Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Working with the Saudis

On Thursday, August 29, 1974, President Gerald Ford met with a Saudi diplomat. Also present at the meeting were Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. On the agenda were all the usual items which have always ensured that the Mid-East is a place of permanent instability: oil prices, wars between Arab states, and wars between Arab states and non-Arab states. (There are other factors, too, which have created the structural impossibility of peace in that region.) Historian Barry Werth writes:

Joined by Kissinger and Scowcroft, Ford met in the late afternoon with Saudi Arabian foreign minister Omar Saqqaf. They exchanged vague pleasantries through an interpreter and posed for the press. Saqqaf - a function who during diplomatic meetings with King Faisal "sat so far down down along the hierarchy of other advisors that he would have to shout to get the king's attention," Kissinger recalled - above all hoped to deflect American anger over the energy crisis away from his desert monarchy.

At the beginning of the 1970's, the American economy had troubles with inflation. The oil crisis only made the situation worse. Although most of the oil coming out of the Middle East went to Europe, and not to America, its price still affected the world price, and therefore impacted the business climate in the United States.

Locked in Cold War calculations, gun-shy after Vietnam, and with a "surrogate strategy" for securing Persian Gulf oil supplies that amounted to arming to the hilt repressive local regimes in Iran and Saudi Arabia, the United States could scarcely have been less prepared for the oil shock now playing havoc with the world economy. A little more than a week after Ford's swearing-in, Kissinger had briefed him on the struggle to regroup. "We have to find a way to break the cartel," Kissinger warned. "We can't do it with the cooperation of the other consumers. It is intolerable that countries of 40 million can blackmail 800 million people in the industrial world." As Kissinger outlined the joint program being discussed with the Europeans - consumer solidarity, including emergency sharing of reserves; conservation; development of alternative energy sources; and creation of a financial safety net - Ford immediately had signed on. "I'm not interested in issues," he said, "but in results."

In fact, the government in Iran was starting to loosen its hold on human rights. For the next several years, increasing civil freedoms would define that nation's path. But in August of 1974, that didn't change the economic factors which had President Ford's attention.

Now, as with the rest of the Middle East cauldron, Ford left the handling of the Saudis to his secretary of state, who sought assurances from Saqqaf that Faisal would not take a hard line by opposing separate negotiations between Israel and Egypt, and would help negotiate lowering the cost of Arab-produced oil. Kissinger warned that Western patience with the Saudis, who since the end of World War II had looked to the United States to defend them against stronger, often hostile neighbors, had worn thin.

There can be little doubt that the impressive foreign policy achievements of the Ford Administration were due largely to the work of Henry Kissinger.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Ford Restructures the White House - Twice

Upon becoming president in 1974, Gerald Ford knew that it would be important to make some changes, both substantively and symbolically. In substance, because part of Nixon's downfall grew out of his subordinates and out of the power structure of the White House staff. Symbolically, because President Ford needed to be visibly different than Nixon. Ford reviewed the previous organizational charts which had shaped the White House in previous presidencies. Historian Barry Werth writes:

Ford knew what he had to have to take over the presidency and it wasn't a Haldeman or Adams, tireless, abrasive guardians who had caused his predecessors so much trouble. Sherman Adams, the bantam former timber executive and New Hampshire governor who could reach decisions and "move papers" faster than anyone in Washington, and who got priestly satisfaction from slaving like a dragon to serve his country, was a force of nature ruling over the operations of the Eisenhower White House - a virtual "co-president" until, after admitting to taking gifts from shady New England businessmen, he was attacked by conservative Republicans and dropped by Eisenhower, who sent Nixon to tell Adams the president would welcome his resignation. Bob Haldeman, who famously said that he was "Nixon's SOB," looked and acted like a marine drill sergeant. Time called him "spikey and glaring ... the 'zero-defects man'" and like nearly everyone in Washington, Ford regarded the former California ad executive as an overcompensating outsider with a fetish for order.

Ford saw the dangers in having one individual, a chief of staff, working that closely with the president. This person could filter who did, and who did not, get to visit or influence the president. This person could end up wielding unintended amounts of power. Ford wanted a different system for his White House.

