support that position, allow me to tell you about President Ford’s 1976 campaign against his Democratic challenger, former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter.

Ford, who had assumed office after the forced resignation of the disgraced Richard Nixon, trailed Carter in the late summer in national polls by more than 20 percent — or some 16.5 million votes — when Stu Spencer, his savvy and blunt-spoken deputy chairman for political organization, went to see the president in the Oval Office.

Dick Cheney, the young White House chief of staff, was the only other person in the room when Spencer — relying on the Ford campaign’s own polling data, which showed that Ford’s numbers had gone down in states after he personally campaigned — told the commander in chief: ”Mr. President, you are a very good president. But as a campaigner, you are no (expletive) good.”

Ford, who, as the House minority leader for almost nine years, had campaigned for hundreds of Republican congressional candidates, agreed to a “Rose Garden strategy,” in which he would make presidential announcements and campaign from the White House. It almost worked. On Election Day, a switch of only 10,291 votes in Ohio and Mississippi would have re-elected President Ford.

What may have derailed the historic Republican comeback was that year’s second presidential debate, in San Francisco, when, in the midst of the Cold War, Ford implausibly and incorrectly asserted, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” Brent Scowcroft, Ford’s national security adviser, and the White House and campaign leadership realized what a major gaffe the president had committed and knew a correction had to be quickly issued.

But their task was complicated when, right after the debate, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a man not renowned for his straight-from-the-shoulder directness, phoned Ford to say, according to those familiar with the conversation (including future Secretary of State Jim Baker, who was Ford’s campaign chairman), “Mr. President, you did a wonderful job. Marvelous. Really terrific.” It took several precious October days of effort on the part of Stu Spencer and others to persuade Ford to admit his misstatement and publicly acknowledge the presence of four Soviet divisions in Poland.

How are these anecdotes about Gerald Ford, the man the respected David Broder called the “least neurotic president” of his lifetime, relevant some 40 years later? Be honest: Do you think the presidential candidate you are currently supporting is personally secure enough to seek out and welcome the sort of bluntly critical advice President Ford received — and acted upon — from Stu Spencer, or would your current candidate be more receptive and responsive to the uncritical flattery of the variety that Henry Kissinger offered after Ford’s debate mistake? The answer could well determine whether the next president leads the nation wisely or disastrously.

Of Gerald Ford, a congressional rival and personal friend of his, House Speaker Tip O’Neill, said it best: “God has been good to America, especially during difficult times. At the time of the Civil War, he gave us Abraham Lincoln. And at the time of Watergate, he gave us Gerald Ford — the right man at the right time who was able to put our nation back together again.”

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