On the day after Christmas 2006, 30 years after he lost his only presidential bid, Gerald R. Ford, the nation’s 38th president, was called home. At age 93 and five months, he was the longest-living president, outlasting Ronald Reagan, who died at 93 and four months.
The Ford-Reagan link in death is both appropriate and ironic, given the deep and intertwined history the two Republican presidents share.
It was the Gerald Ford/Ronald Reagan relationship of 1975-76 that provided the ultimate contrast between the two one-time rivals, and that defined Ford’s presidency, both in policy and in style.
Disgruntled with Ford’s pursuit of détente with the Soviets, Ronald Reagan in 1975 decided to seek the seemingly impossible: to challenge the incumbent president from his own party, thereby breaking Reagan’s own “Eleventh Commandment:” “Thou Shall Not Speak Ill of Another Republican.”
Reagan fired unceasingly at Ford’s support of détente. “We are blind to reality if we refuse to recognize that détente’s usefulness to the Soviets is only as a cover for their traditional and basic strategy for aggression,” he said in October 1975. “Détente is for the Soviet Union a no-can-lose proposition.”
Reagan opposed Ford’s signing of the Helsinki Accords in August 1975, a product of détente which Reagan perceived as a human-rights farce. He said it was nothing more than a “propaganda plus” for the Kremlin. By signing the accord, the United States had, in effect, “agreed to legitimize the boundaries of Eastern Europe, legally acquiescing in the loss of freedom of millions of Eastern Europeans.” Worse, said Reagan, Helsinki did nothing to constrain the Soviets outside of Eastern Europe. “After Helsinki,” wrote Reagan correctly, “the Soviet Union quickly made it clear that the so-called ‘wars of national liberation’ of which they are so fond, would not be affected by the document.”
Reagan hit détente so hard throughout the campaign that there was a consensus that President Ford stopped using the term because Reagan had made it a dirty word. So successful was Reagan that the New York Times, in a May 14, 1976, editorial titled “Mr. Reagan’s Veto,” claimed that the former California governor had “won something approaching veto power over the Ford Administration’s foreign policy.” As Reagan did, Ford dropped in the polls. In another editorial, titled, “President Under Seige,” The Times opined: “Governor Reagan has become a credible candidate while President Ford has slipped from almost certain victor to underdog.”
Reagan was making a dent, and Ford knew he was now vulnerable in the primaries. After New Hampshire, Ford had surged to five consecutive decisive victories, at times by big margins. These wins came mostly in the liberal northeast. As Reagan aide Martin Anderson remembered, the unasked question to Reagan by his campaign staff was, “When are you going to quit?” Reagan, however, was adamant. “I’m taking this all the way to the convention in Kansas City,” he declared defiantly, “and I’m going even if I lose every damn primary between now and then.”
Immediately after that decision, Reagan won North Carolina, claimed a huge triumph in Texas, and followed with victories in Indiana, Georgia, and Alabama. The Ford team began shaking in its boots. In a stunning turnabout, a new question was posed: Could Reagan go to the Republican convention in August and win enough delegates on the first ballot? Reagan estimated a “very great possibility, if not probability,” that he could do just that.
Suddenly, Ford not only dropped the word détente but replaced it with the preferred phrase of Reagan: “peace through strength.” In a pronouncement that signaled a startling concession before the convention, a waffling President Ford declared: “Our policy for American security can best be summarized in three simple words of the English language: peace through strength.” Reagan chuckled, noting it was “a slogan with a nice ring to it.”
All of this came to a head on August 19, 1976, when Republicans held their convention at the Kemper Arena in Kansas City, where Reagan, in the end, did not get the nomination, crushing his supporters. And it was then, at that precise moment, that Gerald Ford’s immeasurable graciousness was again put on display before the entire nation:
President Ford had just finished speaking. As a gesture of reconciliation and supreme good will, he waved from the podium to the Reagans, seated in a skybox. He beckoned Reagan to come down to speak. The Republican faithful exhorted, “Ron! Ron! Ron!” They chanted “Speech! Speech! Speech!”
A blushing Reagan refused, gesturing his hands downward, pushing delegates to sit down and shut up. “It’s his night,” he muttered to friends, deferring to Ford. “I’m not going down there.” Ford pressed on: “Ron, will you come down and bring Nancy?” National television audiences watched in anticipation, as ABC, CBS, and NBC news anchors peered through binoculars with moment-by-moment commentary.
Reagan eventually obliged. As he trotted down the corridors on his way to the podium, he said to Nancy, “I haven’t the foggiest idea what I’m going to say.”
Reagan soon resolved the problem, giving one of the most memorable convention speeches in American history. Official biographer Edmund Morris later wrote of the extemporaneous talk: “The power of the speech was extraordinary. And you could just feel throughout the auditorium the palpable sense among the delegates that [they had] nominated the wrong guy.”
The race for the GOP presidential nomination had come down to the wire, and Ronald Reagan fell frustratingly short. He missed by only 117 votes, grabbing 47.4% of delegates in an 1187 to 1070 contest. The winner needed 1130.
Three months later, Gerald Ford lost the presidency to Jimmy Carter.
From 1974-79, during those Ford-Carter years, the Soviets picked up eleven proxy or satellite states around the world. America was losing the Cold War. The third and most disastrous year of Carter’s presidency — 1979 — ended with Americans taken hostage in Iran in November and the Soviets invading Afghanistan in December. Now, much of America agreed with Reagan that détente was a joke. His time would come a year later.
The Ford-Reagan relationship in the 1970s was a metaphor for Ford’s presidency: His policy toward the Soviets was flawed, and he was neither a notably effective nor inspiring president, but his kindness as a person was hard to surpass.
Gerald Ford’s contribution to history came in his service as a transitional figure, one who no doubt helped heal a divided nation during a critical post-Watergate period, which he achieved through that gentle demeanor. Quite unintentionally, he made another contribution: like Jimmy Carter, he offered an example of what not to do in Cold War policy. By giving détente a chance, and thus an opportunity to show its true colors, he unwittingly revealed it to be a failed route, paving the way for Ronald Reagan to be successful not in 1976 but in 1980, and thereby allowing Reagan to later make a much deeper impact on history.
It is always difficult to look back and say that a certain president was a failure in the strict sense of being a step backward. Ford was probably the right man for the right place in time. The contours of American history have a wonderful almost magical way of somehow weaving together, coming into focus and making sense only in retrospect. Gerald Ford’s brief, unelected tenure has its own place in the mosaic.
– Paul Kengor is author of The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism and associate professor of political science at Grove City College in Grove City, Pa. He is also director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.