Ford Pushed Cheney for President in '96

Perhaps this is not an appropriate time to begin a story like this, but I was never a major Gerald Ford fan. In 1973, Spiro Agnew was my hero and—when he resigned the vice presidency—I was gone on Ron. Like many conservatives who felt that less than two years as governor of California was not enough to qualify Ronald Reagan for president in 1968, the fall of Agnew and appointment of a vice president who told Congress he wouldn’t run for the top job made 1976 appear the perfect time and opportunity for a President Reagan.

But upon becoming President a year later, Gerald Ford said he would indeed run for a full term after all. To me, he appeared a usurper and interloper, one who had never been elected to anything outside of Grand Rapids, Mich., a nuisance in the path of Reagan’s destiny. When Ford squeezed out Reagan for the Republican nomination after the last great nomination battle for either party, I could care less who won in November. In fact, I felt that born-again Baptist and U.S. Naval Academy graduate Jimmy Carter would do no worse than the Republican who had named Nelson Rockefeller vice president and John Paul Stevens to the Supreme Court, who worked closely with Henry Kissinger in urging a SALT II agreement with Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, giving away the Panama Canal, and loosening our ties with Taiwan. (The editors of HUMAN EVENTS saw things a bit differently; in urging “A Reluctant Vote for Gerald Ford” in the Oct. 30, 1976, issue, this publication warned that Carter “is a dedicated liberal who willingly wants to take this country down a path toward socialism.”)

Only in Ford’s twilight years did I come to realize that, while he was clearly emblematic of a more moderate Republicanism that was fading in the modern GOP, he was also a good and decent man and that quality was important to the U.S. recovering from its worst political scandal. At a cocktail party in Palm Springs, Calif., during the Republican National Committee meeting there in February 1998, Ford had just come off the golf course and was patiently holding forth with my publisher Tom Phillips, Republican National Committeeman Chuck Yob of Michigan, and insuranceman Jack McGraw, father of incoming California GOP Chairman John McGraw. Sonny Bono had died suddenly a few weeks before and Ford was telling us, “Sonny was an outstanding congressman and my good friend.” He had attended the funeral of the Republican who represented his Rancho Mirage community.

At the time, young Grant Campau of Sterling, Mich., had a project in school in which students were to get friends to pretend they were a bear (that’s right—like the kind in the forest) who was traveling the country and sending postcards back about his adventures. I explained the project to the former President, emphasizing it was for a Michigander, and he cheerfully signed a postcard that I had written as the bear telling Grant: “Guess who I’m with?” Grant was thrilled and his mother later told me his version of the traveling bear project stole the show because of Gerald Ford.

A few years later, I had a bright and very hard-working intern from Missouri named Caleb Graves. Jim Martin of the 60 Plus Association had invited Caleb and me to a breakfast his group was hosting that featured Ford at Washington’s Capitol Hill Club. Somehow, we arrived as Martin and former Rep. Roger Zion (R.-Ind.), 60 Plus’ lobbyist, were welcoming Ford. The 38th President graciously greeted me and was friendly and attentive to a delighted Caleb. He enjoyed the breakfast and promptly called his grandmother to tell him who he had met. (Caleb’s grandmother, a faithful HUMAN EVENTS subscriber, said it was nice but promptly reminded us she had worked hard for Reagan in ’76 when the “Missouri massacre” at the state party convention gave the Californian all but one of the national convention delegates in his challenge to Ford).

In 1993, at the suggestion of veteran political consultant Stuart Spencer, I got in touch with Gerald Ford regarding the budding movement to make his former chief of staff, Dick Cheney, the Republican nominee for President in three years. Spencer, along with former Secretary of State James Baker, onetime thrift czar Bill Seidman, and Michigan GOP National Committeeman Peter Secchia and others in the “Ford network” were the kitchen Cabinet advising Cheney on a White House bid.

“I don’t want to be out front as campaign manager for Dick,” Ford told me, emphasizing that former Housing Secretary Jack Kemp, Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, and Lamar Alexander, now a U.S. senator from Tennessee, were “equally qualified” candidates for ’96.

“I talk to Dick whenever he’s here [at the Ford home in Avon, Colo.] and have urged him to get out there and expose himself to the party,” continued the former President. “Various people have come to me and said how do they get in touch with Dick and be helpful. I’ve told 10 or 12 people who are responsible business leaders, academic leaders, and others to get in touch with him and told Dick to expect their calls.”

Would this close association with Ford hurt Cheney among party conservatives, I asked? “No,” he replied, “I sure was a target of the right, beginning with Gov. Reagan. But there isn’t a person like Reagan who can be a focal point for the opposition. I don’t see anybody on the hard right who would go after Dick, like Gov. Reagan challenged me. … I supposed [California Rep.] Robert Dornan wouldn’t be in Dick Cheneys’ corner.” (At that point, Ford laughed).

Ford’s rather candid remarks to me in the course of that interview were a strong signal he had not forgotten how “the right” had tried so hard to take him out. But in his public actions, he held no grudges. When Sen. Jesse Helms (R.-N.C.)—who had led the campaign in his home state that resulted in the first defeat for Ford at Reagan’s hands—sought re-election in 1978, one of the first prominent Republicans to weigh in with a strong fund-raising letter for “ our friend from North Carolina” was Jerry Ford. As former Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt, chairman of Reagan’s 1976 campaign, recalled in his memoirs: “Throughout the rest of the convention and the campaign, President Ford couldn’t have been more decent to me. To this day, I’m grateful to him. A lesser man could have made it might difficult for a rookie senator from Nevada.”