Jerry Ford's relevance in 2012

Oct 28, 2012 By Mark Shields

Because most U.S. presidents only reach that highest office after years, often a lifetime, of scheming, dreaming and toiling to get there, Gerald R. Ford may well have been unique.

As a congressman from Grand Rapids, Mich., Jerry Ford had a much different, if unrealistic, ambition: He wanted to be elected Republican speaker of the U.S. House.

Because House Republicans from 1954 to 1994, including the eight years Jerry Ford was their leader, were in the minority, the House speakers were all Democrats.

But just eight months after his congressional colleagues voted for him to replace the disgraced and resigned Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, Jerry Ford, on Aug. 9, 1974, succeeded the resigned and disgraced Richard M. Nixon and became the 38th U.S. president.

During my 50 years in Washington, no one more emotionally secure than Jerry Ford has sat in the White House. Let me tell you about Jerry Ford's emotional security.

Only three months before Election Day 1976, and after barely surviving a costly, year-long challenge from the party's most charismatic figure, Ronald Reagan, Ford actually trailed the Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter by 33 percent in polls. Because 1 percentage point equaled just over 815, 000 votes in 1976, this meant Ford trailed Carter by nearly 27 million votes. In the greatest comeback in U.S. political history, President Ford came within a switch of only 12,886 votes in Ohio and Mississippi from winning re-election.

That near-miracle comeback had been led by an exceptional campaign team that included the media duo of John Deardourff and Doug Bailey, campaign chairman Jim Baker, strategist Stu Spencer and pollster Bob Teeter, who had discovered from surveys that when Ford had personally campaigned in the primaries, Ford's national numbers had fallen.

It was the shrewd Spencer who, in a small White House meeting, bluntly told Ford: "Mr. President, you are a very good president. But as a campaigner, you're no (expletive deleted) good."

Ford, according to eyewitnesses, grimaced, but then smiled. As House party leader, he had campaigned nationally for his colleagues, but he accepted the judgment of his team -- and thus was born the Rose Garden strategy, where Jerry Ford by being president full-time would run for re-election.

Tell me, can you think of any other president, including the incumbent, who could encourage and accept such brutal honesty from his staff or anyone else?

Jerry Ford also sought and heeded the wise counsel of Bryce Harlow, whose White House presence and good judgment were valued by every Republican president from Ike until Reagan -- and a lot of Democrats, as well. I

t was Harlow who told me of the danger of the White House "bubble" and how it can isolate a president.

Here are his words: "There is no bigger problem for any president than his never getting to hear honest criticism. The problem is the office itself.

I cannot count how many powerful congressional chairmen and captains of industry and university presidents who have told me: 'If I could only have five minutes alone with the president, I could show him the error of his ways and straighten out what he's doing.

Then when the chairman or the CEO is ushered into the Oval Office, without exception, the fiercest critic melts into the fawning flatterer, mumbling, 'You're doing a great job, Mr. President; our prayers are with you.'"

After watching the incumbent chief executive's uninspired and uninspiring performance in the first debate with Mitt Romney, you can only wonder if President Barack Obama would seek or welcome the sort of unvarnished candor Stu Spencer provided, which President Ford so valued.

Does the president even know how much he needs it?


Editor's note: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields is a former Marine who appears regularly on "Newshour" on PBS.

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