The Changing of the Guard
Gerald Rudolph Ford was an uncomplicated man tapped by destiny for some of the most complicated tasks in the nation's history. The first nonelected President, he was called to heal the nation's wounds after a decade in which the Vietnam War and Watergate had produced the most severe divisions since the Civil War. As different as possible from the driven personalities who typically propel themselves into the highest office, Gerald Ford restored calm and confidence to a nation surfeited with upheavals, overcame a series of international crises, and ushered in a period of renewal for American society.
A year before his inauguration, it would not have occurred to Ford that he was about to be thrust into the presidency. The highest office to which he had ever aspired was that of Speaker of the House of Representatives, and that had appeared out of reach because of the Democratic Party's apparently invulnerable majority in Congress. Ford had, in fact, decided to retire after the next election in November 1974. Suddenly, in October 1973, Richard Nixon appointed him Vice President in the wake of Spiro Agnew's resignation. "I'm a Ford, not a Lincoln," Ford said modestly when he assumed that responsibility on December 6, 1973.
Having never felt obliged to participate in the obsessive calculations of normal presidential candidates, Ford was at peace with himself. To a world concerned lest America's domestic torment impair its indispensable leadership during what was still the height of the Cold War, he provided a sense of restored purpose. On his own people, Ford's matter-of-fact serenity bestowed the precious gift of enabling the generations that followed to remain blissfully unaware of how close to disaster their country had come in a decade of tearing itself apart.
The ever-accelerating pace of history threatens to consume memory. Even those of us who experienced firsthand the disintegration of the Nixon Administration find ourselves struggling to reconstruct the sense of despair that suffused the collapsing presidency and the sinking feeling evoked by seemingly endless revelations of misconduct, by the passionate hostility of the media, and by the open warfare between the executive and legislative branches of our government.
In my dual role of National Security Adviser and Secretary of State, my constant nightmare as Watergate accelerated was that, sooner or later, some foreign adversary might be tempted to test what remained of Nixon's authority and discover that the emperor had no clothes. Probably the greatest service rendered by the Nixon Administration in those strange and turbulent final months was to have prevented any such overt challenge. For even as it approached dissolution, the Nixon Administration managed to navigate the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, diminish the Soviet position in the Middle East by sponsoring two disengagement agreements, and conduct successfully a complicated triangular diplomacy with Moscow and Beijing.
The disintegration of executive authority in the democratic superpower did not lead to a collapse of our international position as any standard textbook on world politics would have predicted, partly because the sheer magnitude of the disintegration of presidential authority was unimaginable to friend and adversary alike. Together with the prestige Nixon had accumulated over five years of foreign policy successes, we were able to sustain what came close to a policy of bluff. In October 1973 at the end of the Middle East War, it even saw us through an alert of our military forces, including of the nuclear arsenal. But with every passing month, the sleight of hand grew more difficult. We were living on borrowed time.
As the impeachment proceedings gathered momentum, Nixon's personal conduct began to mirror his political decline. He kept fully abreast of the various foreign policy issues and at no point failed to make the key decisions. But, as time went on, Watergate absorbed more and more of Nixon's intellectual and emotional capital. As day-to-day business became trivialized by the increasingly apparent inevitability of his downfall, I felt enormous sympathy for this tormented man whose suffering was compounded by his knowledge that his tragedy was largely self-inflicted. Yet by early July 1974, I, like the other few survivors of Nixon's entourage, was so drained by the emotional roller coaster that I was half hoping for some merciful end to it all.
The brutal process of attrition seemed both endless and incapable of being ended. Even when, on July 24, the Supreme Court ordered the White House tapes to be turned over to the special prosecutor, I was so inured to daily crises that I doubted anything conclusive would emerge. On July 25, I escorted the new German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher to the summer White House at San Clemente for a meeting with the President. After an hour with a ravaged-looking Richard Nixon the next day, Genscher asked the question tormenting me as well: "How long can this go on?"
On July 31, Al Haig, then Nixon's chief of staff, requested an urgent meeting during which he informed me that one of the tapes the Supreme Court had ordered to be turned over to the special prosecutor was indeed the long-sought "smoking gun" -- the conclusive proof of Nixon's participation in the cover-up. Haig would not divulge the contents.
Even at the edge of the precipice, the surreal aspect of Watergate continued. The White House decided to release the tape on August 5 in order to be able to put its own "spin" on it. The day before, my friend Diane Sawyer -- at the time, assistant to Nixon's press secretary, Ron Ziegler, and now a national television personality -- came to my office to check some public relations detail on an unrelated foreign policy matter. She had not heard the tape, she said, but she was beginning to believe that a climax would never come and that we were doomed to bleed to death slowly. "As likely as not," she said, "the tape will be drowned out by the background noise."
Clever, beautiful Diane turned out to be wrong. On the tape, Nixon was clearly heard instructing his chief of staff, H. R. "Bob" Haldeman, to use the CIA to thwart an FBI investigation into the Watergate burglary. This proof of an attempted obstruction of justice provided the catharsis for the Watergate affair. I have elsewhere described in detail the outburst that followed its release -- the Cabinet revolt, the decision of senior Republicans to abandon the President, and my meetings with Nixon, including the melancholy encounter in the Lincoln Sitting Room on his next-to-last night in the White House -- all of it culminating in Nixon's decision forty-eight hours later to resign, effective at noon on August 9. In these pages, I will confine myself to my interaction with the President-to-Be, Gerald R. Ford.
On the morning of the tape's release, Nixon telephoned with a bizarre request: would I call the Vice President and ask him to invite key southern members of Congress to a briefing by me on foreign policy? Nixon did not explain his purpose, but obviously he thought it might persuade these representatives to vote against impeachment.