Ford wanted to see as many people as possible, hear a lot of opinions, he told Haig.

As an antidote to Nixon's imperial presidency, Ford wanted an open door. But he perhaps underestimated the volume of people, paper, and information that would come his way. Alexander Haig, who had been Nixon's chief of staff, and who had effectively carried out many presidential duties as Nixon became increasingly paralyzed by the Watergate scandal, understood that Ford would soon be buried under an avalanche of work if he did not have some type of executive assistant.

Haig - "with some amusement," he recalled - replied that he'd be happy to usher in as many visitors as Ford wanted. He thought Ford's opposition to a strong chief of staff "seemed to be more important to him than his own needs."

Haig's future was uncertain at this point. Having been chief of staff under Nixon, he remained at the White House initially to help with the transition. Ford wanted either no chief of staff at all, or who wanted one with a very limited role.

Seated at the Wilson desk, already buried under paperwork, Ford announced that he would be his own chief of staff, with a half dozen or so coequal advisors each meeting with him at different times during the day to report to him on separate areas of authority. He likened this office model to the spokes on a wheel. He would meet with Marsh to direct legislative affairs, Hartmann to talk about communications, Seidman to discuss the economy, and Kissinger for foreign policy. Haig's area of competence would be administering the White House.

John Marsh was a former Virginia Congressman who would later be Secretary of the Army. Robert Hartmann was a speechwriter and White House Counsellor. Lewis William Seidman was Ford's economic advisor. Henry Kissinger was the Secretary of State.

Haig rejected the spokes-on-the-wheel system as clueless, naive. "Only a supreme optimist," he wrote, "could have believed that such an arrangement would work in a town in which ambition is mother's milk and every symbol of power from job title to parking space is the subject of fierce intrigue." He also thought Ford's resistance to a powerful chief of staff concerned Hartmann, who'd commandeered the small anteroom to the Oval Office where Rosemary Woods, Nixon's faithful secretary, had been stationed until the day before. Ford depended too heavily on Hartmann, owed him too much, and was too loyal to get rid of him, yet no strong chief of staff could tolerate having him bivouacked next to the president, popping his head in whenever he wanted.

Whether or not one embraces Haig's skepticism about Hartmann, it was telling that at this early date - Saturday, August 10 - Hartmann had already occupied a key office space in the White House. In any case, Haig would soon depart, declining Ford's offer to be chief of staff, because Haig would only take the job if it had clear and significant authority. Ford was still bent on essentially being his own chief of staff, and the office would exist to help the president with those duties, rather than to do those duties for him. Haig stayed on for the transition, and was officially re-assigned from chief of staff to NATO commander around Wednesday, September 4. He would be replaced by Donald Rumsfeld, who was also skeptical of Ford's organizational vision. Barry Werth writes:

A half hour after Haig left the Oval Office, Ford met alone with Rumsfeld, back briefly from Brussels, to tell him that Haig would be leaving. Ford needed Rumsfeld to smooth Haig's appointment with the NATO countries, but his real interest was in having him replace Haig in the West Wing, not as omnipotent chief of staff but as someone to coordinate White House operations and organize Ford's schedule. Rumsfeld, who could see that the sniping and disarray had only worsened in the two weeks since he'd left, bluntly resisted. "I didn't want to do it," he said later. "I'd just left Washington. I'd been here ten years. I was disappointed that the recommendations of the transition team weren't followed. The administration was having trouble just staying current. I knew what a meat grinder it was. I knew it was programmed to fail."

Like Haig, Rumsfeld saw Ford entering a swamp of office politics, as well as simply more work than one man could do. Rumsfeld writes:

Ford did want to distance himself from what was seen as the imperial presidency of Richard Nixon, but instead of changing personnel, he attempted to change the White House's management structure. Ford attributed the misjudgments in Watergate to having everything filtered to the President through his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman. My view was different. I believed the problems that plagued Nixon's administration were not caused by how decisions were made but by the decisions themselves. The chief of staff system was reasonably efficient and had been developed in the Eisenhower administration, which did not come to the same unfortunate end as Nixon's. To change the perception of an insular White House and a rigid "Berlin Wall," Ford settled on what he called the "spokes-of-the-wheel" approach. To this day, I shudder at the phrase. The idea was that a large number of his staff and cabinet - the spokes - would report directly to him - the hub - instead of having a chief of staff coordinate the process.

