Friday, December 29, 2006

Flashback: Memories of the Nicest President and the Nicest Words He Ever Told Me—This Final Salute to Gerald Ford.

[Memories from fifty years in politics for my kids and grandchildren].

The death the other day of Gerald Ford, 38th president of the United States, causes me to first fast-reverse in these memoirs to the day I met him and then fast-forward to the last time I talked with him. First, a step back. When I arrived in the House in the Spring of 1958 as a staff aide to newly-elected Rep. Albert H. Quie, we were assigned to a small suite of offices (fewer rooms were given to new House members and Quie then was the most junior of all since he was elected mid-year) on the second floor of what is now the Longworth House Office Building, but what was then known as the “new” House Office Building—“new” meaning that it was built in 1935. Quie narrowly won a special election following the death of August H. Andresen—won it so narrowly, by 411 votes, that people were not sure how long he’d be around since reelection was to come nine months later. The Democratic House establishment figured it wouldn’t knock itself out giving us fancy rooms. In the summer with the air-conditioning running at half-strength, the noise of construction workers building a cafeteria outside, was deafening. Nobody of consequence was quartered on the second floor of Longworth—except three: one of long-range future, more consequential, importance and another of more immediate future stature and another indubitably one of the great and now, sadly. unrecognized men of the Cold War era.

The long-range future importance was embodied in one young staff aide across the hall from us who worked as a legislative assistant in the office of David Dennison, R-Ohio. His name was Don Rumsfeld, called behind his back by female secretaries, “Pretty Donny.” The other—of long-range future, more consequential, importance--was a 45-year-old Rep. Gerald Ford of Michigan, who served on Defense Appropriations. Ford was quartered on the 2nd floor Longworth because it so happened he had a corner office which just gave him more space and a good look out his window at the street—and far away from the construction noise…and he, in fact, turned down other opportunities to move. The third: Walter H. Judd, one of the greatest surgeons in Mayo history who had given up a rich livelihood to become a medical missionary to China, then U. S. Congressman—for whom I also worked. But it is about Ford that I shall speak now.

Blond, Dutch-looking fit for his Holland, Michigan area constituency, representative of his largely hard-working Dutch district where farmers raised, in addition to grapes, tulips and had picturesque windmills on their tracts…looking for all the world like the supermarket butcher who comes out to your service after you ring the bell for him… smiling, genial, unperturbed Jerry Ford ambled down the halls with an easy lope, graceful for the former All-American athlete he was.

Ford turned out a newsletter that all of us found very interesting because it was brimming with statistics on the Cold War. Later, working with Walter Judd, an intellectual lion of the Cold War, he told me that I should study Ford’s newsletter intensively because it had the latest dope on the military and that Ford, while not particularly brilliant, it didn’t matter. When I seemed surprised to hear that, he added: “Brilliance is dime-a-dozen. Character is not. He has the determination, constancy and character the Cold War era needs.” Later, many years later, he refined that view. Richard Nixon was brilliant but lacked quality of character. Gerald Ford had character, he said, and that made all the difference. Interesting.

In those days, Ford labored over the newsletter after his press secretary, Bob Hartman, who was later to write the lines “our great nightmare is over” when Ford succeeded Nixon, took the raw material Ford had given him and churned it into copy, Ford adding legible additions and corrections in a bold hand. I devoured the newsletters each week and thought that if I were ever with Ford in, say an elevator, I’d tell him so. No chance. The rules of the House were then hopelessly man-boy. House members didn’t meld with staff, or engage them in banter on elevators: nor do they today.

It’s still man-boy…with female staffers serving in the neuter roles we had: all boys, all servants, all gofers, never growing up—all calling our bosses “Mr. or Ms. Or Congressman. Or Congresswoman.” They responding to us by calling us by our first names…by our first names for as long as we would work for them, regardless of whether we were young, old, nondescript. We would always be Tommy…Johnny…Jimmy…Alf. Judd was the only one who treated staff as equals. He talked with me by the hour on Saturday morning when he wasn’t unduly burdened—talked about world affairs and his experiences dealing with Ike, Churchill and the successors of Stalin. That was because he had the intellectual acumen and spiritual depth plus humanitarian compassion to be unconcerned about status. But I digress.