I had first met Gerald Ford some ten years before when, as a Harvard professor, I invited him to address a seminar on defense policy I was conducting under the joint auspices of the Harvard Law School and the Graduate School of Public Administration (now the John F. Kennedy School of Government). Ford discussed congressional control of the defense budget, a subject he knew well from his service as the ranking Republican on the Defense Subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations. Although (and perhaps because) his presentation was delivered in the unassuming style of Grand Rapids rather than the convoluted jargon of the academic world, he left an extremely favorable impression on students who, in the prevailing atmosphere of the incipient anti-Vietnam protest, were anything but benevolently disposed toward advocates of a strong defense.
After I became Nixon's National Security Adviser, Ford, in his capacity as Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, attended occasional White House briefings. His interventions were sensible, supportive, and good-humored. For the eight months of his vice presidency, Ford conducted himself with dignity and loyalty to the President. He remained aloof from Watergate controversies and displayed no designs on the highest office. Roughly once a month, I would brief him about major foreign policy developments. General Brent Scowcroft, then my deputy, saw him more frequently. Ford would limit himself to asking clarifying questions -- the appropriate course of conduct for a Vice President, who, since he has no clear-cut area of responsibility, should make any suggestions he may have directly to the President and not to a subordinate.
I have never asked Ford what went through his mind when I called him on that fateful morning of August 5 with Nixon's request that he invite the southern congressmen to a foreign policy briefing. And he has never volunteered a comment. By then, we now know, a small group to advise him on the inevitable transition had already been formed. Did he think I was trying to bring myself to his attention? Did he believe Nixon was seeking to embarrass him? Whatever he may have thought, Ford played it straight. He would do what the President asked, he said, but -- demonstrating that he had seen through Nixon's stratagem -- he added that it would have little influence on the impeachment vote (which I had not mentioned). Matters had gone too far; foreign policy issues would not affect the decision of the House of Representatives.
The tape having been released, Ford took the unprecedented step on August 6 of dissociating from the President at a Cabinet meeting. He would no longer defend the President's position on Watergate, he said, and indeed he would not have done so in the past had he known what was on the tape. Publicly he would maintain silence on the matter on the ground that he was a "party in interest" -- pointedly reminding everyone that he was next in line for Nixon's office. But Ford stressed that even though he was dissociating from the President, he would continue to support Nixon's policies:
Everyone here recognizes the difficult position I'm in. No one regrets more than I do this whole tragic episode. I have deep personal sympathy for you, Mr. President, and your fine family. But I wish to emphasize that had I known what has been disclosed in reference to Watergate in the last twenty-four hours, I would not have made a number of the statements I made either as Minority Leader or as Vice President. I came to a decision yesterday and you may be aware that I informed the press that because of commitments to Congress and the public, I'll have no further comment on the issue because I'm a party in interest. I'm sure there will be impeachment in the House. I can't predict the Senate outcome. I will make no comment concerning this. You have given us the finest foreign policy this country has ever had. A super job, and the people appreciate it. Let me assure you that I expect to continue to support the Administration's foreign policy and the fight against inflation.
I did not speak with Ford at that meeting or, indeed, until Nixon had decided to resign. It was now certain that Ford would become President. In that turbulent week of Nixon's resignation, I had no time to speculate on how it would affect my own position. Before I could address the subject, Ford took the decision out of my hands by telephoning me on the morning of August 8 after Nixon had informed him of his plans to resign. Ford asked me to come to see him and, in his unassuming way, left the time up to me. In the course of the same conversation, he asked me to stay on and in a way that made it sound as if I would be doing him a favor by agreeing. The conversation went as follows:
- FORD: Good morning.
- KISSINGER: Mr. Vice President.
- FORD: How are you, Henry?
- KISSINGER: Fine.
- FORD: I just finished talking with the President, and he gave me his decision, and we spent about an hour and twenty minutes over there. During the course of the conversation, he indicated that you were the only one in the Cabinet with whom he had shared his decision.
- KISSINGER: That is right.
- FORD: I would hope we could get together sometime this afternoon at your convenience. I have no plans other than to start getting ready.
- KISSINGER: Would 3:00 suit you, Mr. Vice President?
- FORD: That would be fine, Henry. I would appreciate it very much and whatever your schedule is -- mine is totally flexible.
- KISSINGER: After the President talked to me yesterday, I prepared some tentative suggestions for your consideration. Might I bring those along?
- FORD: Absolutely.
- KISSINGER: They are things that need to be done in the next two days.
- FORD: I will be delighted to see you and bring anything along that you want, Henry.
- KISSINGER: Right. One other technical thing. Can we say to the press that I am coming over to see you, or had you rather announce that? It is not particularly necessary. We can just avoid it altogether.
- FORD: I see no reason why you can't say that you are coming over to see me. I see no harm in that.
- KISSINGER: We would not say anything else.
- FORD: I think it important actually that it be announced -- so announce it, Henry.
- KISSINGER: I think from the foreign policy point of view it would have a calming effect.
- FORD: Why don't you state it or have it released and in any way that you think would be helpful? Don't hesitate to embellish it.
- KISSINGER: I think the best thing, if you agree, is to say you have called me, and you have asked me to come to see you, and I am coming to see you at 3:00.
- FORD: Very good, Henry.
- KISSINGER: I pray for you, and you know the whole world depends on you, Mr. Vice President.
- FORD: I know that, Henry, and I will talk to you more about it. As I have inferred in our previous conversations, I really want you to stay and stand with me in these difficult times.
- KISSINGER: You can count on me, Mr. Vice President. We will have a chance to talk about it.
- FORD: I wanted to get that in now so there is no doubt about it.