Rumsfeld was in the White House to see and experience the inevitable logjam which Haig had predicted.

However laudable the intent, the spokes-of-the-wheel approach was an unworkable way of managing the modern White House. Ford enjoyed interaction and give-and-take with a wide and varied group of people, and that was helpful, but this organization approach essentially allowed any senior staff or cabinet official to walk into the Oval Office at any time to discuss any subject. Many would end up leaving such a meeting with what they sincerely believed to be presidential authorization but without the necessary coordination with other White House staff or cabinet members who had responsibilities in the matters discussed with the President. An open door policy could work for a member of Congress, or even for a vice president whose staff is small, but a president has too many demands on his time to listen to every staff member's suggestions, wade through every disagreement, and then ensure that the relevant personnel are involved, or at least informed.

One casualty of the White House reorganization was the first attempt at economic policy. Inflation was becoming a serious problem - though not yet as bad as it would be under the Carter administration - and Ford knew that he had to take action. Under the slogan "Whip Inflation Now," a series of voluntary initiatives was assembled, and label pins and buttons with the "W.I.N." motif distributed to the public. President Ford gave a major national speech on the plan. Sadly, the effort went nowhere. Rumsfeld recalls:

The response to the speech was not what Ford hoped. Wearing a pin to defeat inflation became a national punch line. Ford was disappointed by the negative reaction to his speech both in Congress and in the country. I felt sorry for him, but it was a self-inflicted wound and still another sign that the spokes-of-the-wheel approach the President had selected at the outset was not working.

President Ford realized that change was in order. Rather than cling stubbornly to his original idea, he was willing to see that there could be a better solution.

The President now conceded that his spoke-of-the-wheel approach was not working and would not work. The Hartmann faction was unfriendly with the Haig faction, and others in the White House seemed caught in between. Only a few weeks after informing the country that Nixon's White House chief of staff, Al Haig, would stay on indefinitely, Ford would have to do something he never liked to do - change his mind.

One of the reasons behind Ford's move to abandon the chief of staff system was to distance himself from Nixon's image. If Ford were to move toward a chief of staff system, he'd have to do it in a way which still signaled that he was different than Nixon. Rumsfeld writes:

The President said that while he could not be seen as abandoning outright his very public decision to reject the Nixon-Haldeman staffing system in favor of his spokes-of-the-wheel approach, he agreed that he would move toward a proper staff system gradually. His solution was, at the outset, to call whoever replaced Haig the "chief coordinator." I was not impressed with that idea, because it would signal to others in the White House that the new chief of staff was not actually in charge of the staff. But I understood Ford's reasoning.

Rumsfeld became chief of staff - even if the actual job title was varied - and began nudging Ford's system back toward the Eisenhower model. Rumsfeld's assistant chief of staff was Dick Cheney, who recalls that

one obstacle to bringing order to the White House in the early months was President Ford's preferred model of White House organization, a design he described as the "spokes of the wheel" model, which was based on the way he had structured his congressional and committee staffs. The ideas was to have eight or nine senior advisors each reporting directly to him, without any one having authority over the rest. It was a collegial style of doing business that had served him sell for twenty-five years on the Hill as a representative from Michigan, and he assumed it would work in the White House. There was also a widespread belief that Watergate had been caused in part by Bob Haldeman's domination of the White House staff, and Ford saw "spokes of the wheel" as a healthy break from the past. The problem was that it soon became clear it didn't work. It took a while, but the president finally agreed that he needed someone on the staff who could wield real authority, a conclusion that all his successors have ratified.

