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Former President Ford’s Death Marks End of Political Era

December 29, 2006 at 6:40 PM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: And to the analysis of Shields and Lowry, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and National Review editor Rich Lowry. David Brooks is off.

And, Mark, this week the death of a man who aspired to be speaker of the House and never knew what hit him, it seemed.

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, he’s an amazing man. I do believe that; I don’t use the term loosely.

It was said of another Midwesterner who became — and quintessential Midwesterner, who became an accidental president, Harry Truman. He was comfortable being Jerry Ford. He liked being Jerry Ford. He never thought of being anybody else but Jerry Ford.

Upon reflection, that’s probably a pretty good litmus test for anybody who seeks to sit in the Oval Office.

I always thought he was the most emotionally healthy former president, if not president, I ever met or covered, in the sense that most presidents, Ray, spend an extraordinary amount of time — Bill Clinton probably began in the third grade around recess, I think — thinking about becoming president.

But they devote so much of themselves and their time, when they do leave that office, eventually, there’s a gaping hole in their psyche. And with Jerry Ford, that wasn’t the case. He did want to be speaker of the House.

When the Republicans didn’t win a majority in the 1972 Nixon landslide, he confided to his friend, Tip O’Neill, across the — he told Betty that he was going to serve until ’76 and then he was out of there. And it was O’Neill and Mansfield and Carl Albert who told Richard Nixon he was the most confirmable of all the possibilities to succeed Spiro Agnew, who, of course, had resigned in disgrace.

And I just think that history will be enormously kind to him, because, after Watergate and Vietnam and the incredible tensions and ugliness in this country, I mean Jerry Ford did — he did heal the wounds of the nation.

RAY SUAREZ: Rich Lowry, is the Jerry Ford-type of Republican still very much in evidence on the national scene?

RICH LOWRY, Editor, National Review: No. You know, Jerry Ford was a transitional figure, and he won that primary battle in 1976 against Ronald Reagan technically, but he really lost it, because the center of gravity of American conservatism in the Republican Party was steadily moving out of the Midwest, you know, to points further south and further west.

And as a colleague of mine pointed out this week, if you look at the primaries that Reagan won, with the exception of California, the primaries he won in 1976, they’re all the so-called red states now. And Reagan did well in those states where there are a lot of new Republicans.

And even in that convention…

RAY SUAREZ: And a lot of new people, because the population axis of the country…

RICH LOWRY: Were growing, right, which…

RAY SUAREZ: … is swinging that way, too.

RICH LOWRY: … which helped give the Republican Party such an advantage in recent presidential politics. But even in that convention that year, Ford’s people thought Jerry Ford gave one of the best speeches of his life.

But he graciously and spontaneously asked Reagan to come up to the podium, and Reagan eclipsed him. And there’s a feeling in the hall, “Jeez, we nominated the wrong guy.” And, of course, Reagan would get it in 1980.

Hindsight on Nixon's pardon

Rich Lowry
National Review
Politically he should have laid the groundwork for it [Nixon's pardon] better than he did. He sprang it on the American public, and he paid a real price for that. But it was a wise and necessary decision.

RAY SUAREZ: How does the pardon look 32 years on?

RICH LOWRY: I think it looks good. You know, you can quibble with some of the details.

Certainly, politically he should have laid the groundwork for it better than he did. He sprang it on the American public, and he paid a real price for that. But it was a wise and necessary decision.

I believe that this would have had a banana republic feel, I think, to have a former president caught up in legal proceedings.

And as Mark points out, it's one of the ways that history has been kind to Jerry Ford, because few people would have guessed at the time that the public would swing around eventually and he would even, you know, get a Profile in Courage Award precisely for having made that call to pardon Nixon.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Mark, one thing that Jerry Ford did -- you remember well -- is he actually, as a sitting president, went and testified on the Hill about delivering that pardon.

