THE SELLING OF THE EX-PRESIDENT : Nixon and Carter Just Wrote Books. Ford Had a Better Idea.
GERALD R. FORD, the 38th President of the United States, leans back in his easy chair, puffs his pipe and inspects his conscience.
Ford is sitting in the office leased for him by the federal General Services Administration in Rancho Mirage, down the road from Palm Springs. The room resembles the den of a successful small-town lawyer, with a fireplace, a few potted plants, books stuffed into shelves, a bust of Abraham Lincoln, a paperback copy of “Iacocca,” and a wooden nameplate on the desk. A few feet away from his office, Ford’s home lies next to the 13th green at the Thunderbird Country Club. Lemon and orange trees line the garden; behind them, the mountains rise from the desert in the late afternoon sun. It is a quiet, peaceful scene. Ford appears unencumbered and content.
This is, by tradition, as it should be. There’s a pattern to the life of a former President. First he writes his memoirs. Then he turns up at charitable functions, usually those that require a bag of clubs and plaid pants. Eventually he resurfaces only at the quadrennial political conventions, an ever paler reminder of faded glory. As his hair thins, his stature grows. He becomes a national treasure; old enemies bury the hatchet, and one day an aging columnist who cut his teeth as a cub reporter on his first campaign half a century ago is assigned to dig out his old notebooks and write an obituary.
Gerald Ford, of all people, has broken the pattern. He’s done all the things Presidents are expected to do in their retirement--he has taught at colleges, stumped for candidates, devoted many hours to charity and developed a comfortable paunch. But he’s done more. The serenity in Rancho Mirage is misleading; he hasn’t really retired. With the counsel of a small circle of advisers and the assistance of a large circle of well-placed friends, Gerald Ford has undertaken a serious second career in the business world.
Before Ford left Washington, his business experience was limited. “When I was in Congress I was on the board of one relatively small Grand Rapids company. Before I became House minority leader I was also on the board of a bank in Grand Rapids,” he says. “When I became minority leader, I immediately resigned. So I had some preliminary experience, but strictly with local western Michigan corporations.”
Now he is playing in the big time. During the past six years, Ford has served as a director of or consultant for more than a dozen major companies. Ford has put his name on at least one commercial product (a series of gold and silver medals depicting 100 significant events in the history of the presidency). He has formed a small investment company with his close friend, the former U.S. ambassador to Belgium, Leonard K. Firestone, an heir to the Firestone fortune. He has offered his views on world affairs to NBC for a seven-figure price. And, for the first time in his life, through his own hard work and the help of his friends, he is a very wealthy man.
Ford’s ascent to affluence is not unusual in itself. Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter also have done well financially since leaving Washington. But they made their money mostly by writing books, the way former Presidents customarily have funded their golden years (though Nixon also profited from selling his houses).
Ford has challenged the boundaries of what a President is supposed to do after his political time has passed. His tenure as a congressman and as President was by and large non-controversial, but his post-presidential career has been contentious virtually from the day he left the Oval Office. In 1978, when he endorsed the medal collection, an editorial in the New York Times lamented, “We wish he could earn his way without dragging the presidency into it.” Both Carter and Nixon have expressed misgivings about Ford’s business career to friends, though Ford says neither of the two has spoken to him about it. One Nixon confidant says the former President “disapproves of the way Gerald Ford has sold the presidency. No question about it.”
So when Ford is asked whether he believes he bears any responsibility to the public as a former President, there is much to consider. He contemplates the question for a moment. Then he says: “You have a public responsibility to make certain that what you do in no way whatsoever undercuts what the presidency stands for.” He pauses for only another moment. “I have been scrupulous in making sure I did not violate that. As long as I feel that I constructively and productively contributed to an organization that asks me to join, and as long as they are satisfied with my performance, I feel totally justified in doing it.”
Others may draw different lines, but Gerald Ford insists that his conscience is clear. Whether it should be is a more complicated question, which requires a little history.
PICTURE GERALD FORDon Nov. 3, 1976. He had invested 25 years in Washington, most of them mucking through the depths of obscurity that only minority members of the House of Representatives can truly fathom. In his stolid way, Ford had endured slights concerning his style, his abilities, his intelligence. Even in his first real moment of glory, the day in 1973 when Richard Nixon named him vice president, it was widely known that Ford was not Nixon’s first choice, nor his second, nor even his third. The others--John B. Connally, Ronald Reagan, Nelson Rockefeller--had too many enemies.
So Ford got the No. 2 job, and then he got the Oval Office. He became commander in chief, leader of the Free World. And then, almost as soon as it started, it ended. Ford had no one to blame but himself. In the closing days of the campaign, he had blown out his voice, and his advisers sensed that he had blown the election, too, in that fateful debate with Jimmy Carter when Ford announced to the bewilderment of millions that, in his eyes, the Soviet Union most certainly did not control the nations of Eastern Europe.