The rules of our office were that the first one to arrive in the morning had to pick up the heavy sack of mail that had been deposited at our door, dump it out on a long table, sort it, rip open the envelopes with a letter-opener and distribute it. One morning I arrived at the god-awful hour of 6:30 a.m. because I wanted to go down to the House television studio and install a make-believe set for my boss—Mr. Quie—with the cardboard visage of the U. S. Capitol backdrop. I picked up the mail, went inside, cut the string with a scissors and then walked down the corridor to the Men’s Room—the rules being that by no means could any of the staff use Mr. Quie’s personal bathroom in the suite which was for him alone whether he was in the building or not. The hour then being about 6:40 a.m. with very few in the building, I rounded the corner and came upon the future 38th president sucking his thumb to alleviate a flow of blood, caused when he cut the string on the mail package and gashed it. He had brought the mail in his office himself and, using a pen-knife, cut open the sack gouging himself in the process. I suppose this could have been the forerunner of all the clumsy Jerry Ford stories that were to come later—but the rope binding the mail was like steel and gouging was easy to do.

I stopped and said, Congressman, can I help? He laughed embarrassedly, “oh, I just decided to end it all, beginning with my thumb.” I said, have you got a band-aid? He kept on sucking it and said that if they had one, he didn’t know where it was. I said: we have one in the medicine cabinet. Why don’t I get it? He didn’t disagree so I trotted back to our office, got a few band-aids, rushed back and helped apply a few to his thumb. I introduced myself, said I was a staff aide to Rep. Quie. Once bound up snugly, he invited me in, started making instant coffee and we sat, listened to the electric percolator steam and talked a lot of inconsequential things.

He had a great interest in my new boss, Al Quie: asked about the kind of district we came from until the coffee got heated. I told him of Walter Judd’s great interest in his newsletter; he took that to be a real compliment. He was as nice and as jocular as it was possible to be. Utterly no one was around; he stuffed a pipe full of tobacco, gingerly with his bandaged thumb. That was it—for the time. Later, whenever I saw him he would be gracious; one time he was accompanied by some businessmen from his district and, spotting me, said I saved him from slashing himself unmercifully. Just a good-natured, unprepossessing fun guy. But no lightweight. A serious, sometimes frowning young man who would relieve the seriousness with a broad Dutch-like grin. I thought he looked like the blond Dutch boy on a paint can that was popular at that time.

That’s the fast-reverse to 1958 when I was not yet 30. While since then I saw him innumerable times, we never talked. Fast-forward to circa 1976 when he was president and I was director-public affairs for The Quaker Oats Company and striving to become a vice-president. The company’s chairman, my then immediate boss—much different from Bob Thurston who had moved on up--and its financial planners were greatly interested in whether or not the Congress would pass a high price-support farm bill in that presidential year. Of course, ingredient purchasing would spiral from this in the future and we lobbied for the free market. But now came the nut-cutting time and financial projections had to be narrowed down. The time for advocacy had long passed.

Both Houses had passed a high price support farm bill. It was a popular measure with rural constituencies. The first farmer presidential candidate since Thomas Jefferson was running on the Democratic ticket: Jimmy Carter and the Democrats had promised the farmer increased return in subsidy for his labor. Okay: a high price support bill was popular. The essential question our planners wanted to know was this. Would the Republican president, Gerald R. Ford, sign it or veto it?

