Reflects on the Presidency
by Trude B. Feldman
Sunday, July 20, 2003
In an interview for this milestone birthday, he is a picture of health and is in an expansive mood while reviewing his life's journey.
Carla Hills, Ford's Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), describes vivid memories of President Ford's willingness and capacity to debate issues openly and to reach decisions expeditiously.
"I witnessed his extraordinary grasp of the substance of issues brought to him. His decisions were guided by principles, not polls. His judgments were shaped by what he thought was just and right for our nation.How has the presidency evolved since Gerald Ford departed the White House 26 l/2 years ago? "The office changes with each president," he responds. "Each occupant defines the role and his responsibilities. It depends on the person."
He further notes that there is "a majesty" to the presidency that inhibits even close aides, friends and heads of state from telling the chief executive what is actually on their minds - especially in the Oval Office. "You can ask for blunt truth, but the guarded response never varies," he says. "To keep perspective, any president needs to hear straight talk. And he should, at times, come down from the pedestal the office provides.
"I am still convinced that truth is the glue that holds government together - not only our government, but civilization itself."
From his experiences, Gerald Ford cautions future presidents about general abuse of power and the dangers of over-reliance on staff. Citing problems with staff mismanagement, he - even today - is concerned about the image of the presidency. The dilemma, he says, is that there is no solution for over-zealous employees who aren't instructed that they work for the president and for the people, and not the other way around.
He maintains that staff members are not elected by the people and that the president himself ought to determine how much trust to invest in assistants. "Otherwise," he emphasizes, "the ramifications of their arrogance and abuse of power - particularly by secondary and lower level staff - can be and has been dangerous."
He concurs with one of President Lyndon Johnson's press secretaries, George E. Reedy, who wrote in his book ("The Twilight of the Presidency"): "Presidents should not hire assistants under 40 years old, who had not suffered any major disappointments. When amateurs find themselves in the West Wing or the East Wing of the White House, they begin to think they are little tin gods."
In his autobiography, "A Time To Heal," Gerald Ford writes: "Reedy left the White House staff several years before, but he was predicting the climate that had led to 'Watergate' and that is disturbing." Mr. Ford also writes that throughout his political career, nothing upset him more than the bickering among members of his staff. "It was time-consuming, terribly distracting and unnecessary," he points out. "I told my aides I would not tolerate it. But it continued, even accelerated in the White House."
Today, Gerald Ford still has "sympathy and understanding for any president undergoing periods of stress and turmoil - having gone through that myself."
President Ford talked about his religiosity which, over the years, has stood him in good stead. He regards himself as a man of deep religious conviction.
For him, the words "In God We Trust" on American currency, are more than a national motto. He sees them as a kind of 'testament' followed by Americans from the earliest days of our nation's history. "From the beginning," he says, "America has declared her dependence on God and placed our trust in Him. This is one of our country's strengths."
He adds: "There is a higher spirit, a nobler spirit which pervades our national life, and makes the quality of our lives more important than the quantity of our possessions or our individual honors. That spirit - that infinite spirit of hope, of compassion and love - has lived through the ages. We are fortunate that God's spirit has dwelt so long and richly blessed so many Americans. Material things are fleeting; that which is spiritual stays with us and is immortal."
(edited by David Van Alstyne)
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