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He’s Not So Dumb

Only Reeves refuses to genuflect to the presidential seal. His book is full of quiet mockery, of pleasant Mencken grumbling. Yet his best remarks are about all presidents and all politicians. His Ford is, if anything, the dullest one in all these books. He sums up the man this way: “The President of the United States is a very ordinary man.” Yet the ordinary man does not spend two hundred days a year flying off to give nondescript speeches before small clumps of strangers. The ordinary man does not perform the dirtiest assignments for his party, then walk away unsoiled. None of the four books treated here picks up the way Ford canvassed the hill for Nixon, testing the idea of full pardon for Lieutenant Calley—an episode publicized in several media by Evans and Novak. That was part of the flunky role Ford played right up to the moment when, as vice president, he attacked those considering impeachment as “extreme partisans” out to harm America. The ordinary man does not have a whole line of extraordinary men working to promote him.

The Ford in Reeves’s book is not even a windowpane; he is—in the quoted judgment of another politician on Ford—“thin as piss on a piece of slate.” Given that judgment, Reeves spends most of this short book rather obviously looking around for something to say on some other subject. The book is scattered and anecdotal, and enjoyable because it is only marginally about Ford.

Writing about Ford seems almost as dull, in these books, as being Ford—or as seeing him. One wonders why writers of such talent waste their time on a job so uncongenial. A good test of their difficulty is seen in the treatment each gives to the Douglas incident and to Nixon’s pardon. For terHorst, the Douglas affair is just another of “Ford’s efforts to help the embattled man in the White House.” Yet the Nixon of 1969 was not embattled—he was riding so high he thought he could pack the court at will with right-wing stooges, and had given Mitchell license to find and promote the stooges. Reeves makes one of his few errors when he says that Becker (instead of Hartmann) received the Mitchell “garbage” on Douglas. Becker did not join the effort until after the Hartmann speech was written. For the rest, Reeves sees that effort as a product of Ford’s “unbending, undying, unthinking loyalty.”

Sidey sees the Douglas campaign as Ford’s one political lapse, which he was able to redeem: “When the Douglas storm settled, a chastened Ford looked back and saw that he had gone too far…. Three months after he became President, Ford asked Douglas and his wife to a state dinner and the two men shook hands warmly.” Hersey merely passes on, as straight man, Ford’s grotesque later rationalization of the affair—that he raised the question of a congressional study to head off the danger of impeachment in a fit of congressional fury! (This claim is accepted without question in the very session where Hersey tells us he was asking hard questions.)

The treatment of the Nixon pardon is even less satisfying. Since terHorst, as press secretary, felt betrayed in this instance (as men like Charlie Halleck had been in the past), and since this did not fit in with terHorst’s view of good old Jerry, there was a total breakdown in recognition. So terHorst resigned. The resignation was admirable, but terHorst’s own surprise explains why his book is a failure. He only glimpses the real Jerry at the very end, and he can make nothing of the sight. The Nixon pardon was not in the list of hard questions Hersey saved up to ask at the end of his week with Ford. Sidey seems to find nothing more admirable in Ford’s career than his pardoning of Nixon:

This has always been a forgiving nation…. I got the impression as I listened that compassion for a doomed man might have been more in Ford’s mind than he had told the public…. That sudden query about Pat Nixon seemed to underscore the sincerity of the talk we had just had. There were three handshakes before I got out the door, a cheery invitation to come on back sometime, and then the President returned to that desk at the far end of the Oval Office.

That Office is a great persuader.

When Reeves comes to the pardon, he makes his one attempt to find a spot not thin as piss in Ford. He notes that some psychiatrists feel an adopted child (like Ford) must forever seek a father figure—and, since Nixon was a father figure to Ford, he had to pardon the man. It is not convincing, and even Reeves shoves the thing forward uneasily, like a cook criticizing every dish at his own table. Ford did not know he was adopted until his formative years were over. And he had a very satisfactory replacement. Besides, Nixon was not a father figure to him, any more than Vandenberg had been. (Reeves rightly notes that Ford played up his ties with Vandenberg, just as Truman had his ties with Roosevelt.) Nixon was someone Ford could use by serving him.

Why the pardon, then? When I heard of it, an episode I had just read about came instantly to mind. In 1972, an elated congressman on his way home from a party ran a stop sign in Georgetown, hit a car, hit a fence, hit two trees, hit a brick wall, hit another car. The ruckus attracted a small crowd, and the driver, on emerging, did the natural thing: he went around shaking each man’s hand. There, in small, was the essential US House of Representatives. Ford, totally of the House, Housey, also did the natural thing. The presidential resignation was an unpleasantness, an “incident.” Ford had to rush around shaking everyone’s hand, even Nixon’s. You don’t make many enemies, in the House of Representatives, by doing favors, by shaking hands. It is the proper home of Rayburn’s maxim about “getting along,” and Ford is the world’s champion going-alonger.

