Does Playing Golf Help Presidents Run the Country?

Presidents & Golf
President Bill Clinton talks with former Presidents George Bush and Gerald Ford before the start of a round of golf in the Indian Wells golf course. Reuters Pictures

Newsweek published this story under the headline “Ford Concedes the Putt” on March 10, 1975. In light of recent events involving President Donald Trump and his working vacation at his golf club, Newsweek is republishing the story.

For a few hours last week, devoted duffer Gerald Ford managed to escape the cares of office. With a gallery of 41,000 onlookers shouting encouragement, Ford became the first president of the United States to play in a pro-amateur golf tournament. The president's game was shaky. He belted balls into the woods, the sand traps and even the lake at Florida's Inverrary Country Club. But when a sympathetic onlooker suggested that Ford was having as much trouble with his golf as with the U.S. Congress, the president replied optimistically: "I'm going to do better with both."

Ford did improve his game on the back nine, although he still ended up with an unimposing score of 10, 28 over par. In the contest with Congress, however, he all but conceded the round. Faced with a potentially damaging veto fight this week, Ford signaled his willingness to suspend most of the controversial oil tariff increase that was at the heart of his embattled energy program. The emerging compromise gave congressional Democrats more than half a loaf, providing them with the time they need to complete energy and tax cut plans of their own. Beyond that, there were those who saw the concession as a sign that power—on economic matters and others as well—was indeed shifting from the White House to Capitol Hill. "If he can't win [the oil tariff increase], then he can't win anything," said Common Cause Vice President Fred Wertheimer.

The president's men portrayed the compromise as a significant White House victory. Ford himself had claimed credit for prompting congressional action on the economy—a $21.3 billion tax cut plan that passed overwhelmingly in the House last week and a watered-down energy proposal crafted by a panel of House and Senate Democrats. Still, it was the president who seemed to be backing off most precipitously.

Under the terms that took shape at the weekend, after an hourlong meeting between Ford and Democratic leaders, the president would go ahead with his veto of legislation aimed at rolling back his three-phase, $3-a-barrel increase in the tariff on imported oil. Ford was expected to announce that action in a televised fireside chat early this week. But he was also expected to suspend for at least 60 days the second and third $1 step-ups in that tariff program, thus making it less crucial for the Democrats to try to override his veto.

Battles: Both sides could thus save face, but serious problems would remain. The House-Senate energy plan, which does nothing immediately to curb oil imports or gasoline consumption, must eventually be reconciled with much tougher legislation being developed by Representative Al Ullman of Oregon, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. And there were battles down the road on an amendment to end the long-entrenched oil depletion allowance—attached last week to the House tax cut bill—and on efforts to block Ford's announced plan to deregulate oil prices.

While the politicians maneuvered, the economy continued to slide. In Washington, the Commerce Department announced that the index of leading indicators, a solid guide to future economic trends, had dropped a further 1.3 percent in January, thus completing the largest six-month decline on record: 12.6 per cent. In New York City, where the current economic slump had already driven the unemployment rate to 10.6 per cent, 10,000 construction workers took to the streets to protest the lack of jobs. The hard hats blocked downtown traffic and clashed with police during their City Hall rally. Some thought the demonstration was only a taste of things to come if the squeeze on blue-collar Americans doesn't let up. "I don't condone what the men did here today," observed Mayor Abraham Beame, "but I understand their frustration."

In addition to the golf tournament, Ford's Florida trip included a tightly scheduled series of speeches, meetings and a news conference. The president repeatedly urged Congress to act on his economic program and to authorize additional military aid for South Vietnam and tottering Cambodia (page 22). But one signal that a compromise was taking shape on economic policy came when he deleted a particularly scrappy paragraph from a prepared speech and instead complimented his "old friends" in Congress for finally beginning to "focus in" on the energy problem.

Side Step: The compromise began with the appearance of a Democratic energy proposal that Ford well might have rejected out of hand if he had been more confident of sustaining his veto. In an unusual effort outside the normal channels of legislation, the team of House and Senate Democrats that worked up the plan had sidestepped most of the painful measures considered necessary to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil. The panel, headed by Senator John Pastore and Representative James Wright, proposed a nominal nickel-a-gallon increase in federal gasoline sales taxes to support an "energy trust fund" that would encourage research and development of alternate energy sources. The plan also included excise taxes on gas-guzzling new cars, rebates on models designed for high efficiency and tax incentives to encourage home insulation and the conversion of generating plants from gas or oil to coal.

Underlying this plan was the theory that sharply increased oil prices would lead not to independence from foreign sources but to further worsening of the nation's economic plight. The president strongly disagreed, but after last week's meeting with Democratic leaders, arranged by Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, Ford allowed that the Democratic plan was "carefully thought out" and suggested that it "possibly can be meshed with ours." He also hinted that he might roll back the second $1-a-barrel oil tariff hike, which took effect March 1, and postpone the third boost slated for April 1, giving Congress and himself 60 days to work out the final deal.

The president was much happier with Ullman's tougher package, which included a graduated gasoline tax, step-by-step import quotas and government allocation of petroleum. But the Democrats seemed confident that the three plans could be reconciled. Said Rhode Island's Pastore: "If we can't come up with something in 60 days, we can't come up with something."

Ford appeared to be even more comfortable with the $21.3 billion tax cut bill passed by the House last week, although it would raise federal deficits past the level contemplated in his own $16 billion package. The House bill also provided considerably more relief to individuals, particularly those of modest income. For many, the rebate would be about 10 percent of the tax due for 1974, with at least $100 going to everyone who paid at least that much in taxes and up to $200 for those with total incomes of $20,000. Above that income figure, the rebates would taper off again, receding to $100 for people earning $30,000 and more. In a step toward a negative income tax, poor people who pay little or no 1975 income tax would receive up to $200.

The tax bill however, faced serious difficulties in the Senate because of the amendment tacked on by reformers to end the 22 percent depletion allowance for oil companies. Ullman and others had warned that oil state senators might be tempted to filibuster the legislation, or otherwise entangle and delay it with amendments retaining the allowance for independent oil companies, small producers, wildcat drillers and others. Still, the reformers calculated that the importance of the tax bill would tend to inhibit such tampering. With luck, said Senate liberal William Hathaway of Maine, Ford could have the tax bill on his desk by the end of April. Oil state congressmen also were expected to fight legislation currently being drafted to prevent the president from ending controls on crude oil prices or raising the minimum controlled price. Ford wants such decontrol as an incentive to domestic oil development.

“Cracks”: Stripped of political rhetoric, last week's compromise was a defeat of sorts for Ford, an admission that he could not count on the one-third-plus-one minority needed in a single chamber of Congress to sustain his veto. "Some members we were counting on aren't as solid as we thought," an administration aide conceded late in the week. "There are cracks all over the place, and we don't know whether the ice will hold."

Even so, Ford remained determinedly ebullient. After his session with the Democratic leaders, he joined wife Betty and daughter Susan at a meeting of the Young Republican Leadership Conference and announced that "undoubtedly, without any question of doubt" he would be candidate for re-election in 1976. Earlier in the week, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller had firmly disclaimed any interest in replacing Ford at the head of the ticket. "The president is there, and nobody's talking about '76 unless they've got a hole in their head," said Rocky—although he later explained that he was simply foreswearing the discussion of politics to concentrate on loyal service to Ford.

But Rockefeller and everyone else knew that Ford's political future depended on being able to lead, and lead successfully, in the fight against recession. The apparently necessary decision to back away from a confrontation with Congress was not an encouraging omen for Gerald Ford.