- KISSINGER: I am very, very appreciative of your thoughtfulness in mentioning it.
- FORD: We will see you at 3:00 then.
Dramatic events are not always ushered in by dramatic dialogue. As I reread this conversation from the perspective of two decades, I am struck by its matter-of-fact tone and concerns. At the time, I was affected by the understated way in which Ford conveyed Nixon's decision which would make him President, without rhetorical flourishes and without mentioning the emotional impact on himself. And I was moved by his tact in so swiftly putting an end to any personal uncertainty I might be experiencing.
The atmosphere of the conversation carried over into our meeting that afternoon. It took place in the Vice President's large office in the Old Executive Office Building, which, before World War II, had been assigned to the Secretary of the Navy. This gingerbread edifice is physically separated from the White House by a narrow passageway incongruously named West Executive Avenue and much more so by the nearly unbridgeable chasm of difference in actual power. As a general rule, the policymakers have offices in the White House; supporting staffs are installed in the Old Executive Office Building. In that respect, the location of the Vice President's office accurately reflects his real power.
In less bureaucratic times -- until 1947 -- the Old Executive Office Building used to house the State Department as well as the Army and Navy Departments earlier. Each of these alone would today overflow its patrician corridors. No building in Washington has offices better calculated to stimulate reflection. The ceilings are high, the proportions vast by contemporary standards. The larger offices have exterior balconies, many with views of the White House lawn.
During my meeting with Ford in the afternoon of August 8, I sat on a sofa near the balcony, Ford on an easy chair with his back to the window. He seemed casual and calm, neither grandiloquent nor pretentiously humble. He opened the conversation by saying that he intended to announce even before he had taken the oath of office -- in fact, that very evening -- that I would be staying. Ford added that he had felt comfortable with me ever since our first meeting at Harvard. Artlessly, he added that he felt confident we would "get along." I replied that it was my job to get along with him, not the other way around.
With this, we turned to the practical problems of the transition. To avoid confusion abroad, it was important to establish a sense of continuity in our foreign policy, at least for an interim period until the new President could determine what changes, if any, he wished to make. To this end, I had brought along a transition plan, the essential feature of which was to put before every government around the world a personal presidential message. In addition, I recommended that the new President meet with all the ambassadors accredited to Washington so that they could report their personal impressions to their governments. These two steps were designed to prevent the various capitals from basing their initial judgments on rumor and speculation. Since it was physically impossible to see each ambassador individually, I proposed that Ford meet them in regional groups, allotting about an hour to each. The first group would be NATO ambassadors, followed by Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Since the nations of Northeast Asia did not fit any grouping, and since Japan was an indispensable ally and China a key element in our triangular diplomacy, I recommended that their diplomatic representatives be received individually. (Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador, was on home leave; he would be received as soon as he returned.) Finally, there would be separate meetings with the ambassadors of South Korea and South Vietnam -- two countries on behalf of which American blood had been shed. Their ultimate safety depended on making sure that their adversaries understood the new President's commitment to their security.
Ford took some time to look over the various documents. He invited John O. "Jack" Marsh, Jr., a longtime associate whom he was to appoint counselor, to join our meeting. After some desultory discussion, Ford agreed to the draft letters and to the meetings with the ambassadors. He demurred only when I handed him another document listing outstanding commitments, including some sensitive understandings with other governments. One of these had not yet been implemented and was, in fact, somewhat ambiguous. I told Ford that, if he felt uncomfortable with it, I could delay carrying it out: "They will blame me, not you," I said. But passing the buck was not a trait of this President-to-Be: "No, I will make that decision," Ford said.
Perhaps the most lasting impact of that first conversation was its aftermath. For the first time since I came to the White House, I left the presidential presence without afterthoughts, confident that there was no more to the conversation than what I had heard. Nixon was one of the most gifted of American Presidents, prepared to make tough decisions and courageous in doing so. But he needed solitude for such an act. Face-to-face, Nixon was obsessively incapable of overruling an interlocutor or even disagreeing with him, as I shall elaborate in a subsequent chapter. Since one could never be certain that Nixon might not undo what he appeared to have just decided, wariness occasionally verging on paranoia prevailed among his entourage.
With Ford, what one saw was what one got. Starting with that first meeting, I never encountered a hidden agenda. He was sufficiently self-assured to disagree openly, and he did not engage in elaborate maneuvers about who should receive credit. Having been propelled so unexpectedly into an office he revered but never thought he would hold, he felt no need to manipulate his environment. Ford's inner peace was precisely what the nation needed for healing its divisions.
The New President
The morning of August 9, 1974, witnessed one of the most dramatic moments in American history. At 9:30 in the East Room of the White House, President Nixon bade farewell to his staff, culminating the greatest rupture of the American domestic consensus since the Civil War. At 12:03 that same day, in the same room, Gerald R. Ford was sworn in as the thirty-eighth President of the United States. The seats had been rearranged so that when Ford spoke, he was facing in a different direction than Nixon had, symbolizing a new beginning.
Nixon's parting speech was an elegy of anguish. Usually so disciplined, he talked in a rambling, occasionally disjointed manner about the dreams of his youth, about his mother and family, and about the importance of putting into practice Theodore Roosevelt's injunction never to shirk the political arena. Having devoted so much of his effort to self-control all his life, Nixon seemed impelled to put on display the passions and dreams he had publicly suppressed for so long; he even wore glasses for the first time in public. For a staff drained by the unraveling of the presidency, it was almost too much to have to witness -- in this, Nixon's last act as President -- such a baring of the inner self of this anguished figure refusing to admit defeat, even as his life's work was in shambles.
