Could Mike Pence Be the Next President? How Gerald Ford Picked up the Pieces After Nixon

Former President Gerald Ford and wife Betty
Former President Gerald Ford and wife Betty arrive at the opening ceremony of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Reuters Pictures

Newsweek published this story under the headline of “FORD AS MR. RIGHT” on August 11, 1975. In honor of the 43rd anniversary this week of Gerald Ford becoming president of the U.S., Newsweek is republishing the story.

He was a man of the Congress, a heartland commoner whose ambitions never ran higher than speaker of the house, and for a long while his old chums simply assumed his discomfort in his new station. But one of them, House Minority Leader John Rhodes, saw him on business recently and asked in sudden wonderment: "You really love the damn job, don't you?"

"Yes," said the president of the United States, "I do."

He does. Hardly a year ago Gerald Ford was, by the eyewitness testimony of his own son Jack, a slowed-down case - a man who had run out his string in Congress and had a accepted the vice presidency as a graceful way into retirement. Even in the euphoria over this swearing-in, nobody thought of him as much more than a caretaker between Richard Nixon and some Democratic Mr. Right. But Ford has come now to the eve of the first anniversary of his accidental presidency, with a calm and a competence that have surprised everybody except himself. He has made this languid season the summer of Jerry Ford - and whether or not it last, he is, as one unadmiring political scientist put it, "the right guy in the right place at the right time."

His second honeymoon is part luck, part skill and part a palpable national nostalgia for the politics of normalcy. It seems not to trouble Ford's countrymen that his style is bland, his program largely negative, his relationship with Congress increasingly contentious. His polls, though fading, are fat - particularly when he is matched against any known Republican or Democratic challenger. His press in aglow with accounts of his confidence and his command of the job. His opposition is in a fret over his popularity and its own disarray. His people are almost eerily serene in the face of recession inflation and a dicey peace; it is a measure of their content, and America's mood, that they can solemnly compare Jerry Ford to Calvin Coolidge - and mean it as a compliment.

His current high is, as all but the most committed Fordomanes understand, a fragile condition. One Republican field worker, fresh back from a cross-country tour, reported the president's standing "positive - and skin deep." It rests partly on the recovery of the Mayaguez from Cambodia, partly on Ford's mastery of a muddled Democratic Congress in a series of veto fights. But the afterglow of Mayaguez is already dimming in the polls. The vetoes have put Capitol Hill in a garrison mood; in the past fortnight alone, Congress has shot down Ford's latest plan to decontrol oil prices, locked in the embargo on arms for Turkey and steamrollered through a $2 billion health bill without Ford's signature. The economy is still sickly, the world still uncertain, the president still likable but uninspiring to a fault.

Yet Ford and his people are gambling that he can prevail over all of it - and at least of this season, he has. They concede that he is a plain man; they argue that its is enough for this time that, as one old friend put it, he comes across to America as "a very nice person" - and that he is not Richard Nixon. They grant that the economy is rocky; Ford, in an interview with Newsweek, countered only that it is getting better, and that he will get by politically if inflation and unemployment are trending downward next Election Day. They agree that he has put a freeze on bold new programs; they argue that the economy required it, and besides, in the words of one senior staffer, "new and bold can also be crappy." And they affirm that Ford is not only on top of his job but happy in it. "He's really at home with himself," says Jack Ford, an engagingly fresh young man who has come home from Forestry school to work in his father's campaign. "This has recharged him as a man."

PLAIN OLD JERRY

The temperature hovered at 90, the humidity was stifling, and the long queue of tourists stood wilting through waits of an hour and more for a conducted dash through the public rooms of the White House. Ford had seen them and fretted for their comfort - and suddenly, on less than five minutes notice to his bodyguards, he popped outside to greet them. He started at the head of the line, chatting and shaking hands. His shirt quickly soaked through. Great drops of perspiration beaded on his face and dripped from his nose, making blot marks on his tie. But he stuck it out for 45 minutes to the end of the queue - by then 3,000 tourists long.

A year in the Imperium has not spoiled him. His ankle socks droop. He butchers polysyllabic words. He still says "judge-a-ment" - by now, one old Ford hand believes, out of good-natured perversity. He calls visitors "sir." He looks uncomfortable when he walks into a room and everybody stands up. The help brings him his English muffins now, but he himself got up at 3:30 one recent morning to take the First Dog, Liberty, out for a necessary walk on the South Lawn. He is not nearly so comfortable with his title as with his work - not, at least, in the company of old friends. One of them, William Whyte, U.S. Steel's chief lobbyist, phoned him early on and started out, "Mr. president -"

"Is this Mr. Whyte?" answered Ford.

