Magazine | July 9, 2018, Issue

Decent Mediocrity

Donald Rumsfeld
When the Center Held: Gerald Ford and the Rescue of the American Presidency, by Donald Rumsfeld (Free Press, 352 pp., $28)

To read Saint-Simon’s memoirs of the court of Louis XIV, you might easily conclude that the Sun King himself was but a satellite revolving around the ducal scribbler whose personality dominates his book. Donald Rumsfeld’s approach in When the Center Held is different. You would never suspect, in the modest, self-effacing chronicler of the Ford administration, the formidable politician-bureaucrat whom Henry Kissinger saluted as a foeman worthy of his mettle or the accomplished intrigant to whose guile Nelson Rockefeller attributed his failure to be selected as Ford’s running mate in 1976.

Ford, of course, had not been elected president. He had no mandate, no program of his own, and very little of the dominating egotism that carries an ambitious soul through the electoral fire to the White House. In contrast to the administrations of more commanding presidents, Ford’s was a battleground in which strong-willed viziers strove with each other to impress upon a malleable leader their own ideas of what was in both his own interest and that of the nation.

The contention among the courtiers reflected larger divisions in America itself. Rumsfeld portrays a Ford “bookended” by the more substantial personalities of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and caught between their different conceptions of foreign and domestic policy. Ford had, too, to contend with a Congress that, in the aftermath of the 1974 elections, was dominated by freshly radicalized Democrats. The unelected president, Rumsfeld writes, “became, in some sense, the man in the middle.” Noting that Ford played center on the University of Michigan football team in the early Thirties, Rumsfeld describes the 38th president as the kind of reassuring centrist figure the country needed in the aftermath of Watergate and Vietnam.

The proposition is doubtful. Ford’s policy was at times less centrist than incoherent as different advisers pulled him in different directions. Henry Kissinger was by far the most potent of the satraps. “Henry is a genius,” Nixon told Ford the day before he resigned the presidency, and Ford turned instinctively to a man who combined an unrivalled knowledge of the arcana of diplomacy with a romantic vision of the high vocation of the diplomatist. “Henry, I need you,” Ford told Kissinger shortly before he became president. “The country needs you. I want you to stay. I’ll do everything I can to work with you.”

Kissinger had long been impatient with the naïveté of the prevailing Wilsonianism in American foreign policy. Its faith in the universal exportability of American democracy, he believed, underlay much that had gone wrong in Vietnam. To the democratic moralizing of the school of Wilson, Kissinger opposed a great-power diplomacy that would isolate and undermine the greatest threat to American security at the time, the Soviet Union. Just as Britain’s Castlereagh got the better of Napoleonic France through an alliance with autocratic powers that were far from sharing what would today be called British “values,” so Kissinger and Nixon brought Maoist China into great-power diplomacy, a démarche, Kissinger argues, that “transformed Moscow’s geopolitical position overnight because it consolidated a tacit coalition of all the world’s major powers against it.” At the same time, wary of the havoc a cornered bear might wreak, Kissinger and Nixon sought to reward compliant behavior in the Kremlin with the various goodies of détente.

The policy was astute, but as Kissinger has himself observed, psychology plays as important a part in diplomacy as rational analysis does. America is in its self-image a city on a hill, wary of entangling alliances with the corrupt regimes of the Old World. The very exuberance with which Kissinger danced his minuets with Mao and Zhou Enlai or dangled trade agreements before the hungry eyes of Brezhnev and Gromyko was unsettling to Americans bred up in the liberating Sic semper tyrannis faith of their New World republic.

Ford, for his part, adopted the Kissinger policy as his own, so much so that his closeness to the man who served as both his secretary of state and his national-security adviser, if not as his Metternich and Bismarck, created what Rumsfeld calls “a worrisome perception of dependency.” It didn’t help when, in response to a query, Rumsfeld was told by a National Security Council staffer that “Henry is in the middle of sensitive negotiations and therefore the President shouldn’t mess in foreign affairs.” Yet Ford was soon more royalist than the king. Hesitant to offend Kremlin sensibilities, he refused to receive Solzhenitsyn in the White House. Kissinger himself, who was in the Virgin Islands at the time, was more accommodating. He has suggested that, had he been in Washington, he might “have been wise enough to propose a low-key meeting with either the President or me.”