When, two and a half hours later, Gerald Ford took the oath of office, he declared calmly and confidently that "our long national nightmare" was over. And his audience, exhausted by struggling for nearly a year and a half against a premonition of catastrophe and by the emotional wringer of Nixon's parting speech, placed its hopes on this unpretentious man from Grand Rapids into whose hands an extraordinary twist of fate had placed America's destiny.
As it happened, I played a conspicuous if technical role in the two resignations that had made Ford's ascent to the presidency possible. At 11:35 A.M., General Haig handed me Nixon's formal resignation addressed to me in my role as Secretary of State in the National Security Adviser's office at the White House. All presidential appointments are countersigned. by the Secretary of State and, by the same token, resignations of the President and Vice President are made to the Secretary of State as well. This is a vestige of the days when the Founding Fathers had designed that position to include major domestic functions -- somewhat similar to the prime minister in the French Fifth Republic. When the letters of resignation of Spiro Agnew as Vice President on October 10, 1973, and of Richard Nixon as President on August 9, 1974, were formally addressed to me, I achieved what one must hope will remain the permanent record for receiving high-level resignations.
By the time of Agnew's forced resignation, Nixon's original entourage had been decimated, and the remnants were like shipwrecked sailors thrown together on some inaccessible island. In these circumstances, I became privy to the President's ruminations regarding the political choices before him -- a subject matter from which I had previously been excluded. He enunciated three criteria affecting his decision on the new Vice President: who would make the best President, who would be easiest to confirm without provoking further Watergate problems, and who would provide the least incentive for the advocates of impeachment to do away with Nixon.
Of the potential candidates, Nixon considered former Texas Governor and Secretary of the Treasury John B. Connally by far the best qualified for the presidency, with New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller a close second in ability though not in terms of his attractiveness to Nixon. Connally, of whose brash self-confidence Nixon stood in awe and the only person about whom I never heard Nixon make a denigrating comment, would surely have been his first choice had he not been the subject of an investigation (which ultimately led to his indictment). Still confident of surviving Watergate, Nixon wanted to make sure that, despite Connally's obvious handicap, the ultimate vice presidential choice would not blight Connally's prospects for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination -- by which time the latter's legal troubles would presumably be behind him.
Nixon's strong feelings about Connally would have been sufficient to eliminate Rockefeller's prospects even if Nixon could have brought himself to appoint the political adversary of a lifetime. Rockefeller's fatal handicap in Nixon's eyes -- at least the one Nixon stressed to me as Nelson's lifelong friend -- was that Rockefeller's nomination would utterly divide the Republican Party. (Nixon was to say later that he had also considered Ronald Reagan but had rejected him because he could not be confirmed. If so, he never mentioned it to me.)
Through this process of elimination, Gerald Ford emerged as Nixon's choice. He would prove easy to confirm and be, in Nixon's words, an "adequate" Vice President. In addition to being acceptable to Congress, Ford carried another benefit in Nixon's eyes: his lack of experience on the executive level would give Congress pause in any plan to impeach Nixon. On several occasions, the President mused that Congress would not dare to assume responsibility for replacing him with a man who had so little background in international affairs.
As it turned out, the choice of Vice President had no impact on Nixon's impeachment for, by then, Watergate had gathered its own momentum. Ford was nominated on October 13, 1973, and easily confirmed. And his elevation to President ten months later was welcomed with universal relief.
When Ford took the oath of office, no one -- not even the new President -- could know whether he would be equal to the monumental task bequeathed to him. Without any executive experience, he assumed the presidency at a moment as desperate as our nation has known outside of wartime. Lacking a popular mandate and in the wake of the traumas of Vietnam and Watergate, Ford was handed the responsibility for his country's renewal. And Providence smiled on Americans when -- seemingly by happenstance -- it brought forward a President who embodied our nation's deepest and simplest values.
In no other country are personal relations so effortless as in smalltown America; nowhere else is there to be found the same generosity of spirit and absence of malice. The quintessential product of this environment, Gerald Ford performed his task of overcoming America's divisions and redeeming its faith so undramatically and with such absence of histrionics that his achievements have so far been taken far too much for granted. Only very recently have some journalists who used to mock him begun to reevaluate his period in office.
To a great extent, this neglect was because Ford bore so little resemblance to the prototype of the political leader of the Television Age. The media and many of his colleagues were at a loss when it came to fitting him into the familiar stereotypes. The modern presidential candidate ends up making a kind of Faustian bargain: a full-scale national primary campaign costs a minimum of $15 million for television and print media advertising. But the money must be raised within strict limits defined by law. To remain credible, a candidate feels obliged to devote most of his energies for the better part of three years to accumulating a war chest from fragmented and disparate constituencies. In that process, his principal incentive -- approaching an imperative -- is to try to be all things to all people. What starts as a tactic, over the course of the grueling campaign easily and imperceptibly turns into a defining characteristic. National recognition is achieved at the price of nearly compulsive personal insecurity.
The age of the computer and of television has compounded this insecurity. When the visual image replaced the written word as the principal means of understanding the world, the process of learning was transformed from an active to a passive mode, from a participatory act to assimilating predigested data. One learns from books via concepts that relate apparently disparate events to each other and require analytical effort and training. By contrast, pictures teach passively; they evoke impressions which require no act by the viewer, emphasize the mood of the moment, and leave little room for either deductive reasoning or the imagination. Concepts are permanent; impressions are fleeting and in part accidental.
The new technology has fundamentally altered the way in which the modern political candidate perceives his role. The great statesmen of the past saw themselves as heroes who took on the burden of their societies' painful journey from the familiar to the as yet unknown. The modern politician is less interested in being a hero than a superstar. Heroes walk alone; stars derive their status from approbation. Heroes are defined by inner values, stars by consensus. When a candidate's views are forged in focus groups and ratified by television anchorpersons, insecurity and superficiality become congenital. Radicalism replaces liberalism, and populism masquerades as conservatism.
