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How Dumb Is Gerry Ford?


By Lewis Clayton

PEOPLE HAVE BEEN wondering about Gerry Ford's brains since he got into politics. When he first ran for Congress in 1948, campaign workers shuddered when Ford spoke to audiences, who found him likeable but unintelligent. Jerry terHorst, later to become President Ford's first press secretary, finally decided that "Gerry Ford wasn't dumb, he lacked knowledge." "I'm an old lineman." Ford says today. "I try to be a good blocker and tackler for the running back who carries the ball."

When Gerry became the second lineman in a row in the White House, there was bound to be criticism from journalists, who have traditionally favored the backfield. Writing in the Village Voice, Joe Flaherty praised New York Daily News sportswriter Dick Young as "a symbol of the strongman we crave," compared to "a president whose idea of economics is enlightened 'Sesame Street' and whose only decisive stroke in foreign policy was when he successfully negotiated a toasted English muffin."

To counter some of this bad publicity, Ford has allowed a couple of journalists to watch his decision-making powers at work. John Mashek of U.S. News and World Report spent a day with Ford, and John Hersey filled last week's New York Times Magazine with his report of a solid week with the president.

Mashek found that Ford "met with an imposing variety of people," in an "air of humming activity." Hersey, who couldn't keep his eyes off the "twinkling Adam chandeliers," the "proud Hoban columns like marble guardsmen," and the violins of the U.S. Marine Band, was similarly impressed. A lot happens during his week. Federal Reserve Board Chairman Burns explains the economy to the president, bringing with him "several charts; on some of them upwardness is visible." At a cabinet meeting the president asks Earl Butz. "Are the farmers happy. Earl?" Earl replies evenly. "No sir, they aren't."

General William Westmoreland visits, looking for a job and advises Ford to bomb the Ho Chi Minh trail and mine Halphong harbor for a month. Ford replies courteously. "Unfortunately, the law says we can't do that, Westy." Miss America stops by and almost forgets her pocketbook, but the president reminds her, "Better not leave your purse, Shirley. We've got some real bad characters around here." All the president's visitors have their pictures taken by the White House photographers, and Ford makes sure that they all get copies. The president's usual lunch, we learn, is cottage cheese drenched in A-1 sauce, with butter pecan ice cream on the side.

WHEN HERSEY SCREWS up his courage to ask Ford about the intelligence question, the president admits "I kind of resent the word 'plodder.' I would put it another way. I'm a determined person. And if I've got an objective. I'll make hours of sacrifice... I'd rather be a plodder and get someplace than have charisma and not make it."

From all of this, Ford emerges as a descent and likeable fellow, if for not other reason than that he allowed a perceptive novelist to poke around his office for a week. What Ford has over his recent predecessors is an air of confidence and "serenity." He tells Hersey that he hates "petty jealousies" among his staff worst of all, while Nixon seemed to thrive on them, and his tolerance for criticism stands cut in contrast to Johnson's vindictiveness.

And compared to his fellow presidents, a mixed lot at best. Ford is no dummy--he graduated in the top third of his class at Yale Law School. Although he admits that he reads only one book a month, and watches cowboy shows on T.V. for relaxation after work, Johnson, I.F. Stone wrote in 1963, "has hardly read a book in years" never reads when he can help it; prefers to get information by car, but rarely listens."

But what disturbs Hersey most about his week with the president is that he never sees policy made. On Wednesday Ford proposes an aviation and space industry show at Cape Canaveral, which is quickly dubbed "a sophisticated Disneyland" by one of his advisers, but this is the closest he comes to guiding the national destiny. This feeling also seems to disturb a large part of the public. In December, a Newsweek poll found that 57 per cent of the country felt that Ford's advisers make foreign policy on their own, and over one-third of the sample felt that this was a good idea.

FORD'S HALTING SPEECH and his occasional idiotic remarks contribute to this lack of confidence in his ability. In 1968, he opened a speech at Tulane University by saying. "Whenever a person is called upon to make a speech, the first question that enters his mind is. 'What shall I talk about?'" In some cases, he betrays plain ignorance. Responding to a question about his foreign policy experience during the Senate confirmation hearings on his nomination to the vice presidency. Ford claimed that his 12-day visit to China with the late Congressman Hale Boggs had given him "a unique opportunity to travel the length and breadth of China and to meet extensively with the top leaders of the People's Republic of China."

Stumbling over his words, Ford appears candid, and because he seems to have trouble thinking though his policies, he gives the impression that he is at least grappling with great issues. The truth is that Gerry Ford is not a man who can't think, but one who stopped thinking a long time ago. Hersey says of the Ford who requested useless military aid for Vietnam and Cambodia up to the last minute: "Once he has made such a [tough] decision, he does not agonize over it; rather, he becomes convinced of its rightness and is stubborn in its defense, even is unpopular politically hopeless and of the most improbable efficacy."

HIS FOREIGN POLICY stance remains what it was in 1948, when he ran as an "Internationalist" against an incumbent isolationist congressman. Ford campaigned in favor of the Marshall Plan, the United Nations, aid for veterans, as well as strong national defense. In his first term, Ford's Americans for Democratic Action rating was 13 per cent, rising to a surprising 67 per cent in 1966. But in 1967, he voted against OEO, Model Cities, and a federal rat control program--the Great Society left Gerry behind. In 1971, he was voting with congressional conservatives 87 per cent of the time, the second most ardent Nixon supporter.

Ford's theory of the economy is frankly conservative, a workable justification for positions like Ford's proposed hike in food stamp prices. "I happen to think that we should have great opportunity for people in this country to get ahead," Ford told Hersey. "I believe in saving... On the other hand, I enjoy material things... I enjoy nice clothes... I enjoy doing nice things. But I enjoy these things because I worked for them." Of the food stamp program. Ford says, "It's the ones who are sort of the fringe people who cause the most trouble and get the issue confused."

Gerry Ford is a grass roots politician, blessed with a zest for boring speeches and stupid occasions that would make a Brooklyn borough president proud. But Ford also has a clear conception of himself, and an unequivocal conviction that the country should be run for those people, like himself, who can scramble to the top. "Ford has a gyroscope in his gut that keeps him pointed towards the accepted platitudes of his class, race and milieu." Chilton Williamson Jr. wrote in The Nation.

Ford sees himself as a "Middle American," a person "who wants to have his country do what is right for everybody, who is concerned with the national security, who is willing to make sacrifices," and "a lot smarter than most politicians give him credit for being."

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