"It's Bill Whyte," said Whyte.

"Well, it's Jerry Ford," said Ford.

All of this adds up to what might be called the DHB Factor - the quality of unabashed ordinariness that requires even Ford's sourest critics to start out with the concession that he is a Decent Human Being. He is, and both he and his handlers recognize DHB as his most precious political asset. It is, for one thing, what separates him and his Administration from the Nixon past; Ford, in his conversation with Newsweek, placed the restoration of trust in government No. 1 on his list of achievements in his first year. It is, for another, a kind of campaign promise - a pledge of candor and common decency at the top - and Ford's people have already begun test-marketing it for 1976. "The Democrats can conceivably nominate someone as honest and straightforward as the president," staff counselor Robert T. Hartmann says comfortably, "but they aren't gonna get anybody who can top him."

There is no visible artifice about it. Ford is a man of common speech and touch. He came to the presidency burdened by the suspicion that he was not smart enough for it; even now, one heavily degreed adviser rates him neither brilliant nor surpassingly bright but just plain "sound and sensible." He can be a hard-shell Main Street conservative reading a welfare budget or an unemployment chart - and a soft touch confronted with suffering in the flesh. On a recent prowl in the White House, he struck up a conversation with a staff slide projectionist who was leaving after twenty years.

"Why are you leaving?" asked Ford.

"Because nobody asked me to stay," said the projectionist.

"Well, I'm asking you to stay," said Ford - and the next morning, in his regular state-of-the-nation conference with staff coordinator Donald Rumsfeld, the case for keeping the projectionist on leapfrogged over inflation, recession and the woes of the world to the head of the day's agenda.

A PRESIDENT AT WORK

A member of the group of old pals who make up the Ford kitchen Cabinet sat in front of his TV set one evening last spring, watching the president hedge, fudge and waffle his way through a network interview. The counselor stood the pain for 45 minutes, then flicked off the set and began scribbling notes about how spongy Ford had seemed. "How'd I do?" the president asked him next day. "Jerry, you stunk, you just stunk," said the friend, and proceeded to explain why. Ford laughed and sucked at his pipe. "I appreciate that, he said.

The Open Presidency began as the Ragged Presidency - Ford himself uncertain of his footing, his staff mismatched and unguided, their joint product a flow of mistakes ranging from the packaging of the Nixon pardon to the unbuttoning of the WIN campaign. There are still bad bloopers, most recently Ford's failure (on Henry Kissinger's advice) to invite Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn for tea, let alone sympathy. But Rumsfeld, intense and prison-pale, has imposed some order on the chaos, and Ford has evolved a working style of his own. He consumes paper, staring at 6 a.m. - not just decision memos but the tabbed material supporting them. He invites dissent, and sometimes heeds it. He dominates meetings instead of merely moderating them. He has even learned to be grumpy; once, when a staff wrangle over minutiae ran on too long, he cut in evenly: "Look, fellas, you're wasting your time and you're wasting mine."

Still, openness has somehow survived tidiness. Five staffers (Kissinger, Rumsfeld, Hartmann, counsel Philip Buchen, political adviser John Marsh) retain "peeking privileges" - the license to pop in on Ford without appointments - and more than a dozen other aides and Cabinet officials see him regularly. In addition, once every six or seven weeks, the president convenes the kitchen Cabinet - in the Cabinet room, not the kitchen - for some sleeves-up, call-me-Jerry straight talk. They are a clubby crowd; their antecedents are Congressional (Melvin Laird, William Scranton, Charles Goodell) or corporate (Whyte, Procter & Gamble's Bryce Harlow, Hewlett-Packard's David Packard), and their collective tilt is strongly - but not unrelievedly - conservative. It was the kitchen Cabinet that prodded Ford to confront Congress over spending; it was the kitchen Cabinet as well that reminded him that he ought in the process to express his sympathy for the unemployed.