A curious blend of brittleness and flamboyance thus defines the modern political persona: brittleness verging on obsequiousness in the quest for mass approval, flamboyance turning into panic when the public's mood shifts. Far more concerned with what to say than with what to think, the modern political leader too frequently falls to fulfill the role for which he is needed most: to provide the emotional ballast when experience is being challenged by ever-accelerating change. The inability to fulfill these emotional needs lies behind the curious paradox of contemporary democracy: never have political leaders been more abject in trying to determine the public's preferences, yet, in most democracies, respect for the political class has never been lower.
In the United States, the dividing line between the new and old style of politics coincides roughly with the advent of the Kennedy Administration. A young and untested Senator achieved the presidency by eloquence and by his capacity to exploit the still novel medium of television. John F. Kennedy's presidency was too brief to require him to choose between heroism and stardom, or even to be conscious of the choice. Kennedy was able to practice both modes, unintentionally mortgaging the tenure of his immediate successors who fell prey to the illusion that no choice needed to be made.
Lyndon Johnson, well grounded in traditional politics, tore himself apart in his quest for the kind of adulation Kennedy had evoked but which was destined to be beyond reach for a President of Johnson's generation. Immortalized by his untimely death, Kennedy, for his admirers, served as the embodiment of dreams turned legacy. Johnson's vain attempt to play the same role lured him into craving approbation from those who would never accept him.
The case of Nixon proved even more stark. No modern president was more solitary, more studious, or spent so much of his time alone, reading or outlining options on his ubiquitous yellow legal pads. If ever there was a man from out of the age of books, it was Richard M. Nixon. He understood foreign policy better than almost any other practicing political figure of his era. And yet, as the tapes of his conversations and the blizzard of notes emanating from his office are made public, it will become apparent that he spent an exorbitant amount of his time in the hopeless quest to elicit the adulation of those he identified as the Eastern Establishment, of which -- in his mind -- Kennedy had been the superstar.
Nixon's convictions, while firm and -- in foreign policy -- carefully thought out, did not seem able to sustain him unless they resonated not just with public acclaim but with the approval of the classes he admired and despised at the same time. His actions were in the mold of heroes, but Nixon doomed them by a frantic quest for stardom shading into efforts to vindicate his perception of the ruthlessness of his rivals.
Gerald Ford was about as different as possible from what has become the familiar political persona. Having risen through the ranks of his party in the House of Representatives -- a career dependent on day-to-day practical relations with his peers -- Ford was immune to the modern politician's chameleon-like search for ever-new identities and to the emotional roller coaster this search exacts. Far too unassuming to think of himself as heroic, Ford would have been embarrassed had anyone suggested that Providence had imposed on him just such a role.
Cartoonists had great fun with Ford's occasionally fractured syntax. They forgot -- if they were ever aware -- that being articulate is not the same as having analytical skill, which Ford had in abundance. For a national leader, courage and devotion to principle are, in any case, the more important qualities.
Ford was well aware of his relative lack of suavity and, unlike the modern political leader, was not embarrassed to admit it. "I am not one of those oratorical geniuses," he said to me on the telephone on January 15, 1975. "There is no point in my trying to be one. I just have to be myself." A week later, he returned to the subject after a press conference in which he thought he could have done better (a view I did not share). Unlike most political leaders of the Television Age, Ford blamed himself, not the media:
I came away feeling myself it could have been a lot better....I get mad as hell, but I don't show it, when I don't do as well as I think I should....If you don't strive for the best, you never make it.
Ford was always himself, and he always did his best; in the process, he saved the cohesion and dignity of his country.
The Domestic Crisis
During the Watergate period, I sometimes indulged in a fantasy about its end, much as a parched voyager crossing a desert imagines the bliss of a beckoning oasis. For me, it was a moment when international crises would end or at least moderate, and domestic controversy would be replaced by a new national consensus. But as happens occasionally to the desert wanderer, these visions turned into a mirage.
The irony of Ford's presidency was that however much he might dedicate himself to the renewal of his society, the patterns of confrontation that had evolved over a decade could not be eliminated overnight. Indeed, it sometimes seemed as if the United States had become addicted to crises and could not do without the periodic fix of some discovery or investigation. The media had been geared to uncovering large-scale malfeasance; that, at least, is where fame beckoned. And Congress was more concerned with inhibiting executive discretion than with nonpartisan national security policy, or else it identified the two.
In this atmosphere, Ford was never vouchsafed the honeymoon traditionally set aside for new Presidents. From his first day in office, he had to face in several directions at once. International crises have their own momentum, only marginally influenced in the short term by domestic politics. If anything, the attention of the world, momentarily deflected by the drama unfolding in Washington, returned to normalcy and that, in practice, signaled an intensification of foreign challenges.
On Cyprus a precarious cease-fire between Greeks and Turks achieved in the last days of the Nixon administration collapsed on the fourth day of Ford's presidency and threatened to escalate at any moment into military conflict between two indispensable NATO allies. In the very week of Ford's inauguration, the foreign ministers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, and Jordan's King Hussein were preparing to come to Washington to begin exploring the next phase of the Middle East peace process. Their visits could not be delayed because their counterparts from Israel and Jordan had already been received by Nixon in the weeks before the change in the presidency, and postponement would have fueled accusations of deliberate foot-dragging.
On other fronts, the American delegation negotiating strategic arms control with the Soviets required new instructions. Ratification of a trade agreement with the Soviet Union was awaiting the resolution of the conflict between the executive branch and Congress about whether Most Favored Nation status for the Soviet Union should be conditional on the easing of emigration regulations for Soviet Jews.
