Ford’s Surprising Influence on George W. Bush

To understand Gerald Ford’s place inside the Bush administration, you need to turn the clock back six years.

Before 9/11, and before Iraq, there was an inexperienced Texas governor who won the presidency — after a few legal hitches — on a relatively simple pledge: to restore honor and integrity to the Oval Office.

In late 2000, President-elect Bush and his team in Austin, Texas, saw themselves as something of a restoration. Not the restoration of the father’s presidency, given the fraught relationship between 41 and his eldest son. But, in their own eyes, they represented a return to the decent, principled government that would think strategically and professionally about the United States and the world beyond.

Just like the Ford team, they believed they could clean up the West Wing after impeachment and partisan wars, drawing on their own talent and experience to set a new course. After Monica, they thought they would end America’s latest “long national nightmare.”

The mission wasn’t just about impeachment. Where the Clinton administration bounced from one foreign-policy crisis to another, Team Bush believed it would return to the geo-politics of the great global powers — just as the Ford years had successfully managed the retreat from Vietnam and pushed for peace in the Middle East. Where the Clintonistas engaged in 24-hour spin and poll-tested policy, the Bush 43 crowd would return to a more wonkish form of government — not unlike the Ford team’s rejection of Nixon-style politics.

In those early days — as he formed his cabinet and entered the Oval Office — George W. Bush leant heavily on a former chief of staff to President Ford: Dick Cheney. In turn, Cheney was leaning heavily on his own old friends.

It was Cheney himself who best evoked the spirit of those Ford years. Speaking to a conservative conference in Arlington, Va., after only a month in office in early 2001, Cheney compared his own time in the Ford White House with the spirit of the new Bush White House. He noted that the president wanted to change the tone in Washington, and he praised the new White House staffers for their “deep respect for the institutions of our democracy.”

Cheney went on to contrast his current and past experience with the Clinton years. “In my office, I have a picture of John Adams, the first vice president,” he observed. “Adams liked to say, ‘The facts are stubborn things.’

“Whatever the issue, we are going to deal with facts and show a decent regard for other points of view. This is not about questioning people’s motives or their good faith. The days of the so-called war room and the permanent campaign are over.”

After six years and two wars, such rhetoric seems almost too ironic. Karl Rove clearly didn’t sign up to the end of the permanent campaign. The vice president himself wasn’t satisfied with the intelligence community’s stubborn analysis of Iraq’s weapons programs. And the national security team has bounced from one crisis to another with little of the strategic coherence they once promised.

Still, the self-belief in the Ford values was real in 2000, and the relationships of that era led to several key appointments. Cheney’s mentor in the White House was Donald Rumsfeld. His ally in the budget office was Paul O’Neill, Bush’s first Treasury secretary. Cheney’s and O’Neill’s mutual friend at the Council of Economic Advisers was one Alan Greenspan. A young staffer on Ford’s National Security Council was Stephen Hadley, who is now Bush’s own national security adviser.

Such biographical links don’t mean these senior Bush officials were all really Ford’s men. None of them are 41’s puppets either, even though Vice President Cheney and Hadley served together in the father’s Pentagon. But in those early days of the Bush administration, when the new president’s Texas team needed to hire some Washington experience, it found a deep pool in the 20-year-old friendships between a core group of former Ford officials.

Ford’s influence didn’t end with the 1976 election. After leaving the White House, he was heavily involved with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank that has proved to be a huge resource — in terms of personnel, ideas and contacts — for the Bush administration. (The AEI remains a key voice in the current debate about a new strategy in Iraq, and its scholar Fred Kagan is one of the biggest advocates for a sustained surge of troops into Baghdad.)

Looking back, there’s little of Ford’s policy agenda that stands up to comparison with the Bush years. After all, the world has changed enormously. Inflation is no longer public enemy No. 1; Islamist terrorism is. The Vietnam war was ending on Ford’s watch; the Iraq war seems far from over.

But there is one notable exception — and it is also closely tied to the current vice president. Ford’s energy policies, while crafted in another era, sound remarkably similar to the current administration’s approach. At his first press conference in August 1974, Ford was asked what he intended to do about high oil prices and Saudi power. Ford’s response was to promote something called Project Independence, a Nixon policy unveiled a few months earlier, that promised to deliver energy independence by 1980.

“I think this points up very vividly the need and necessity for us to accelerate every aspect of Project Independence,” Ford told reporters. “I think it highlights the need and necessity for us to proceed with more oil and gas drilling, a greater supply domestically. I believe it points up the requirement that we expedite the licensing processes for new nuclear reactors. I think it points up very dramatically the need that we expand our geothermal, our solar research and development in the fields of energy.” He didn’t mention hybrid vehicles or ethanol, but the echoes with Bush’s current approach are unmistakable — more drilling, more nuclear power and more alternative fuels.

Back in 2000, the ex-Ford officials thought they were overlooked and undervalued in the forgotten years before the Reagan revolution. Given their prominence over the last six years of the Bush administration, that sense of under-fulfillment is long gone. Whatever historians conclude about the Bush era, the recent decisions of those former Ford officials won't easily be overlooked.

Join the Discussion