If he were to veto it, the Congress didn’t have sufficient votes to re-pass it so a veto meant an end to the prospect of higher price supports. My assignment—which I was sent to Washington to fulfill—was this: Find out whether or not President Ford would sign or veto the price support bill. It seemed like a simple proposition. As one who had worked for a farm-state Congressman, I knew the staff aides from House Agriculture who could expertly predict in the political climate whether Ford would sign or veto it. One was Hyde Murray, the veteran House Ag lawyer who had served for a generation in that role and was clued in to other knowledgeable staffers including those now in the White House. So secure was I in the knowledge that I could find out the answer in a short time and relay it back by phone to my office that I took the red-eye flight into Washington National without a bag, secure that in one trip on the Hill with some schmoozing I would easily corner Hyde Murray and find out the answer.

But it didn’t go like that. I found Hyde Murray but for the first time since I knew him, he clearly didn’t know. It turned out that there was a huge controversy going on in the Administration and it hadn’t been resolved yet. Agriculture secretary Earl Butz was a free marketer, a Ph.D from the University of Indiana and hugely knowledgeable about agriculture. He was urging Ford to veto it and by vetoing it shore up his political support with farm state conservatives and small town businessmen. On the other side, believe it or not, was Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the same Rumsfeld who had worked down the hall from us in the Longworth long ago. Rumsfeld was very close to Ford, had been his chief of staff, had a politician’s nose for opportunity and thought that Ford would ease a lot of troubles he faced in the Farm Belt by rising above principle and signing the bill. The matter was unresolved, said Hyde Murray shrugging. As soon as it were resolved, say in a day or two, he’d let me know.

But my timetable was tighter than a day or two. I had to deliver a reasonably correct answer, based on the best intelligence I had. “I’m sorry,” said Hyde Murray, “that’s all anyone can know now. You might try to go to the USDA right now and ask some of the assistant secretaries there and get a guess—but I warn you, they’ll tell you what you want to hear and what they want to believe, that Ford’s going to veto the bill. That’s not necessarily true.” I looked dumbfounded. “Or--,” said Hyde Murray, “since you’re from Illinois you may try to go over to the Pentagon and see Rumsfeld. Do you know him? He probably would have a better answer than USDA because he’s personally close to Ford.”

Yes, I knew Rumsfeld far beyond the old days when we were grunts together in Longworth. I had gone back to Illinois, knew him when he was a Congressman, knew him when we both worked together in Washington and cooperated together on anti-poverty stuff, he as head of OEO (the Office of Economic Opportunity), the Nixon hangover office from the LBJ days and I as an assistant Commerce secretary in charge of minority enterprise. That and the fact that Rummy wanted to go back to Illinois one day and run for governor and Quaker was a pro-Republican company. So I hightailed over to USDA first. Where I got nowhere. I tried to get in to see Secretary Butz. I was told he was tied up. So I got in a cab and went across the river to the Pentagon. A long period of involvement with the bureaucracy ensued until I got hold of a secretary in Rumsfeld’s office and got in the anteroom to his office in Ring 5 of the Pentagon. Now it was about 5 p.m. and any hopes of me going back to Chicago that night had ended. About 5:45 p.m. I got in to see Rumsfeld in his cavernous room where then as until recently he worked standing up. And I asked him the question about the farm bill.

He was the same old Rumsfeld you would see on TV during the days of Iraq. A mischievous smile, wondering how in the world I thought he would know what Jerry Ford would do on the farm bill. I told him that I had heard he had had views on it: he agreed. After a good deal of cogitation he acknowledged that he had given the president as much straight talk politically as he could muster: that 1976 would be a very, very tough year, especially after the primary with Ronald Reagan and that Ford should take note of political reality and sign the bill somewhat reluctantly. But, I asked, will he sign it or veto it? That, infuriatingly, Rumsfeld didn’t know. He had made his last pitch to Ford the night before but he was frank to say that aside from Ford himself, the man who now knows what would happen was the ag secretary, Earl Butz. He asked if I saw Butz. I said I can’t: he’s locked up in a series of conferences, probably about this very issue.