Ford is not dumb or acquiescent, not self-destructively loyal, not lacking in ambition. He has refined political skills; they are just not the skills we have seen on the largest stage of politics. Other men have gone to the White House by way of the Congress, but they were passing through. Ford’s ambitions were all bounded by the Congress, and by its lower house. He turned down plausible chances at the Senate. The House fitted his temperament and training to perfection.

The present House of Representatives looks like history’s joke on the framers. In the constitutional scheme of things, the House was to be the most “radical” wing of the most popular branch of our government. It would be an equivalent “Commons” in a Parliament fighting off the executive’s kingly privilege. The senators, our “lords,” elected by their peers in the state subparliaments, with six-year terms, would be broadly responsible to entire states. But members of the House of Representatives, all of them up for election every other year, each in his own small locality, would be the most democratic element in government, a barometer of shifting popular moods. The cooler, more remote men of the Senate must steady and delay change urged by House firebrands at the populace’s beck and call.

So how did we get the House we’ve got, from a plan like that? It is the most conservative wing of the conservative branch. It is the land where the lobbyists play. It is stingier with public funds than the Senate wants to be. Its potentates have been men like “Judge” Howard Smith and Wilbur Mills. What went wrong?

There are two main answers to that question. One can say that the framers’ preconceptions were false—that the people are not radical, but cautious; that elites initiate change; that the popular wing is conservative because the populace is conservative. This answer offends liberal orthodoxy and is not indulged in polite society.

The other answer is to say that the framers were right in their day, but since then the machinery has gone awry. The popular branch does not reflect the popular will because of changes over time. Whatever its other shortcomings, this answer does point to relevant change. The representative, it was presumed, would begin and remain a man close to his district. The Congress would have comparatively short sessions. The difficulty of travel would keep a representative home except when Congress was in session. The normal scene of his action and concern would be in his district. When he went to sessions of Congress, it would be as a stranger to the capital reporting on the area he knew best and lived in.

Senators, by contrast, representing the whole state, serving as links between state legislatures and the national government, would have less frequent contact with any of their constituents (except their own immediate neighbors). Only presidents were expected to live much (not all) of the time in the capital. They were chosen by the electoral college, the elites’ elite, and would stand farthest off from individual constituents, few of whom would ever see the man their electors had chosen in their wisdom.

Modern transportation and communication have turned that scheme almost exactly upside down. Few people can tell you the name of their congressman. Far more know at least one of their state’s senators, by name, face, or repute. And many citizens now live vicariously with the president’s family and dogs, by way of women’s magazines and TV. Congressmen are, of all these people, the ones most bound to Washington. They have fewer opportunities for travel and exposure than do senators. And now the difficulty is with travel to their districts; not, as at the outset, with travel to the capital. They become citizens on the Potomac where senators are often just celebrities.

It is true that the representative has a comparatively small district he must service. His staff must get out his newsletter, answer mail, schedule him back before district gatherings as often as the budget will allow. But congressmen spend as much time servicing each other as in servicing their districts. They become each other’s constituents. A freshman congressman barely finds his way around before he must start running for re-election. Since general recognition of congressmen is so low, he has a tremendous advantage in mere incumbency—more so than candidates for higher office. Where the voter knows practically nothing about either candidate, the mere fact of prior election to the United States House of Representatives is itself a large recommendation. And that advantage will grow, campaign by campaign, by increments of recognition, by gradual achievement of seniority and some power in the House. If a congressman can do only one widely recognized favor for his state in his first two terms, but two in his third term, and three in his fifth or sixth, he acquires virtual immunity from challenge by a man whose prospects in the early terms are no better than the incumbent’s were when he began. With a congressman, you buy 1/435th of a vote in the House. With a senator, you buy over four times that power in his chamber.

The individual congressman weighs little. His power is a power of combining with his fellows in the House. He must grow by agglutination, which takes time. Thus a congressman uses his Washington connections to commend him to his district’s constituents, rather than vice versa. The man whose seat is still not safe asks colleagues to come and tell the home folks how important and respected he is in Washington. Notices in the national press are sent back home. By the time a man is established in the House—often becoming re-electable for life if he is content to rise no higher—he has incurred a number of debts of this sort; and the way to increase his power in the House is to serve other members as he was served, acquiring his own due bills.

This would be an almost inescapable task, even if the congressman wanted to escape it. But most House members like the job, or learn to like it, of doing favors for their fellows. The Senate likes to think of itself as a very exclusive club. The House is a bit embarrassed about its inclusiveness. Mutual puffery sustains the members’ self-esteem, abraded elsewhere in the capital. Most congressmen drive about Washington, shop and go to the movies, without being recognized. At least around the House their fellow club members and their shared employees give them a respectful welcome.

