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Campaign '96 : A Grown-Up Jack Ford Plays Host to Republican Convention

Son of former president is a San Diego entrepreneur. He no longer sports shaggy hair or free-spirited attitude.


SAN DIEGO — If nothing else, the Republican National Convention here in August will reveal to the American people a development that some may find heartening, others shocking: Jack Ford, who burst upon the national scene in 1974 as the free-spirited, shaggy-haired son of new President Gerald Ford, has grown up.

Now 44, the younger Ford is a dutiful husband, successful entrepreneur, diligent member of the Del Mar Fair Board and a guy whose idea of a good time is putting on grubby clothes and doing some remodeling work on his new-old house in the San Diego suburb of Rancho Santa Fe. And on behalf of his party and community, he is serving as executive director of the GOP convention's Host Committee.

The Republicans have a platoon in San Diego to plan and run the four-day hoedown. But it's the duty of the host committee to set the stage for the GOP: to raise $11.2 million in private donations (the most ever by such a committee), find thousands of volunteers, arrange crucial logistics such as transportation and find ways for San Diego to parade its civic stuff for maximum public relations value.

When the first executive director left abruptly to take a banking job, Mayor Susan Golding, an old friend of Ford's, and other planners turned to him in September to fill the void.

Ford's track record as a fiscal numbers-cruncher, a fund-raiser, a task-oriented work drudge and a mature individual preceded him among local Republicans.

No adjustment of your set is required.

"Jack no longer wears his hair shaggy," said Louis Wolfsheimer, a San Diego lawyer and fellow Del Mar Fair Board member. "He's joined the establishment."

Yes, this is the same Jack Ford who displayed a delight in tweaking the establishment when his father assumed the presidency amid the wreckage of the Watergate scandal.

At the time, Jack Ford preferred flannel shirts and riding and fishing in Yellowstone National Park to the gray suits and cocktail chatter of Washington. He admitted that, like many of his generation--including the current president and vice president--he had smoked marijuana.

He dated tennis star Chris Evert, brought Beatle George Harrison into the Oval Office, led Bianca Jagger into the White House for a photo shoot for an avant-garde magazine and groused to reporters that it was very difficult to date women with Secret Service guards tagging along.

It would be an overstatement to say that Ford was a true member of the Woodstock generation. He had, after all, worked for the Richard Nixon campaign in 1968 and remained devoted to his parents. But after the prim and proper Nixon daughters, he was a definite change among first family children.

Gerald and Betty Ford were the first couple, straight-arrows from Michigan, and Jack was, if not the bad son, certainly the one that you could imagine loving parents discussing in earnest tones late into the night.

Today he laughs about those days, almost as if they happened to somebody else. There is something surreal, he said, about fishing in Yellowstone only to have the Secret Service arrive in a helicopter to whisk you to Washington because your father has just become the most powerful man in the world.

He remembers returning to his summer job at the park after the initial hoopla. The scene was like something out of F-Troop.

"I went on my first patrol followed by 15 Secret Service agents, with satellites and other gear, and not one one of them had ever saddled a horse, let alone ridden one," he said with a laugh.

By 1978, his father was no longer president and Jack Ford had moved to San Diego. He and fledging political consultant George Gorton bought a small newspaper, the Del Mar News Press. Golding sold advertisements.

Gorton thinks Ford had grown tired of the playboy/celebrity-chaser image and threw himself into the grit of running a small paper to demonstrate substance.

"A lot of running of a small paper is not very glamorous," Gorton said. "Fixing machines that break, asking advertisers to pay for the $15 or $20 ad you ran two months ago, working seven days a week to stay afloat, and Jack did it all."

The paper was sold, and the trio that ran it pursued different paths. Golding went to politics: the City Council, the Board of Supervisors and now mayor. Gorton became architect of Pete Wilson's senatorial and gubernatorial campaigns.

Ford, a forestry graduate from Utah State, acted as a political commentator for local television. He did point-counterpoint with a liberal journalist.

He was part of a TV production company that did segments for "American Sportsman." He helped found Outside magazine. He toyed with running for state controller in the early 1980s, but decided against it. He invested in rental properties.

In partnership with Byron Georgiou, onetime legal affairs secretary to former California Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr., he formed California Infoplace, which supplies computer kiosks to shopping malls. Among other things, the computers sell lottery tickets.

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