“Well, that means you’ve got to stay over,” he said. “I can just do this for you. Tonight there’s a Republican dinner for the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee--$1,000 a pop. I can’t go but I have a `comp.’ Here, take this ticket. It won’t open any doors but you have to eat somewhere and you might as well get a $1,000 meal as not.”

But I promised to call my immediate boss—a grumpy type and a farmer himself—that night with the latest information. In the cab going back to D. C. I debated whether I should call him and just say I struck out. Or should I call him and guess—that he’ll sign it, based on what Rumsfeld hoped. I didn’t know. I checked by phone and we decided I’d call him later that night. So I went to the $1,000 a plate dinner with Rumsfeld’s comp…no hotel room in prospect, no change of clothes but as Rummy said I have to eat somewhere. It was held at the Washington Hilton, the place where Ronald Reagan had been shot five years later. And when I got there it turned out that the crème of the Republican establishment was busily getting shot full of sauce along with cabinet officers and Republican congressmen.

Then, it appeared, that God was with me. As I strolled over to the bar, who was surrounded by a circle of friends but Earl Butz, secretary of agriculture! I elbowed my way through the crowd and, I am afraid, I nudged one grandmotherly old lady as I moved forward. She gave me a dirty look. I said, “Sorry, ma’am, I’ve got a question to ask the secretary if you don’t mind.” She said, “You can ask the secretary all the questions you want but he’s now a disgrace to the human race because he’s been over-served. I’m Mrs. Butz and Earl has been with this crowd all afternoon: they’re all from Indiana and he’s going home. Do you hear me, Earl? We’re going home!” I asked the garrulous secretary who had taken the arm of his wife, “Mr. Secretary, er, Doctor Butz--.” He responded “yesssss…” and looked at me with eyes that resembled the way the wheels of a slot machine whirr before they ring up lemons. So I gave up. God was toying with me. The man who had the answer was unable to respond.

So I found my seat at a table. A guy from General Mills was there. He said: I suppose you don’t know whether or not the president will sign or veto the farm bill, do you? I said I didn’t. He said: Neither do I. We sat silently sipping cold water, waiting for the band to stop so the waiters could serve. He said politely, You missed the entry of the President. They played `Hail to the Chief’. And you know what? Since Jerry Ford was a Congressman, he declined a seat at the head table and decided to sit with his old Michigan friends right down here with us!

I said, suddenly coming to life: Where is he sitting? My friend said, stand on your chair and look down this cavern where you’ll find a guy with prematurely orange hair. See! There he is! The Secret Service guys are standing around him! He’s right there! See?

I did: about a quarter mile of banquet tables away. I got up and trotted down the legions of aisles near to where he was. When I approached, the Secret Service, pushed me away and with great force because not long before there had been two assassination attempts on his life. The president looked over semi-interested as they pushed me away—as I suppose one would, idly wondering if this was to be yet another assassination attempt. As they pushed me, I shouted: “Mr. President—I come to bring greetings from your old colleague Al Quie!” He stood up, waved the Secret Service aside and said, “From Al? How’s he doing? He’s running for governor of Minnesota, isn’t he? How’s he doing?”

I had not the faintest clue and I couldn’t care much because Quie and I were not close basis my indentured service to him where I was treated like a rather retarded grunt, but I said as the Secret Service men grimaced: “Fine! Fine! He wanted me to extend his best wishes to you!” It was obvious Ford wanted to talk about the Minnesota political situation so he asked the Secret Service to cease and desist and put me down. He obviously wanted to talk about Minnesota with which I was not particularly informed at that point, having moved to Illinois but I needed just the smallest chance to talk to him. As they put me down, I pulled Rummy’s comp invitation to the dinner out of my jacket pocket and asked the President to sign it, giving a salutation and best wishes to Al Quie. He did. He took a pen in his left hand and began writing a note to Quie.

