He Moved with Calm
I first met President Ford in the mid-1960s, when I was a professor at Harvard. I was conducting a defense-policy seminar. It was customary to invite people from Washington, and I invited President Ford, then a congressman, to come and talk about the appropriations process. We stayed in loose touch afterward. When I came to Washington in 1969, I had contact with him in the normal course of White House consultations, and we always had a friendly but not close relationship. Then, when he became vice president, we had a warm relationship, and I would brief him. (Nixon always wanted to be sure that he knew when briefings took place with both Agnew and Ford.)
After Nixon told Ford of the decision to resign, Ford's first call was to me. He invited me to continue in office and asked what I thought needed to be done immediately. I told him that from the foreign-policy point of view, it was important that he establish himself immediately to be in charge, and he therefore needed to see all the ambassadors accredited to Washington in the first three or four days (some of them in groups), and letters had to go to the major countries. This was necessary so that the world's governments could have a first-hand report of a president fully in command. It was a formidable assignment, and he did not blink an eye.
The overall task he faced in the White House in the early days was infinitely harder than that of a normal president. He took over at perhaps the most perilous moment of domestic crisis since the Civil War, and he had neither the months of transition a new president normally has, nor the honeymoon a new president normally has. But he moved with calm and surefootedness into what could have been an overpowering experience. He took over in the middle of a Greek-Turkish crisis over Cyprus, a group of Arab foreign ministers were literally on their way to Washington for previously scheduled meetings, and we were amidst continuing negotiations over nuclear weapons with the Soviet Union. He never showed stress, he never lost his temper, he never showed anxiety. He was a man of extraordinary good sense. He did not pretend to be a great student of foreign policy, but he had great experience in the negotiations that are conducted in the Congress, and he knew a lot about defense planning. His attitude was that he was blessed to be of service to his country.
His presidency was about restoring a degree of hope and civility to American politics. His 29 months in office also resulted in major achievements. The European security conference laid the basis from which the East European satellites were finally overthrown, and there was the first political agreement between Israel and Egypt, one that was achieved through the very active engagement of President Ford. The establishment of majority rule in southern Africa was also achieved by American leadership in the Ford years.
The great contribution of President Ford was that he managed to strike a balance between the American temptation toward perfectionism and the absolute, and the temptation to abandon everything because one cannot have the perfect and the absolute. He brought about an approach that I believe is essential to the conduct of a continuing foreign policy that works toward the maximum one can achieve but does not go beyond what the American people can sustain or what the international community can comprehend. Another essential factor was the warm personal relations between President Ford and the European allies, relations that lasted all their lives. Confidence in America is an important element for international order, and President Ford supplied that to a wonderful degree.
© 2007 MSNBC.com