All that was behind him now. On the day after the election, still hoarse and rasping, Ford summoned a White House military assistant named Robert E. Barrett and asked him to stay on as his executive assistant after he left office. An Army officer from Brooklyn without any political experience, Barrett was eager to return to civilian life. More important, he was willing to play hardball to defend Ford’s interests when necessary.
Barrett resigned his military commission and moved down the block into the Executive Office Building to begin organizing Gerald Ford’s post-presidential career. Ford’s first choice, of course, was to continue his career in politics, but he wasn’t interested in any office except the presidency, and he couldn’t run again for another three years. In between he’d have to do something, but Barrett--and Ford--weren’t quite sure what that something was.
Then the telephone began ringing.
Businessmen were calling with job offers: The University of Michigan wanted him to teach; Pepperdine University thought he would be an ideal chancellor; also on the line were investment opportunities, political requests, seminars, think tanks, television producers, charities, foundations. “Ford comes out and everybody likes him,” recalled Barrett, who has opened a public relations business in Rancho Mirage but still works closely with Ford. “And there’s this new market out there. People are coming after him.” Lots of people. Even Ford was amazed by the torrent of calls. “I never had that experience before,” he says, “so it was quite surprising.”
It wasn’t long before Barrett realized he had his hands on a hot property.
OF ALL THE CALLS that cascaded into the White House in the days after the election, the most intriguing came from Norman R. Brokaw. At the time, Brokaw was a vice president of the William Morris Agency. (Today he’s co-chairman of the board.)
Brokaw doesn’t look the part of an agent. He’s a short, carefully spoken, unflamboyant man who resembles a pharmacist more than he does a Hollywood operator. Brokaw has spent his entire adult life rising through the ranks at William Morris. He seems fond of everyone he knows and fonder still of using superlatives to describe them; talking with Brokaw is a little like spending an hour with Joey Bishop.
But Brokaw is quietly insistent and consistently effective. He is always working and always calculating. When swimmer Mark Spitz won his seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics, Brokaw, sensing the commercial potential, introduced himself to Spitz’s parents instead of flying to Munich. Brokaw got the account and marketed Spitz more aggressively than anyone had ever marketed an Olympian. “I took Spitz--he never even had a suit, he was always in his swimming things--and I came out with a game plan for him,” Brokaw says. “That set the model for future Olympians: Now, when they win a medal, their goal becomes cash.”
Brokaw met Gerald Ford through Don Penny, a former client who had been a television writer and performer. After Ford became President, the White House hired Penny to lighten Ford’s speeches. When Brokaw saw a newspaper photo of his former client huddling with the President, he had his secretary call Penny at the White House.
Penny, meanwhile, was already playing matchmaker. “I had gotten very close to the Ford family since I came to the White House,” Penny says, “and I became very concerned that he had a highfalutin job but he didn’t have any money in the bank. So I said to him: ‘I’ve got this friend in California named Brokaw who has got a tremendous talent. Mr. President, the bottom line is, after you meet with Norman you won’t be worth this $300,000 but $9 million, and that’s a much better number.’ ”
Penny quickly arranged a White House meeting between his agent and Ford. There Brokaw volunteered to help out in the fall campaign. Nothing came of that. But Ford was impressed, finding Brokaw “very bright, very knowledgeable and very aggressive.” After the election, Ford arranged to meet Brokaw in Rancho Mirage, at the home of the President’s friend, Leonard Firestone.
Ford was now ready to begin considering his options. His first condition was that he didn’t want to devote himself to any one job. “I made a very firm commitment that I did not want to be tied up with a full-time job,” he says. “I’d had enough of that in Washington, which was more than a full-time job. I wanted the flexibility to pick and choose what I would do. So I turned down commitments that involved six months or more of my time.”
Those ground rules left Ford plenty of alternatives. For starters, he wanted to dabble in academia and help worthy causes. That was easily arranged. Ford joined the American Enterprise Institute--a sober, conservative Washington think tank, which orchestrated a series of campus appearances for him. And there was no shortage of charities that wanted a former President at their events.
Ford also wanted to make money. As he left the White House, he “was primarily concerned with participating in the free-enterprise system and taking care of his family,” says Washington lawyer Dean Burch, who served as Ford’s personal attorney during the transition. Ford was entitled to annual congressional and presidential pensions worth almost $100,000 at the time. But he signaled that he had bigger numbers in mind when he decided to move to Rancho Mirage.
It was a natural place for Ford to settle. “Starting sometime in the 1960s, my wife and I started taking our April Easter break out here to get a little relaxation,” he says. “We had some friends in Southern California who we could get together with. We would rent a place and spend about a week playing golf, relaxing, and we figured this was an ideal spot for Betty’s health--she has arthritis. I like to play golf and there are a lot of golf courses here.”
But Rancho Mirage was a long way from Grand Rapids, or even suburban Alexandria, Va., where Ford lived while in Congress. When Ford moved in, one of his new neighbors was moved to tell a reporter: “I feel sorry for him. He can’t survive up there on just $100,000 a year.”