As he scribbled, I said: Can you tell me whether or not you’re going to sign or veto the farm bill? No answer. I thought he viewed the question as highly impertinent and possibly might signal the SS to pick me up again and dump me out on the street.

Holding his pen aloft, he looked up at me and said: “Earl Butz is here tonight and he can give you the details. But after a good deal of consultation with a number of people, I have determined to…”

Here a Secret Service man importuned. “Mr. President, the First Lady is coming this way!”

“Oh, Betty!” said the President, arising. Then he turned to me in a confidential whisper and said, “…I have decided to veto it. Ah—here she is!”

After a polite interchange where he introduced me to his wife, I left, happily. To the phone to make a call. My immediate boss was not home so, gratified, I called followed protocol and called the man who most seriously wanted to know, our Chairman. I called him at his Lake Forest home. As it happened he was with some influential board members who had been ruminating about the same thing, including Arthur Wood, chairman of Sears-Roebuck. Our chairman kindly told me that he was sure no definitive information could be obtained and thanked me for trying. Then he put Arthur Wood on who said rather authoritatively: “Our gang in Washington [a large staff of well-paid government relations professionals] say it’s indeterminate at this time. Is that right?” I told him it was not indeterminate. He asked how I knew this and told him. With much surprise, he gave the phone to our chairman.

When our chairman came back on the line I finally had the satisfaction of saying what all corporate lobbyists yearn one day to utter: “The president will veto the bill. The President of the United States told me this himself!” Ah the satisfaction of it. The only better words I could ever hear would be after I make my last cram for finals and St. Peter were to say: “Well, you just made it—by a hair! Congratulations!” Join me in murmuring what my Church calls a spiritual ejaculation (the only kind meaningful to me now) that I—and you—may hear these words someday.

That night, in the hotel room, sleeping in my underwear rather than pajamas, the next morning scrounging around unshaven in the stores for clean clothes and shaving materials, I was ecstatic at my accomplishment although it meant far more to me than to either the chairman or Arthur Wood—and definitely more than it did to my immediate boss. As in fact I am now as I relive the scenes—especially the last one—with Gerald Ford, the 38th president. Accidental he was, accident-prone he may have seemed, uncharismatic he could have been—but for me he delivered the most thrilling news I heard in my 27 years as a corporate rep. All the way home on the plane I worried that Rumsfeld may have gotten to him even later to change his mind. But no, he vetoed the bill. Jimmy Carter assailed him. And yes he lost the election—sadly. But I say: Gerald Ford, you were a blessing when we needed stability and character. For me—but more important—for the country you loved, you came through a winner. Rest in well-deserved Peace. And thank you for being so approachable.


  1. I can't even imagine what happened to you and Ford happening today given how tight lipped people are in the current White House. What a fun story!

  2. Probably no one will believe this story about me and Jerry Ford, but I swear it's true. In May 1976, when I was a college sophomore at Michigan State University, Ford and Reagan were of course running against each other in the GOP presidential primary. Since even in Michigan the race was tight, Ford and his staff decided to do a "whistle-stop" train tour across the state the Saturday before the election, and East Lansing was one of the stops. My roommate and I went down to the train station that morning, hoping to see Ford and possibly shake his hand.

    Well, the train pulled in right on schedule; Ford came out onto the caboose and gave his short speech; and then he and his Secret Service men came down onto the platform and Ford started shaking people's hands. I took his picture from up close, then stuck my hand out of the crowd toward him. He grabbed it and shook it, and I said, 'Good luck, sir.' He also shook my roommate's hand; and then, a couple of minutes later, Ford got back on the train and it departed.

    So then my roommate and I went back to our dormitory for lunch--and after I put the food on the tray and carried it out into the dining area, suddenly--for the first and only time in my four years at college--the tray slipped out of my hand and it fell right onto the floor! We both stood there looking down at the tray and I could only think to myself, "Oh my God--it must be contagious!"