In addition, other more important -- if less urgent -- issues were waiting for the new President. Perhaps the most fateful challenge to the industrial democracies was their collective demoralization due to the quadrupling of energy prices. Only concerted action could avoid financial panic and political deterioration in Western Europe, and the time had come to begin the process of taking charge of our common future. Sub-Cabinet officials of the industrial democracies were meeting even then to establish an International Energy Agency to enable the countries they represented to conserve energy, share supplies in an emergency, and create a financial safety net if the oil producers should seek to use their huge petrodollar surpluses to pressure the consumers of oil.
Beyond these tactical issues, the conduct of foreign policy in the Ford presidency became especially complex due to a legacy Nixon was wont to call a "new structure of peace." The Cold War was, of course, still in full swing, and the Soviet Union continued to loom as a major threat, menacing in its nuclear potential, maintaining its ideological pretensions, and capable of taking advantage of the domestic divisions of its superpower rival.
The Nixon Administration had systematically sought to change the context of the Cold War. This was not because we had become blind to Soviet ideology; rather we had concluded that the Soviets' ideological reach was collapsing. In two generations of Communist history, no Communist Party had ever won a free election. The only allies of the Soviet Union were in Eastern Europe, and they were being held in line by what amounted to Soviet military occupation. Once our opening to China was completed, the Soviet Union faced a coalition of all the industrial nations in the world in tacit alliance with the most populous nation. Sooner or later this equation would work in favor of the democracies, provided they could contain Soviet adventures by deterrence and give the Soviets a chance to reduce confrontation by opportunities for cooperation.
No new President since Harry S Truman inherited quite the same gamut of foreign policy challenges in his first few weeks in office, and none since Lincoln in so uncongenial a domestic environment. Almost all the contending forces in the United States found it difficult to disenthrall themselves from the internal battles of the past decade. Especially the veterans of the Vietnam protest movement, committed to the proposition that foreign policy was a morality play in which the United States was assigned the role of villain, were nostalgic for the struggles which had been the seminal experience of their lives.
No other society has so conceived itself to be the product of a uniquely moral vision as America's. Freed by geography from the necessities of geopolitics as well as from its temptations, the United States has been permeated by the conviction that political issues -- especially with respect to foreign policy -- could be equated with choices between good and evil. Americans have always perceived their society as in pursuit of perfection in world affairs, rewarded when it fulfills this promise, punished when it falls short. Wilsonianism distilled this conviction into the unprecedented theory that wars are caused not so much by struggles for power as that these struggles reflect domestic moral failings, specifically the degree to which a society falls short of the democratic ideal. In a world of democracies, conflicts would be settled by international law. Alliances would be based on the principle of collective security, which bases defense less on the balance of power than on a coalition of the righteous against the lawless. All these assumptions were being ground down in the stark mountains and lush rice paddies of Vietnam.
In terms of its historic traditions and its values, the United States had entered Indochina for highly moral reasons: the conviction that democratic institutions, being universally applicable, could be transplanted successfully to half of a divided country eight thousand miles away in the midst of a murderous civil war and that the principles which had restored Europe would prove equally applicable to the fledgling politics of Southeast Asia. As these hopes turned into illusions, the American leading classes tore themselves apart. Critics attacked not so much errors of judgment as the validity of American experience. They blamed the mounting frustrations on the failure of the entire political system and on ethical flaws in need of being expurgated root and branch.
So it happened that a majority of the Old Establishment -- the men and women who had set the direction and tone for American foreign policy for a generation -- came to insist on the defeat of their own country in order to purify it. In the 1920s, isolationism had turned the United States inward in the widespread belief that the country was too ethical to expose itself to the imperfections of the world at large. In the course and aftermath of the Vietnam War, isolationism took the form of the proposition that we were too depraved to participate in international politics.
As liberals veered into pacifism, radicalism, and protest, conservatives turned into crusaders. They had heretofore supported the containment policy on traditional American grounds: as a means of transforming the Soviet system to democracy. As containment was collapsing in Southeast Asia, some conservatives were spurred by the national humiliation into an attack not on the protest movement but on the administration the protesters were assaulting and paralyzing. Interpreting the looming defeat as a symbol of America's ideological retreat, they blamed the foreign policy establishment for inadequate moral vigilance and, once the war was safely over, urged a determined assault (at least of the rhetorical kind) on Communism itself and a deliberate policy of confrontation with the Soviet Union.
Traditional conservatives were reinforced by new recruits from the opposite side of the barricades. Rejecting the protest movement's turn toward radicalism, some eminent liberals joined their erstwhile adversaries in the conservative camp. Self-styled "neoconservatives," these were primarily intellectuals who injected into the debate an element of ideological passion well exercised from their previous sectarian battles on the left. They had been on the opposite side of the Vietnam debate and hence gave no credit to Nixon for exertions on behalf of an honorable extrication. Nor had they any experience with the fragility of our domestic consensus, which, in fact, they had done so much to weaken. Hence they felt less restrained to urge new crusades than those of us who, battlescarred by Vietnam and Watergate, sought to stabilize the environment and restore confidence before courting major new confrontations.
Caught in the maelstrom of these conflicting currents, the new Ford Administration found itself a target of criticism from all sides. The reaction to Vietnam and Watergate had polarized the country. Liberals wanted the United States to withdraw from the world and tend to our domestic improvement; conservatives began to clamor for an ideological crusade. In the eyes of the liberals, America's international involvements went too far; for conservatives, the United States was not assertive enough. That debate continued throughout the Ford Administration and underlay most of the confrontations with Congress. It has, in various incarnations, continued to this day.