THE PLEASANT SURPRISE QUOTIENT

The family noticed it first, in the satellite relays and the wire photo of Ford's awkward early meetings with foreign heads of state. Shot after shot showed him standing or walking stiffly with his fingers laced tightly across his midsection, like a curate strolling through a cloister. They recognized his body language for what it was - a sign that he was uptight on what for him was brand-new terrain. Finally, Jack braced him with it: "Why don't you walk with them like you do with Carl Albert?" It took awhile - but now, sometimes, he does.

Nobody quite knows when Ford really started feeling presidential Jack imagines that it was the day he took the oath; others close to him date it to his first veto victories, or his speech at Tulane University declaring an end to the Indochina misadventure, or the winter conferences at Vail that produced his economic and energy programs. What no one doubts is that, terms of the sheer capacity to cope, he has grown into his job - has discovered where the buttons are and developed a growing sure-handedness about pushing them. Self-doubt is not one of Ford's vices, or his virtues. He has, he told Newsweek mildly, made no serious mistakes at all thus far - not the pardon, not WIN, not the lack of social programs. "Nothing substantively, no," he said. ". . . I really don't think there is anything major that I would do differently."

Not even Ford's most loyal employees subscribe to his zero-defect view of his presidency. But he has demonstrated that he can manage, and has accordingly profited from a kind of Pleasant Surprise Quotient - the discovery that he can after all govern and chew gum at the same time. His report card:

In economics, Ford settled on his basic premise early on: that inflation was more ruinous to more people than recession and that it could be contained only at the cost of some pain in added unemployment. His rare candor in saying so has won him high marks, even among liberals who object to his policies. He can, moreover, claim with some statistical support that Fordonomics is working - that the slump is bottoming out and that inflation has come down from double to single-digit levels. But his willingness to tolerate recession-level rates of joblessness through Election Day and beyond remains a high political risk. And his anti-inflationary strategy sometimes seems at war with his benign view of big business - his passive acceptance of two major aluminum price increases in a year, for example, or his own push for deregulation of the price of domestic oil.

In energy, Ford's signal achievement thus far has been to force the attention of Congress to the fact that there is a squeeze and that something ought to be done about it. "He got the mule's attention," conceded one Democratic Senate staffer. But he has run into resistance both with his basic program - raising oil prices in the hope of cutting down demand and stimulating new production - and with his efforts to bludgeon it through Congress. The mule, as a result, has dug in its heels. The House refused last week to grant Ford the gradual price-decontrol plan he had sent up; Ford in turn threatened to veto a six-month extension of existing price ceilings. The outcome of this game of chicken could thus be an explosive rather than a gradual rise in gasoline and home-heating costs - a jump that could re-ignite inflation and seriously depress the president's stock for 1976.

In foreign affairs, for all Ford's diminishing innocence abroad, his policies still come down to two words: Henry Kissinger. Ford's people insist that it is not a Svengali-Trilby relationship but a fundamental harmony of views; still, it is Kissinger (or his deputy, Brent Scowcroft) who conducts Ford through the daily global tour d'horizon and the periodic depth seminars at which the basic outlines of U.S. policy take form. The partnership thus far has liquidated the Vietnam war, at no visible political cost to the president; has scored a domestic political coup with the retrieval of the Mayaguez, and has got the Israeli-Egyptian negotiations back on track toward an interim agreement. But the Ford-Kissinger world order is full of unraveling ends, from Panama to Portugal to Turkey to Korea, and it is currently under sharpening criticism at its very foundation - a detente whose benefits have sometimes seemed to flow disproportionately from West to East.

It is the issues the president has not addressed that trouble his critics and comfort his potential Democratic challengers; his domestic record in their view is almost barren of programmatic ideas for the nation's social ills, and even an old Ford hand concedes that it is "spotty." The president himself told Newsweek that his domestic council will move out into the countryside this fall to collect suggestions at public hearings, and that he may well have something positive to offer next year on such matters as health insurance - if the state of the economy permits. But no one inside the White House or out expects the offerings to be visionary in design or grand in scale. Ford's rhetoric of late has been a running sermon on the evils of big government and big spending; he means it, and believes that he is tune with his times. "There is no free lunch," says one senior staffer, "and the American people know there is no free lunch. There are only hard choices."

AT WAR WITH THE HILL

They went out on the Sequoia one evening a fortnight ago, Ford setting the dress code for his guests from Congress by shucking his jacket and tie as soon as he stepped aboard. In the deepening twilight, the president buttonholed Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill, the billowy, scarlet-nosed leader of the House Democratic majority, and playfully asked if he was prepared to help out on the Turkish arms question. "The hell I am," boomed Tip. Ford laughed appreciatively, and next day, through an intermediary, sent the Majority Leader - "my Irish friend" - a cigar.

