WHEN President Ford announced in his brief and sober inaugural address that "our long national nightmare is over," it wasn't just an attempt to lay the turbulent Nixon presidency to poetic rest. It was also a bit of wish-casting about the nation's deep partisan divisions heading forward. As the man who coined the phrase, Robert T. Hartmann, once said of the speech, it was intended to "bridge — but also divide — the past and the future."

But the future didn't cooperate, as Hartmann himself was soon to discover bitterly during his tenure as Cabinet-level counselor to the president. Two other Ford administration heavyweights — Nixon holdovers Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney — outmaneuvered Ford's most trusted lieutenant in launching what would become a career-long struggle to maintain and expand the powers of the executive branch against what they saw as a feckless Congress and media. This constitutional blood-feud continues to fundamentally shape the way the United States is governed today.

"At the end of the Nixon administration, you had the nadir of the modern presidency in terms of authority and legitimacy," Vice President Cheney told reporters in December 2005, in defense of the National Security Agency's possibly illegal wiretapping of American citizens. In January 2002, Cheney told ABC's Cokie Roberts: "I feel an obligation, and I know the president does too … to pass on our offices in better shape than we found them to our successors. We are weaker today as an institution because of the unwise compromises that have been made over the last 30 to 35 years."

The Bush-Cheney administration has systematically limited or flouted many of the post-Watergate laws introduced by the reform-minded Congress of 1974. The NSA wiretapping program, for example, circumvents the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that Cheney and Rumsfeld (along with then-CIA Director George H.W. Bush) lobbied against during the Ford era. The Presidential Records Act, prompted by Richard Nixon's attempts to destroy his files and recordings, was gutted by President George W. Bush in 2002, when he gave all his predecessors unlimited veto power over what had been automatic declassifications. And the Freedom of Information Act, which was greatly strengthened in 1974 over Ford's veto (even though he had supported the update as a congressman), was limited by then-Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft in October 2001, when he instructed federal agencies to err on the side of nondisclosure.

Activities that shocked the country 32 years ago are now being codified into law, at the behest of the Ford administration veterans. Just last month, Bush claimed in a signing statement for a new postal law that the FBI has a right to open your mail without permission from a judge; in 1974, revelations that the CIA had been rifling through letterboxes helped trigger the landmark Church Commission hearings — which Cheney tried to block.

Hartmann, a Times reporter from 1939 to 1964 (with time out for service in the Navy during World War II), was no fan of the Nixon staffers, who he derisively referred to as "the Establishment." He blamed them for Ford's 1976 defeat and warned about their influence early in the Reagan era. Rumsfeld, he thought, was a cunning opportunist, while his sycophantic assistant Cheney, according to Hartmann's 1980 memoir, was "somewhat to the right of Ford, Rumsfeld or, for that matter, Genghis Kahn."

The feeling was mutual. Rumsfeld eventually undermined Hartmann by arguing successfully that the counselor's office — which shared a door with Ford's — should be converted into a presidential study. Cheney, dissatisfied with the speeches Hartmann was writing for the president (especially a historic April 1975 Tulane University address in which Ford declared the Vietnam War was "finished as far as America is concerned"), simply created his own separate speechwriting shop. And Nixon Chief of Staff Alexander Haig landed the most lasting blow of all by working around the counselor to discuss with then-Vice President Ford the possibility of pardoning the outgoing chief executive.

Last week, Ford was buried to eulogies from Rumsfeld, Cheney, Henry Kissinger and both Bushes. The sentiments from official Republican Washington seemed nearly unanimous — the antidote to Watergate was "healing," and the man from Michigan's greatest single act was giving a blanket pardon to the president who had done the most to accumulate and abuse executive power in modern history.

Even as they spoke, news was breaking about the Bush administration's latest assertion of unreviewable executive privilege — refusing to tell Congress how the CIA interrogates prisoners. Hartmann, now 89 years old, sat silently in the audience.

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matt.welch@latimes.com