Ballot Box

Memories of the Ford Administration

News reports about the Cabinet assembled by George W. Bush have mostly characterized it as “conservative,” and you can easily see how someone might get that impression. Bush’s nominee for attorney general, John Ashcroft, is the kind of right-winger who, unlike the president-elect, has always sounded serous about trying to make abortion a crime. Bush’s nominee for the Department of Labor, Linda Chavez, is an outspoken opponent of affirmative action. His choice for interior secretary, Gale Norton, served under James Watt in the Reagan administration. These are pretty explicit “up yours” messages to the liberal interest groups, which have mainly responded in kind.

Yet this conservative strain in the Bush Cabinet nominations, which reeks of appeasement rather than conviction, is only an element in the grab bag. Chavez’s opposition to affirmative action is offset by the practice of it, including in her own nomination, since she has no obvious qualification for the post of labor secretary besides a Hispanic surname. The anti-environmental choice of Gale Norton is offset by Bush’s pro-environmental nomination of Christine Todd Whitman, perhaps the most notorious nonconservative in the GOP, to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Ashcroft’s selection as attorney general is balanced by the choice of a Democrat, Norm Mineta, as secretary of transportation.

On closer examination, then, the Bush administration seems more like a stew without a unifying concept. In it float bits of this and bits of that. The foreign policy stock comes from the last Bush administration. The spices are Latin, African-American, and Lebanese. The most dominant ingredient, though, is long-frozen white meat from the Ford administration. In this flavorless category fall Vice President Dick Cheney, who was Ford’s chief of staff and who will now serve as Bush’s prime minister; soon-to-be Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, who was deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget under Ford; and soon-to-be Defense Secretary (again) Donald Rumsfeld. All these Ford alumni in powerful positions raise an interesting question: Has the ‘70s revival just reached Austin? Or is the Era of Wide Lapels back for some other reason?  

Since leaving Washington in 1977, Ford has served mostly as a punch line. To many minds, “Gerald R. Ford” is a synonym for dullness on par with the term “Canadian” or “health food.” More charitably, the Ford Years, 1974-76, were a period when what was happening in Washington was far less compelling than what was happening in American society as a whole. The historian protagonist of John Updike’s 1992 novel, Memories of the Ford Administration, remembers it as a time of personal turmoil, mass cultural mediocrity, and sexual excess. Asked to record his recollections of Ford for an academic journal, Alfred Clayton can’t remember much beyond occasional news bulletins about crazy women trying to assassinate him. “For that matter, was there ever a Ford administration?” he wonders. “Evidence for its existence seems to be scanty.” Ford’s dullness as president was matched only by his dullness as an ex-president: a quarter-century of golf and Barbara Walters interviews in which even he doesn’t seem to remember much about the Ford administration. 

Beyond the potential for disengagement and mediocrity, what else might the Bush presidency have in common with the Ford presidency? One obvious point of comparison is its inadvertent quality. Ford was our most accidental president, the only one never elected at all. This lack of legitimacy was compounded by Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon, which may in retrospect have been a defensible, even a wise act, but which Ford never really overcame. Based on his actions in the Florida recount, Bush might come to be regarded as a similarly flukish transition figure, or perhaps as a passive steward during a necessary period of “healing” after scandal and strife. Also like Bush, Ford was seen as something of a numbskull. (Lyndon B. Johnson said he played too many football games without his helmet on.) In popular culture, he survives in Chevy Chase’s parody as a klutz. In the same way, Bush’s verbal clumsiness seems destined to become a leitmotif, if not the chief motif, of his presidency. 

Given these unavoidable, unhappy comparisons, why has Bush opted to underscore them by bringing back so much of the Ford team? His doing so seems less a conscious choice than the result of consciously avoiding other choices. First of all, Bush wanted to resist what would have been viewed as a restoration of the first Bush administration. So while he will rely on father’s foreign policy advisers, namely Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, he has steered away from the alumni of Dad’s less successful efforts in economic and domestic policy. Second, Bush has navigated away from the Reagan administration, eschewing cold warriors at defense, supply-siders at treasury, and voucherizers at education. The reason for this is equally apparent. Like his father, Bush is not an ideologue and doesn’t fancy being surrounded by true believers. Moreover, there is the old Bush-Reagan family feud, which prompted George H.W. himself to recruit heavily from Ford U (Cheney, James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, Richard Darman). Finally, the Bush adviser most plugged in to Washington was Cheney, whose own executive branch connections date from the last days of disco.

But while the Ford revival may be largely accidental, I think there are some other telling affinities. Like both Bushes, Ford was a pragmatic politician. He was a mainstream Republican, picked as vice president because of a demonstrated ability to negotiate compromise. This was an important skill in the GOP of the mid-1970s, composed as it was of factions in uneasy equilibrium. Ford’s political mission was to steer a course between liberal Republicans, represented by Nelson Rockefeller, and the nascent New Right movement, soon to be led by Ronald Reagan. Ford basically failed at this task. He played well enough with liberals but couldn’t contain a conservative rebellion over his policy of détente with the Soviet Union and the Panama Canal Treaty. Ford nearly lost the 1976 nomination to Reagan, did lose the election to Carter, and lived to see the right take over the Republican Party in 1980.

Bush faces what looks at this stage like an easier version of Ford’s challenge. Liberal Republicans are fewer than in Ford’s day, though in a closely divided Congress, they may hold the balance of power. The religious right is less energetic than it was in the 1980s, and there’s a sense that the movement’s moment has passed. At the same time, conservatives expect to cash the checks they wrote Bush during the campaign. A flexible figure, Bush seems ideally positioned to keep the GOP unified and functional. Whether his presidency will matter much is another question. Twenty-five years from now, will we find ourselves asking, was there ever a second Bush administration?