Personal relations along Pennsylvania Avenue have vastly improved since Nixon, whose idea of consultation was an easelful of flip-charts and a monologue on what the White House expected of Congress. Ford is still Jerry on Capitol Hill. But institutional relations between the Republican president and the Democratic Congress have fallen into a kind of sour stasis. Ford has attempted with some success to make Congress the goat of his austerity economics this year and his run for a full term in 1976. He has vetoed no fewer than 36 bills - the modern first-year record was Harry Truman's 25 in 1945-46 - and until lately has made almost all of the vetoes stick.

But his victories have had their cost - a dangerous buildup of frustration among a majority that came to Washington billed as veto-proof and for a time believed it. The atmosphere of confrontation has eroded trust in Ford and his Administration. It has incited opposition to Ford's wishes as a matter of simple institutional pride; the air was smoky with vengeance last week when the House stampeded the health bill to passage over Ford's veto, and even Republican leader Rhodes thought better of speaking up for the president. And it has framed Ford himself as a target for partisan attack, even as he has sought to set up Congress. Tip O'Neill smokes Ford's cigars and laughs at Ford's jokes, but their camaraderie ends there. "Jeez, he's more conservative than Nixon ever was," grumped the leader. "Celluloid collar and high button shoes - that's his thinking."

CATCH '76

"It's a pity," said Senate Democratic Whip Robert Byrd, walking away from a leadership meeting with Ford, "that he's such a nice guy."

"Bob," responded Minority Leade Hugh Scott, "what you're really saying is that it's a pity he's not a Democrat."

Self-pity is in fact a condition of the Democratic Party in this summer of Jerry Ford. All the hornbook rules presidential politics decree that he ought to be a pushover - that nice guys indeed finish last when burdened, as Ford is, with high unemployment, rising prices, the memory of scandal and a do-little domestic record. But the Democrats have yet to find his match among their slate-gray field of contenders; the measure of their poverty is that their hottest property, Edward M. Kennedy remains unavailable - and that even he runs 7 points behind Ford in the latest Harris poll. Dwight Eisenhower wove a similar spell out of similarly plain ingredients. "Ford," says Sanford Weiner, a San Francisco campaign consultant, "might be everybody's favorite uncle, the way Ike was everybody's favorite grandfather. No one knew what Ike's policies were. They didn't give a damn - they liked him."

The greening of Ford, and the disarray of the Democrats, have bought the president time to quiet an incipient right-wing mutiny in his own party, and he has gone about it with uncommon skill for a man bred up in the Congressional district politics of Grand Rapids. He has been aided immeasurably by Ronald Reagan's endless temporizing at his Elsinore on the Pacific. But Ford has mainly helped himself, with the Mayaguez incident, the war on spending, and the strategic distancing of his own campaign from Nelson Rockefeller's. The rightward gestures have undercut Ronnie even in Reagan country. "Reagan," says Ford's man Hartmann, "is not really a long-range serious problem."

Yet Ford remains vulnerable to events, some within his control, some far beyond it. His own economists predict continuing high unemployment through Election Day; his response is that maybe they will be wrong. Inflation, for all his labors, has been only incompletely contained. His energy policies will jack up the costs of driving, heating, manufacturing, farming and practically everything else. His conduct of world affairs has yet to be challenged by any crisis more serious than a facedown with Cambodia's match wood navy. His wife's fragility was underscored once again when she had to beg off part of her taxing social schedule in Europe last week.

And Catch '76 for Gerald Ford remains Gerald Ford. He is unquestionably a man for this season - a kind of antihero whose homely virtues of thrift, honesty, hard work and modesty about the capacities of government exactly suit a diminished national mood. What he has yet to demonstrate is any larger capacity for leadership - for defining goals and mobilizing the energies of a nation behind them. His gamble is that that sort of leadership is an idea whose time has come and gone, at least for now. If he wins, he will have his place among the commoner presidents he admires - the Trumans and the Eisenhowers who triumphed by their identity with the ordinary man. If he loses, the analogies will indeed be with Calvin Coolidge, and they will no longer be meant to flatter Jerry Ford.