Behind The Axes
THE RECENT shakeup of the Ford administration lends itself to a conspiratorial analysis, but not entirely. Attributing ideological motivation to President Ford's appointments and removals and weaving each separate development into a coherent ideological framework demands a lot of contortion; even then, everything doesn't fit. The events do, however, support a less complicated political explanation.
It seems clear that Ford himself had little input into the decision-making process. His inability to explain the changes in his Monday press conference and his evident unfamiliarity with nearly every critical issue, foreign or domestic, lead one to the conclusion that other people are running the show. And indeed there are other people running the show, and not in a particularly secretive manner. Ford acknowledges leaning heavily--and what that means in Ford's case is pretty clear--on a small group of men. This inner circle, most of whose members are corporate executives, is apparently led by former Secretary of Defense, now Reader's Digest consultant, Melvin Laird, U.S. Steel Vice President William Whyte, Proctor and Gamble representative Bryce Harlow and newly named Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
These men probably like Gerry Ford personally, and very clearly like him as president. Ford's congressional record and general political disposition make him likely to be the best friend big business has had in the White House in a long time. Ronald Reagan might be even better, but while Reagan could conceivably win the Republican nomination, as after all did Goldwater, nearly any Democrat could beat him in November. And since these men, and the corporate interests they represent, whether in defense contracting, oil or steel, aren't going to be able to do much better than Ford anyway, their primary goal is to keep him in the running. And, at least initially, that means making sure Reagan doesn't knock him out of the picture.
So now comes the reshuffle. Rockefeller of course had to go, as a clear political liability in the party. Who replaces him is unimportant--in fact, Ford can dangle the vice presidency until convention time to entice potential Reagan supporters. As for the cabinet and staff shakeup, the primary intention seems to have been the creation of an image, Gerald Ford as a decisive president. William Colby was clearly on the outs, Church committee revelations and good investigative journalism having dealt a virtual death blow to his credibility and that of the entire CIA. Replacing him now, in the context of other changes, merely served to reinforce the decisiveness image. And naming George Bush his successor is of course an appeal to the mainstream and conservative factions of the Republican Party, since Bush is a recognized party loyalist and former national chairman.
THE FIRING of James R. Schlesinger as Secretary of Defense probably had more complex roots. Schlesinger did appear to be more conservative than Ford and Kissinger on detente and on defense spending, and as such appealed to the right. But Schlesinger liked to perform apocalyptically for the press and the public, thus making Ford look weak. To further his decisive new image, Ford needs a SALT agreement, and Schlesinger's behavior in recent weeks indicated that he was hindering the SALT negotiations. Ford's "advisors" seem to feel, perhaps rightly, that a major foreign policy agreement, even one oriented toward detente, will do a great deal for their man's campaign, and they weren't about to let a holdover defense secretary ruin the big opportunity. And finally, Rumsfeld obviously wanted Schlesinger's job for himself. And right now Rumsfeld is very much in a position to call the shots.
As for the Kissinger demotion, this seems to be the clearest publicity gimmick of all. Reducing Kissinger's power slightly helps to project Ford as a take-charge president, a president who's not letting anybody else run the show or get out of hand. But meanwhile, the secretary's national security job goes to General Brent Scowcroft, a devoted disciple unlikely to challenge his policies. Kissinger is thereby appeased, and in fact probably pleased by the entire transition, which eliminates his nemesis Schlesinger and replaces him with a completely non-ideological political appointee, Donald Rumsfeld. And reducing Kissinger's power, even superficially, does have its appeal to Republican hard-liners.
The return of Eliot Richardson is another attempt by Ford forces to give the impression of consolidation--Richardson is a figure who consistently fares well in public opinion polls, and making him a member of Ford's team appears to be a minor maneuver designed to inspire national confidence in the administration.
Now whether all this shaking up makes Ford an electable commodity remains to be seen. But it is already clear that there are men who very badly want him to be just that. And one of them, the man who helped dismantle the Office of Economic Opportunity, just made himself Secretary of Defense.