Ford and Congress
Normally a Vice President acceding to office can count on the support of his own party. But by the time Ford took the oath of office, the Republican Party had first been divided by Vietnam and then demoralized by Watergate. The same was true to a considerable extent on the Democratic side. That Ford had been appointed rather than elected as Vice President and that he would have to stand for reelection within twenty-seven months of coming to office imposed a straitjacket never before faced by a new President. That many in both parties expected him to be defeated in that election was a further blow to presidential authority.
The pressures were compounded because Ford, though shaped by his experiences in Congress and dedicated to close executive-congressional relations, came into office while these relations were undergoing a revolutionary change. In that sense, it was the Ford Administration which paid the ultimate price for Watergate.
In November 1972, Nixon had prevailed with the second-largest landslide in American history in a national election fought on philosophical issues as clearly drawn as any in this century. Neither George McGovern nor Nixon was a charismatic personality. But their substantive disagreements could not have been more explicit: Nixon's strong foreign policy protecting the existing dividing lines in the Cold War against McGovern's neopacifism and distrust of American power; Nixon's moderate conservatism affirming traditional American values against McGovern's tacit endorsement of the lifestyles and ethos of the radical protest movement. Nixon won that de facto referendum by 61 percent of the popular vote.
Within less than a year, Watergate had wiped out the results of that election. It amounted to a revolution no less sweeping for having been made possible by presidential misconduct. Three months after Ford's inauguration, a McGovernite majority representing views overwhelmingly rejected by the American people two years earlier was returned to Congress. This was due far less to a change in the public's fundamental views than to its outraged reaction to Watergate.
The result was a serious decline in relations between the legislative and executive branches. Heretofore chairmen of the Senate and House committees had been the balance wheel between the branches of the government. But the McGovernite upheaval weakened the seniority system and hence the authority of the committee chairmen. This forced the executive branch into direct negotiations with individual Senators and Congressmen. Legislative staffs grew in both size and influence. As the range and magnitude of congressional intervention in foreign policy increased, the capacity of the individual Senator and, even more, of the individual Congressman to keep himself informed diminished. The role of staff advisers was magnified -- a fact which special interest groups quickly recognized and exploited.
A significant proportion of the new staffers had been recruited from the executive branch, where, for one reason or another, they had failed to fulfill their ambitions. From the safe haven of Capitol Hill, they were able to second-guess the administration on an ad hoc basis, free of the constraints of a sense of continuity and of long-term foreign policy perspective that are inseparable from high-level policymaking. The executive branch thus found itself in endless negotiations, both internally and with congressional staffs seeking to influence the most minute tactical detail of policy.
Paradoxically, Congress felt more free to challenge Ford than it had Nixon. For a while, Watergate had constrained congressional challenges to foreign policy because some of Nixon's critics feared being deflected from their quarry by the charge of weakening national security. More importantly, Congress was restrained during the later part of Watergate by genuine patriotism -- a sense of responsibility lest the national tragedy tempt foreign adversaries to foment a major crisis.
Nixon's resignation seemed to still these concerns. A collective mania for ever more sweeping investigations descended over Congress, of which the intelligence investigations were the most sensational, exposing every covert operation in which the United States had engaged during a period of over twenty years. These consumed an exorbitant amount of time of the top officials of the Ford Administration in servicing the committees and in agreeing on how to deal with classified documents.
In this new atmosphere, Congress felt more free to legislate specific policies than it ever had before. However virulent congressional opposition had been to the Vietnam War, Congress had confined its critique to "sense of the Congress" resolutions, which are not obligatory. But in the twenty-nine months of the Ford Administration, Congress legislated an arms embargo on Turkey, cut off aid to Cambodia and eviscerated it for Vietnam, and legislated a prohibition against any military role in Angola. The micromanagement went so far that, at one point, Congress voted antiaircraft missiles for Jordan only on the condition that they be in fixed positions. (The refusal of wheels was more humiliating than meaningful because, as King Hussein pointed out at the time, it was an easy matter to acquire such wheels in the markets of the Arab world.)
Ford and the National Interest
Ford reacted to the seemingly inexhaustible volume of challenges without either self-pity or doubt about the good faith of his political adversaries. Liberal critics were urging confrontations on human rights, and neoconservatives were celebrating their recent conversion by urging a new, nonelected President to precipitate a series of showdowns with the Soviet Union at a moment when Soviet policy was still relatively restrained and Congress was gutting the defense budget.
Ford viewed his role not unlike that of a doctor ministering to a patient just recovering from a debilitating illness. He therefore resisted demands for exhausting posturing and prescribed a regimen of building and conserving strength. He judged the patient's challenge to be in the nature of a marathon race, and he would not allow him to dissipate his strength in a series of sprints designed for the gallery. And he was reinforced in this attitude because Congress had just legislated cuts in the 1974 defense budget, necessitating a reduction of ready Air Force wings and causing a deterioration of naval readiness. The Army had been cut by five divisions from its peak in the Vietnam period.
Ford thought it essential to prove to the American people that crisis and confrontation were a last resort, not an everyday means of conducting foreign policy. Both of us were convinced that we stood to win the marathon for which we were girding. With its creaky economy, the Soviet Union would, in the end, not be able to compete with a coalition we were assembling of all the industrial democracies cooperating with China, the world's most populous country. And that is essentially what happened.
Dedicated to the proposition that his presidency should be a time of healing (as he would entitle his memoirs), Ford displayed personal goodwill to friend and foe alike. At times, I thought his apparent equanimity excessive, especially when his reluctance to impose penalties made resistance to presidential authority appear free of risk. In retrospect, I have come to appreciate Ford's self-restraint, for it gradually drained the American political system of its accumulated poison and created the conditions for the restoration of faith in American institutions. In the end, societies thrive not on the victories of factions but on their reconciliations.