And one of his inquisitors, Elizabeth Holtzman, said this week that she felt that a culture of impunity was put in place by that pardon, that before we knew what the charges were, Richard Nixon was already going to escape punishment.

Instead of letting the system play out short of a trial -- so that at least we would know what he was being pardoned for -- in effect, we never knew what kind of goods investigators were going to have on the man who had really lied for years to the country.

MARK SHIELDS: I respectfully dissent, on this basis, that because of the tapes, because of disclosures, because of the papers that were revealed, both contemporaneously and since Richard Nixon's departure, and the enormous disgrace attached to resigning the presidency, that nobody today seriously suggests that he was railroaded in any way from the White House.

And I think that it's become fairly clear what the sins were, what the crimes were, that we don't know specific details, perhaps. I mean, enough of his own people that he appointed did do jail time; the fact that he didn't perhaps seems unfair to them.

But he did -- he is the only president in our history -- that's an enormous disgrace to carry with him in perpetuity.

I just did want to point out one thing on Rich's point about the pardon, and that was through the eyes of Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, who was a friend of Jerry Ford's. And he said Jerry Ford called him on that morning, Sept. 8, 1974.

Tip had just gotten back from church. And he picks up the phone, and he says, "Hello, Tip? It's Jerry." And he says, "Jerry who?" And he said, in all the dozens of calls he'd ever had from presidents in the White House, it had always been a staff or a White House operator. "Could you hold please for the president?" He said, "Jerry Ford."

And he said, "I want to tell you something about what I'm going to do." And he just said -- he said to him, he said, "Jerry, you've just killed your chances for re-election." And that was of no concern to him, to Ford.

And he said -- he just added, Ray, that he asked him, he said, "Jerry, there hasn't been any deal, has there?" He says, "You have my word, there was no deal." And I still think to this day there wasn't a deal. Maybe I'm naive.

President Ford's views on Iraq

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
One little item to give him credit for. Prior to Jerry Ford, no incumbent president debated his challenger... Because of Jerry Ford, every incumbent president since has had to debate and will have to debate.

RAY SUAREZ: One deal that Gerald Ford did make was with reporter Bob Woodward, setting his own death as an embargo. He gave an interview and he said, among other things, "I don't think, if I had been president, on the basis of the facts I saw publicly, I don't think I would have ordered the Iraq war. I would have maximized our effort through sanctions, through restrictions, whatever, to find another answer."

He goes on to say, "I can understand the theory of wanting to free people." But the former president said he was skeptical "whether you can detach that from the obligation number one, of what's in our national interest, and I don't think we should go hellfire damnation around the globe freeing people unless it is directly related to our own national security."

Now this is a president, Rich Lowry, who was always an internationalist, but seems to be counseling restraint here.

RICH LOWRY: Sure. Well, first of all, there's a little ambiguity on Iraq, because there's another interview that Tom DeFrank of the New York Daily News wrote up that suggested President Ford supported the Iraq war. But the first part of that statement about he wouldn't have launched the invasion is pretty unambiguous.

It doesn't surprise me, a more moderate and more cautious politician than George W. Bush. And the last part of it about our national interest, you know, should be paramount, I don't think President Bush disagrees with that necessarily, but I do think he's let some of the poetic flourishes in his speeches suggest that he doesn't. And I think that's been a mistake.

One thing about the whole Ford retrospective, I think in the White House there's probably been a very interesting and hopeful reaction to the way Gerald Ford has been regarded. Because if you talk to President Bush about his legacy, he always says, "Let's talk about it 40 or 50 years from now."

So he's probably heartened by the way Jerry Ford, who when he was president was portrayed as clumsy, as kind of a dolt, an obstructionist when it came to Congress, is now actually being hailed as a wise and courageous leader, and President Bush hopes decades from now something similar will happen with him.

RAY SUAREZ: Mark, quickly, what did you make of those Ford remarks on the war?