Rumsfeld sensed in the predominance of Kissinger the makings of a political disaster. He “understood far better than I,” Kissinger has written, “that Watergate and Vietnam were likely to evoke a conservative backlash.” To Ronald Reagan, whose star was rising in the Republican party, “détente seemed like an accommodation with totalitarianism.” Rumsfeld urged Ford to declaw Reagan by bringing him into the administration. “If [the Reaganites] are out,” he told Ford in 1975, “they can make mischief,” but “if they’re in, they’re in the same rowboat we are.” Ford offered Reagan a seat in the cabinet, but Reagan refused it.

Plan A having failed, Rumsfeld moved to Plan B. However unfairly, Ford was coming to be perceived as a bumbling incompetent out of touch with vital elements in his party. There was only one way to restore the impression of command and reassure the GOP faithful: He must smack down the man his opponents had made out to be his Svengali. Kissinger, Rumsfeld writes, continued to “wield outsized power and influence” over Ford even as he enjoyed the constant support of his friend Nelson Rockefeller, whose aura of wealth and power made him a force in the administration in spite of his bad ideas. In every NSC meeting, Rumsfeld writes, Rockefeller “was a consistent vocal supporter of any position or view Kissinger put forward.” At the same time, Rockefeller conceived himself as Ford’s unofficial “head of domestic policy,” a role in which the architect of the Great Society on the Hudson could only antagonize voters sympathetic to what Rumsfeld calls the “new Sunbelt, limited-government” Republicanism Reagan was selling.

Rumsfeld made his move in late October 1975. In When the Center Held, he describes how he submitted his resignation to Ford. Having failed to “get the President to take the management actions that I was convinced were required for him to succeed,” he would fall on his sword. But it was not Rummy’s blood that was shed in the Halloween Massacre that followed. Taking his chief of staff’s counsel to heart, Ford summoned a startled Kissinger to the Oval Office and without inviting discussion outlined a reordering of the regime. Rocky was purged — he would not have a place on the 1976 ticket. Kissinger was out as national-security adviser, though he retained the State Department. Rumsfeld himself replaced James Schlesinger at the Pentagon, where, as Kissinger tells it, he would ensure that the State Department’s SALT negotiations with Moscow went nowhere. Détente was dead, and Kissinger ceased to be the prime minister of the Ford administration.

It was brilliant Machiavellian stuff, a realignment that moved Ford’s government a little farther away from Nixon Republicanism, a little closer to the world of Reagan. But whether sacrificing a vizier or two and throwing the bones to the Reagan camp amounted to centrism is another question: It might as easily be read as weakness, expediency, and desperation. Ford seems less to have found a middle way than to have meandered unsuccessfully between two different paths.

The same confusion that marred the president’s foreign policy spoiled his conduct of domestic affairs. As the GOP was recovering its faith in the rational self-interest of markets, Ford bizarrely launched into the volunteerist whimsies of “Whip Inflation Now,” in which citizens were urged to wear shiny red buttons while planting vegetable gardens in order to stabilize prices, a program about as viable as Mao’s pipe dream of promoting Chinese steel production with backyard furnaces. It is true that Ford would later, in his own words, “reverse completely” the unpropitious direction of his economic program and sign the Tax Reduction Act of 1975, which cut some $22 billion in taxes and led to the beginnings of an economic recovery. But an administration that embraced both WIN and the Laffer curve savors less of centrism than of incoherence.

And yet, for all that, one can’t quite dismiss Rumsfeld’s thesis that Ford’s was a presidency in which “the center held” and forestalled the “mere anarchy” conjured in Yeats’s poem. Rumsfeld notes that in football the position of center — the position Ford played — is “among the least glorified.” It is very different from the part played by the star quarterback whom most presidents seek to emulate. After the presidencies of LBJ and Nixon, who were in their different ways dominating figures — clever, complicated men who aspired to be hero-presidents — it might have been that what the country needed, to keep it together, was not a strong president but a decent one. A good center. And that is what Jerry Ford was.

It is to Rumsfeld’s credit that he has been able, in his engrossing book, to do justice to a president who succeeded for reasons other than strength as politicians and journalists are wont to define it — the more so because, as Henry Kissinger himself has said, Rumsfeld “had the makings of a strong President” in his own right. In spite of his own strengths as a man of action, Rumsfeld has been able to compose an elegant tribute to the virtues of decent mediocrity.

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