Babbitt, you remember, can hardly wait to escape from the anonymity of even Zenith’s streets into the world of nicknames, established jokes, and achieved little niches at the Athletic Club. The District of Columbia is Zenith on the Potomac; the House wing and office buildings make up the Athletic Club. (The Senate is the Union Club, from which Babbitt must lower his sights.) Congress bunches. Lifelong House men move in clusters, amoeba-like, by omnidirectional adjustment. There are clubs within clubs, and jealous little calibrations of privilege. Rivalry is intense but low-key because of the embracing code. The jealousies are school-size, a world of afternoon cabals, of honor pledged, of little betrayals, as clique worries at clique.

For all of Ford’s political life, this has been his chosen world. Some trace his virtues and limits back to Grand Rapids, looking for clues among old bottles of Vernor’s and Stroh’s Bohemian. Grand Rapids, it is thought, made him straight, slow, warm, dull, joking, jock-loving. Maybe so. But he went to the best breeding ground for just those traits, and they blossomed there. Ford is not “uncorrupted by Washington.” He was brought to congressional fulfillment there, where his skills were at home. He entered a small and protective world of comrades and rivals, where one gets ahead by advancing the team’s chances. His fellows there do not like sudden moves, “scenes,” major showdowns. They jolly advantage from each other, “getting along.”

When some rigid Dutch constituents mumbled unhappily at Ford’s choice of John Milanowski, a rowdy Polish Catholic, to be his administrative assistant in Washington, Ford said: “Don’t worry, John. We’ll kill ‘em with love.” Jolly them down. That was his personal recasting of the Rayburn creed, and it shows Ford’s skills are not merely intuitive. He has reflected on them enough to make them consistent, if not fully conscious all the time. He can even articulate them when he must—and through chewing gum, if need be. When Milanowski coached Ford in public speaking, he did not worry about his plodding style or verbal clumsiness. He got the effect he aimed for: “You find yourself wanting to believe in him. And that’s the test of a good speaker, isn’t it?” When accused of inconsistency, Ford admits to the charge with a grin—then adds, with a wink: “Zigzaggers make touchdowns.” A life of perpetual adjustments makes men of the House live by small commitments easily cut back.

During Watergate, Ford rephrased the creed very well: “Why do I uphold the President one day and the next day side with the Congress, which is deliberating impeachment? Well, I have never seen a controversy in which one side was all wrong and the other one hundred percent right.” He switches sides, just so long as he never switches teams. “Our three separate branches of government were designed to check and balance each other’s abuses and excesses, but not to produce stalemate and paralysis. So I consider it my duty to try and head off deadlock and seek a reasonable and prompt solution to the nagging Watergate issue.” In short: Whoever wins, I’ll try to be on their side. And then—in the House way—we’ll shake hands all round; today’s loser may be tomorrow’s winner.

Since congressmen are always running, the House is like a great big locker room on the eve of an endless homecoming. Short of actually covering him on the Hill, Hersey had a better chance of understanding Ford back in the showers at Yale, rather than while ducking power rays in Oval Heaven.

We have not had a president in recent times with skills so specialized for one arena. It is considered odd for Morris Udall to run for president straight from the House; and Udall was never so clubby and single in his Housemanship as Ford—Ford of the Chowder and Marching Society, of the Doormen’s Society, of his Republican Conference chairmanship, of the minority leader post. Whether a man so trained, and so abruptly jolted up into another world, can get along with only his old skills, we are about to learn—and have begun to learn, day by day; not too happily. As Representative Harrington of Massachusetts puts it, “They turned him loose after twenty years in the cellar.”

It is unlikely that Ford will acquire new skills—as his airplane-chases around the nation prove. As vice president, he kept on traipsing. It was said he would settle down in the Oval Office—but the week Hersey spent “at home” with him as president, though chosen to be representative, was uncharacteristic because he was at home. Ford campaigned in the old House way for his colleagues in 1974—to no avail, as everyone predicted. Would he settle down after that? He has not. Now he must prove that Lynette Fromme and Sara Jane Moore cannot force him to stop shaking hands. And 1976 bicentennially looms—a fatal lure to crowd-lovers like Ford, entirely apart from his own election push.

The specialty of our legislature is not legislation—Ford reached the top rungs of the House without putting his name to a single major law. The House specialty is running for office. There has been a tendency for recent presidents to run their campaigns together, though four years separate them. Ford will accelerate that process. It no longer seems to be the job of our rulers to rule, but just to run. Ford, on his past record, will probably run well. It is hard to dislike him. He is not Nixon.

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