MARK SHIELDS: I think they were totally consistent with Jerry Ford, with what he stood for. I mean, I think that, consistent with his brand of Republicanism, it's what he was criticized for, to some degree, in the '76 campaign with Ronald Reagan, for being a realist or traditionalist in foreign policy.

One little item to give him credit for. Prior to Jerry Ford, no incumbent president debated his challenger. We'd only had one presidential debate, Kennedy-Nixon.

Nixon refused to debate. Lyndon Johnson refused to debate. Because of Jerry Ford, every incumbent president since has had to debate and will have to debate.

The next stage in Iraq policy

Rich Lowry
National Review
We're also getting indications there will be more, a different kind of push for economic aid and reconstruction to Iraq, and a further push on the political front.

RAY SUAREZ: This week, there were talks, down in Crawford, Texas, between President Bush and key advisers. What do you see coming out of that, Rich?

RICH LOWRY: Well, I think there's going to be some sort of troop surge into Baghdad. It remains to be seen, though, how big it is and how long it will be.

I think that notion of a temporary surge which we hear about is something of an illusion. If you're going to do this, you have to do it bigger rather than smaller, and you have to do it for a longer period of time. We're talking 18 or 24 months.

But Bush is headed in that direction in some form or another. We're also getting indications there will be more, a different kind of push for economic aid and reconstruction to Iraq, and a further push on the political front.

So I hope what we're seeing here is a real, a classic counterinsurgency strategy that's coming from the top, from President Bush, with its foundation being the indispensable aspect of any counterinsurgency campaign, which is security to the population, which is what we have not provided for the last three or four years.

RAY SUAREZ: But, Mark, if you listen to what Rich says and look at some of the comments this week, it sounds like that prescription -- a small, intermediate surge -- will not make the pro-build-up people happy or the people who want to start drawing down. It's designed to make no one happy.

MARK SHIELDS: Rich may be right, but I have to confess I'm mystified. I mean, George W. Bush beat John Kerry in 2004 in large part -- when voters were asked why they were voting for him, that he was forceful, decisive, resolute.

Here we have, since the election -- Nov. 7th, he fired Don Rumsfeld the next day. And now we're approaching two months of this sort of agonizing in public, the great decider having a non-resolution meeting at Crawford, Texas.

As Americans are dying in the field, there's this sense of drift in our policy. I really think, whatever the president comes up with, this has to -- it's his last shot to get American public opinion.

And he's got to swing it in his direction, because it's continuing to erode almost on an hourly basis. And it better be not only convincing, plausible, but it better show results in rather short order, or I think the president's going to lose all his standing in the country.

Top news of 2006

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
The two great rules of Washington scandals are it is not simply the act or transgression that gets you in trouble. It's inevitably the cover-up of it. That's rule one. And rule two is everybody forgets rule one.

RAY SUAREZ: It's the last Friday night of the year. Some quick, quick picks on top news stories of this past year?

RICH LOWRY: Well, I was dividing them up into lowlights and highlights. And from where I'm sitting, there are a lot more lowlights this year.

RAY SUAREZ: Top two?

RICH LOWRY: Well, the firing of Rumsfeld was one. He deserved to go, but it just showed how behind the curve Bush was on Iraq. It was the prelude to this really low ebb of irresolution and uncertainty on Iraq policy that Mark referred to.

And then kind of a tabloid story, the Duke lacrosse case. The D.A. down there, I think, who exploited that case, which I think is entirely bogus, to get re-elected has just been a disgrace to prosecutors everywhere.

RAY SUAREZ: A lot more to run in that story, too.

Quickly, Mark.

MARK SHIELDS: Ray, the two great rules of Washington scandals are it is not simply the act or transgression that gets you in trouble. It's inevitably the cover-up of it. That's rule one.

And rule two is everybody forgets rule one. And that's exactly what happened to the House Republican leadership in the Mark Foley thing. And I think that's a perfect example of a lowlight of the year.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, happy New Year to you both.

RICH LOWRY: Thanks so much.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.