The wisdom of Eisenhower's system became clear. This organizational pattern, with a chief of staff, was the best way to run the White House. According to historian Barry Werth, this organizational structure had a history prior to the White House:

Eisenhower had employed it as supreme allied commander in Europe during World War II and first brought it to the White House in 1953. Having a single, dominant aide used to acting in the president's name enabled Ike to play golf in the afternoon, and Nixon, his marginalized, oft-maligned vice president, had admired its effectiveness. ("Nixon was world errand boy," Chief of Staff Sherman Adams explained. "I worked in the kitchen.")

Although Ike may have excelled at delegation, the chief of staff system could also work for a more "hands-on" president like Ford. President Ford found that he could reshape his organizational chart away from "the spokes of the wheel" and toward the chief of staff model without having to distance himself from important daily White House operations. Dick Cheney took over as chief of staff when Rumsfeld left that post to be Ford's Secretary of Defense. Cheney writes:

In the last days of the Ford administration, among the gifts given me by my staff was a bicycle wheel with all the spokes destroyed except one, and it came with a plaque: "The 'spokes of the wheel,' a rare form of management artistry as devised by Gerald Ford and modified by Dick Cheney." When the Carter people came in, I passed it along to my successor, Hamilton Jordan.

During Ford's short but crucial presidency, the question of how best to organize the White House was explored thoroughly, and the definitive answer was found - no president since, of either party, has tampered with the system.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Ford Prepares

President Gerald Ford made momentous decisions which set the course for last quarter of the twentieth century. Always a reflective and spiritual man, he moved the nation in the direction of forgiveness when he issued a presidential pardon to Richard Nixon. A very unpopular move at the time, it proved to be the step which eventually allowed the country to recover from the pangs of the Watergate scandal. Historian Barry Werth writes about the morning of Sunday, September 8, 1974:

Ford awoke early and took 8 A.M. Holy Communion at St. John's Episcopal Church, the "Church of the Presidents" across Lafayette Square from the White House. He prayed alone, asking, he said, for "guidance and understanding," in pew 54, where every president since James Madison had worshipped. As he was leaving, reporters asked what he was doing for the rest of the day. "You'll find out soon enough," Ford said.

President Ford's pardoning of Nixon proved not only to be unpopular, but to be politically devastating, both to Ford and to his party. It essentially assured Ford's loss in the 1976 election to an unqualified and unknown candidate - Carter didn't win that election; Ford lost it. The Ford administration never quite recovered its momentum or political capital with the nation or with Congress. But in the long run, after Ford left the White House, the wisdom and benefits of his action became clear:

Beginning in 1996, notable critics who'd condemned Ford's decision to pardon Nixon started to revise their views. Richard Reeves, who in 1975 wrote a scathing biography in which he claimed "it is fair to say that Ford is slow. He is also unimaginative and not very articulate," now lauded Ford for his courage in an American Heritage article entitled "I'm Sorry, Mr. President." The Post's Bob Woodward, after interviewing Ford in 1998, concluded: "If Ford mishandled some of the details and disclosures, he got the overall absolutely right - the pardon was necessary for the nation." During that interview, Ford said about his August 1 meeting with Haig that, "yes, on paper, without action it was a deal, but it never became a deal because I never accepted." When Woodward questions Ford why he hadn't made more of the moral and legal point that accepting a pardon was tantamount to admitting guilt, Ford reached into his pocket for his wallet and, after searching around, produced a folded, dog-eared piece of paper - a portion of the 1915 Supreme Court ruling in Burdick. "I've got it in my wallet here because any time anybody challenges me I pull it out," he said.

As Ford's work was re-evaluated, and it became clear that his decision had been the best way to move the nation forward, out of the malaise of Watergate, and open a way into the future, even his enemies, those convicted of crimes, and those guilty of ethical violations - even they acknowledged that President Ford had done the right thing in pardoning Nixon:

In 2001, Ford received the Profile in Courage Award at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston. Senator Ted Kennedy and liberal representative Barney Frank were among those who praised the award.

One of the qualities which Ford possessed, and which brought even these criminals to honor him, was humility. Ford cast aside many of the trappings which Nixon had orchestrated around himself, trappings which caused some to speak of Nixon's "imperial presidency." Both in lack of ceremony and lack of presumption, Ford made it clear that he was a citizen like any other, who simply happened to live in the White House. Ironically, decades after Ford left the White House, the humility which President Ford brought to the presidency was replaced by another wave of royal presumption. President Obama has called forth these same two words as the public notes

the reemergence of the Imperial Presidency - a phrase last used to describe Nixon's presumption of being above the law.

