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Remembering President Ford

He led by listening

Ford was not afraid of strong-willed advisors and thrived on their give-and-take.

December 28, 2006|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — After Gerald R. Ford became president in 1974, he assembled a staff of strong, brilliant and highly opinionated personalities. Ford's most enduring legacy, some have argued, is the people he brought into power, including Donald H. Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Brent Scowcroft and James A. Baker III.

Under three Republican presidents, it is a group that has shaped U.S. foreign policy through the end of the Cold War and its aftermath, nowhere more than during the presidency of George W. Bush, where Rumsfeld and Cheney helped set the course for a war on terrorism and the invasion of Iraq.

"I've talked to people over and over again, and if there is such a thing as a Republican national security apparatus in personnel, they're all Gerald Ford's people," said Scowcroft, who replaced Henry Kissinger as national security advisor in the Ford years. "That's pretty remarkable."

Despite the continuity of the personnel, the way they made policy under Ford and the current president could not be more different, say officials familiar with both administrations. And that contrast has drawn attention as critics have probed the judgments that led to an Iraq war that is increasingly troubled.

In seeking answers to problems, Ford -- a veteran of more than two decades of debate in the House of Representatives -- relished the give-and-take of open and sometimes heated debate. He would force the strong egos that surrounded him to make their case in person during lengthy White House sessions, where he would constantly question the most minute details.

James T. Lynn, Ford's budget director, recalled one particularly heated discussion among Cabinet members in front of Ford, which ended with the president thanking both sides and retreating to the Oval Office: "I had to go back into the president's office with him, and he turned to me and said, 'Wasn't that fun?' "

Said L. William Seidman, a top Ford economic advisor, "I worked for three or four presidents, and I think more than any other president, [Ford] was determined that all views be presented to him before he made a decision. I think it's very clear in the early days of the Bush administration, they did not have a process like that, and you had people like [Secretary of State Colin L.] Powell saying the State Department never had a chance to present to the president what would happen after the war started."

Critics have cited the Bush team's strong ideological position on Iraq from its earliest days, and questioned why faulty assumptions about that nation's unconventional weapons program and its reaction to a U.S. military occupation were not more vigorously challenged before an invasion was launched.

Presidential historians and former Ford aides warn that too much can be made of the comparison in White House management styles. Bush, they contend, appears to be listening to more outside voices, particularly in his recent rethinking of Iraq policy. And Ford's White House in his early months as president was a place of contention between holdovers from the Nixon administration and former House aides who moved down Pennsylvania Avenue.

In building his administration, Ford aides said, the former president brought in skilled advisors of varied ideological backgrounds. In addition to up-and-comers like Cheney and Rumsfeld -- who worked closely with Ford when they were fellow congressmen -- Ford tapped for his Cabinet leading intellects such as University of Chicago president Edward H. Levi, who became Ford's attorney general, and William T. Coleman Jr., a distinguished civil rights lawyer who became Transportation secretary.

Ford, they said, was comfortable with being less knowledgeable than his advisors and was unthreatened by strongly voiced disagreements. Unlike almost any subsequent president, Ford was able to create a White House that was open to dissent. To this day, Ford alumni meet annually.

"I know that my friends in the Carter administration said they could never do anything like this, and the Reagan people didn't because there were such rivalries and contests," said James Cannon, a domestic policy advisor to Ford who went on to write one of the few biographies of the former president.

The comparisons with Bush's style first broke into the public debate two years ago. Paul O'Neill, a senior official in the Ford White House's budget office who three decades later became Bush's Treasury secretary, cooperated with author Ron Suskind on a book that made critical contrasts between the two presidents.

In Suskind's book "The Price of Loyalty," O'Neill described Ford as a man comfortable around strong personalities, like Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and James R. Schlesinger, his first Defense secretary -- a trait O'Neill attributed to a quiet self-confidence mixed with a non-ideological approach to finding solutions.

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