That Ford had courage and leadership ability was demonstrated by a series of actions during the first month of his presidency. On his second day in office, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger and I called on him for a decision that could not be delayed. In the far reaches of the northern Pacific, a Soviet submarine had sunk at a depth of sixteen thousand feet several years earlier. In pursuit of an intelligence coup, the CIA had commissioned the building of the Glomar Explorer, which presented itself to the world as an oceanic research vessel but was in fact equipped with a device that lowered steel claws to the ocean floor, capable of lifting the submarine into the ship's body. The Glomar Explorer was in place and all set to lift the submarine on the day Ford took the oath of office. A Soviet trawler was hovering nearby, raising a number of issues: Did the new President want to risk relations with the Soviet Union for the sake of an intelligence coup? Was there a danger that the trawler would interfere with the operation, inviting a clash though the Glomar Explorer was undefended? Ford asked how long the Soviet trawler had been there. When told that it had been on station for weeks, he ordered the salvage to begin because, he argued, conditions would be no more propitious a week later. Unfortunately, on raising the submarine, one claw broke, and part of the submarine was lost.
That Ford would march to his own drummer and not to the advice of his experts became evident five days after his inauguration when the Soviet ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin -- having hurriedly returned from home leave -- presented himself at the Oval Office. To the amazement of both State Department experts and the NSC staff, Ford used the occasion to ask for the release of a Soviet seaman (from Lithuania, then a Soviet republic). Four years earlier, the sailor had sought asylum on an American Coast Guard vessel, the commander of which had inexplicably ordered him returned by force to the Soviet ship. The result of this bureaucratic bungle was that the unfortunate refugee was being held in a Soviet jail.
Ford's request was entirely unscripted. There was not the remotest legal basis for urging the release of a Soviet citizen being held in a Soviet prison. Fortunately for the seaman and the cause of human rights, Ford's goodwill coincided with the Soviet desire for a favorable start to its relationship with the new President. The request was granted, and the seaman found himself miraculously transported from a Soviet prison to an American haven.
Of greater long-range significance was Ford's handling of Nixon's pardon. Nixon seemed nearly certain to be indicted by the special prosecutor -- a painful prospect for the United States and for the fallen President. Such a spectacle would have been gravely damaging to America's standing in the world. And those of us who knew Nixon felt certain that he would never get through a trial or even an indictment without grave physical and psychological repercussions. Yet given the risks a pardon posed for Ford, it was a tricky subject to initiate with the new President, particularly for me as one of Nixon's close associates. I finally overcame my hesitations when, in the second week of Ford's presidency, Bryce Harlow called on me to express his own deep concern.
Harlow had been President Eisenhower's assistant for congressional relations and served briefly in the same capacity in the Nixon White House -- until he ran afoul of Bob Haldeman. His wisdom, charm, and intelligence had made Harlow one of the most respected figures in the permanent Washington Establishment. He had often advised me on how to navigate the shoals of high-level politics. Now Harlow argued that putting Nixon on trial would further divide the American people and probably compound the emotional disintegration of a President who, with all his faults, had rendered distinguished service for the country.
The conversation with Harlow gave me the pretext to raise the subject with Ford. I passed on Harlow's views and endorsed them. In response to Ford's questions about the psychological impact of a trial on Nixon, I argued that equally important was the impact on the world, where the former President was highly respected. Ford mentioned that some of his advisers thought he should wait until an indictment was actually handed down. I replied that I could not judge the domestic situation, but delay would surely complicate both the international impact and Nixon's personal despair.
Ford made no further comment, and I did not hear from him again on the subject until the afternoon of Saturday, September 7, 1974, when he telephoned to inform me of his decision to pardon Nixon the following morning. The time had come, Ford said, to lay the past to rest and, in a spirit of Christian forgiveness, to permit Nixon to live out the remainder of his days in dignity. Ford did not invite my comments. Though the decision probably cost him his own election to the presidency, I am convinced that it was a courageous and humane act which was necessary if the nation was ever to be liberated from the traumas of the previous decade.
This unflinching sense of the national interest enabled Ford in his twenty-nine months in office to navigate his country through a series of crises which could have filled a two-term presidency. He kept the ethnic conflict in Cyprus and a similar one in Lebanon from escalating into international war. He managed the collapse of Indochina with dignity and restraint and successfully used military power to free an American ship, the Mayaguez, captured by the murderous Cambodian Khmer Rouge. Ford achieved major progress on strategic arms control with the Soviet leaders in Vladivostok in 1974 and a breakthrough in the Middle East peace process when Israel and Egypt signed the Sinai interim agreement of 1975. Over passionate opposition, he concluded the Final Act of the European Security Conference, widely credited today with contributing to the collapse of the Soviet empire. Ford urged the American initiative to bring majority rule to southern Africa and supported a diplomacy which led to its ultimate success. And he originated a program of cooperation on energy among the industrial democracies which has lasted to this writing and has become institutionalized in the economic summits which have become key components of the contemporary international order.
Other Presidents were to receive the credit for winning the Cold War. But I am certain the time will come when it is recognized that the Cold War could not have been won had not Gerald Ford, at a tragic period of America's history, been there to keep us from losing it.
Copyright © 1999 by Henry A. Kissinger
Years of Renewal
The eagerly awaited third and final volume of his memoirs completes a major work of contemporary history. It is at once an important historical document and a brilliantly told narrative of almost Shakespearean intensity, full of startling insights, unusual (and often unsparing) candor, and a sweeping sense of history. Years of Renewal is the triumphant conclusion of a major achievement and a book that will stand the test of time as a historical document of the first rank.