The decency, honesty, and humility of Ford remain the best manner in which to carry out the duties of the president. History shows this repeatedly.

Deciding to Pardon Nixon

One of the most controversial political decision in American history was made in 1974, when President Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon. At the time, most ordinary citizens and most of those in power criticized the action: some felt it cost Ford and the Republican Party too much public support; others thought that Ford's motives may have been dishonest. A few decades later, most scholars and most political scientists praise the wisdom of President Ford's gesture, saying that it was the best way to create closure for the Watergate scandal; most ordinary people now remember Ford as one of our most honest and trustworthy presidents. Historian Barry Werth writes about how Ford made that decision on Sunday, August 11, 1974:

Following a three-minute motorcade to church, the Fords prayed for courage and guidance. "We go to Immanuel-on-the-Hill in Alexandria," Betty wrote in a diary, "where we've been going for twenty-some years. There aren't going to be any more private services in the East Room for a select few." As always during a crisis, the president included among his prayers a favorite verse from Proverbs: Trust in the Lord with all thine heart and lean not into thine own understanding. Ford, an Episcopalian, in times of stress also consulted Reverend Billy Zeoli.

Ford had a personal stability and inner calm which didn't begin when he became president: for many years, he had developed his spirituality. Time magazine writes:

Ford did have a private source of spiritual sustenance, which was in every way different from Nixon's public displays of piety. For years Ford faithfully attended a weekly late-morning prayer session with several friends in the House: John Rhodes of Arizona, Mel Laird of Wisconsin and Al Quie of Minnesota. The sessions, which began in 1967 and continued off and on through 1975, were "very quiet," totally off the record, Ford said.

The final decision to issue a pardon to former President Nixon was still approximately a month away, but it was very present in Ford's mind. A similar topic was some type of pardon or amnesty for those who'd dodged the draft. The link between the two was the concept of forgiveness, a concept central to Ford's faith. Time continues:

It's easier to understand the pardon when you reckon with the prayers. The question of what to do about Nixon landed hard on Ford from moment he was sworn in. Apart from everything else, Nixon was a longtime friend. Ford worried about what putting the disgraced President in prison would do to him, as well as to a country so shaken by the betrayals of those years. Mercy and healing were very much on Ford's mind on Saturday, Aug. 31, when he spent the morning discussing an amnesty plan for Vietnam draft evaders. When the meeting was over, Ford went back to the Oval Office and called evangelist Billy Graham to talk about their mutual friend. "There are many angles to it," Ford said of Nixon's fate. "I'm certainly giving it a lot of thought and prayer." Graham, who was arguing for a pardon, told Ford he was praying for him and, before the two men finished their conversation, Graham recalled, "we had a prayer over the telephone."

Occasionally Ford attended a different church. On the day he announced the pardon, he hadn't gone to the church in Alexandria. The Time article continues:

A week later, on Sunday, Sept. 8, Ford went to St. John's Episcopal Church, directly across Lafayette Square from the White House. He took Communion with some of the 50 other worshipers and knelt in prayer. There was no sermon that morning — at least until Ford delivered one of his own. He went back to the Oval Office, practiced his speech aloud twice, moved to a smaller adjoining office and alerted congressional leaders of his plans. At 11:05, Ford told the nation he was pardoning Nixon in a statement that invoked God's name six times. "The Constitution is the supreme law of our land and it governs our actions as citizens," he said. "Only the laws of God, who governs our consciences, are superior to it. He invited the congregation to think of the Nixon family: "Theirs is an American tragedy," he said. "It could go on and on and on, or someone must write 'The End' to it... Only I can do that. And if I can, I must."

Although Ford's decision to pardon Nixon has been seen as civic wisdom, for President Ford, the matter was less one of politics, and more one of faith. Ford's choice to forgive was not motivated by his party's electoral chances, but rather by his trust in God.