Making more, considerably more, would have been easy for Ford, since several businesses were dangling lucrative opportunities before him. But Ford felt that he couldn’t accept those offers if he wanted to leave open the option of running again in 1980. “If I ran, I did not want to have to explain any business activities,” he says.
Brokaw pointed the way out of the box. Brokaw presented Ford with a coordinated plan more ambitious than any ever prepared for a departing President: He wanted Ford to write a book, appear regularly on one of the television networks and deliver lectures for a substantial fee. Such a program, Brokaw argued, would keep Ford in the public eye and assure his financial security as well.
“I saw it as an extension of the office of the presidency,” Brokaw says. “Before, Presidents didn’t go out and get a network deal or necessarily go out and lecture. I don’t recall Harry Truman going out and lecturing or doing a broadcast deal. But I felt time had moved on.”
Ford liked what he heard. “The way Brokaw described it, it seemed like a very constructive thing for me to do,” he says. After meeting with Brokaw three times, Ford told the agent to proceed with his plan after Inauguration Day. Financially, from that moment on, Ford never looked back.
The day after Jimmy Carter took the oath of office, Gerald Ford was in Pebble Beach, slicing his way through the Bing Crosby Pro-Am golf tournament. Norman Brokaw was already on the telephone. The network deal fell into place first.
“On Inauguration Day, I knew one network had expressed an interest in Ford, and I quickly spoke to each of the networks,” Brokaw says. “Herb Schlosser (then president of NBC) got very enthused and excited. He immediately dispatched Al Rush, who was a vice president at NBC, to come out and meet with me.”
Rush and Brokaw, working with Burch and Barrett, briskly concluded a deal under which NBC paid Ford about $1 million to appear in documentaries and be available for other interviews over the next five years. For good measure, Brokaw negotiated a half-million-dollar contract for Betty Ford to appear on two NBC specials. (In 1979, after lackluster response to the Fords’ specials, NBC announced an “amicable termination” to the agreement.)
Next came the book contracts. Owen Laster, from Morris’ literary department, arranged an unusual deal in which Harper & Row and Reader’s Digest agreed to jointly publish separate memoirs from the former President and his wife. Those contracts were worth another $1 million to the Fords. Though the money didn’t carry any special-interest taint, the magnitude of those deals nevertheless sent shudders through some of those around Ford. In a Washington Post article, Jerald F. terHorst, Ford’s first presidential press secretary, accused Ford of assenting to the “huckstering and hustling and merchandising of the presidency.” Barry N. Roth, a young White House attorney who served as counsel to Ford’s transition team in early 1977, thought that the route Ford had chosen would lead irrevocably away from a political comeback.
“I’m not sure they really realized it,” says Roth, now vice president of government affairs for The Williams Companies. “The emphasis was placed on assuring Ford’s future comfort and setting a life style that was a little different than the other former Presidents. I didn’t think that maximizing your financial opportunities was the best way to prepare to run for President.”
Roth kept his opinion to himself, and Ford didn’t seem to share his concerns. In 1978, Ford carried as heavy a campaign schedule as any of the other putative Republican contenders. On the eve of the 1980 primary season, he indicated that he was ready to be drafted if his party demanded him. Ford received some private encouragement, but no public support, and on March 15, 1980, he bowed to the inevitable. He announced that he wouldn’t enter the race and ended his political career.
AT ITS HIGHEST POINT, every arena of American life--from Washington to Hollywood to Wall Street--is capped by a concentration of power that operates so far above the normal channels that it might as well be in a jet stream. This jet stream is the conduit of casual friendships that links the handful of men and women at the summit of American government and business. The jet stream blows through board rooms, certain country clubs, and discreet dining rooms in the capital and binds them all. It is where America’s leaders quietly and privately conduct their affairs.
On the day in 1980 that he announced he would not seek the presidency, Gerald Ford gave himself to the jet stream. His career since that day is a paradigm of its function. Once Ford eased into its flow, the jet stream blew to him the kind of opportunities for which one cannot apply.
At this level of the world, it is axiomatic that what matters most is who you know. And who knew more people than Jerry Ford? He knew people in government; he had friends and former fund-raisers who were corporate executives; from his years on Capitol Hill, and especially his 895 days as President, he had acquired contacts around the world; in Rancho Mirage he had mingled with more of the powerful and the wealthy. These people wanted to ease his path into the private world. They wanted to thank him for all he had done for the Republican Party and the country. They wanted to help him assure the financial security of his family. And they were calling, asking if there was anything they could do.
Once Ford abandoned hope of taking the nomination away from Reagan, he and Barrett began returning the calls. It was a seller’s market. “I’ve never asked to join a company; I’ve always responded to a request,” Ford says. “I picked those companies where I knew the individuals. I was very scrupulous in picking those where there was no conflict of interest. I was very careful to be affiliated with companies that I think had a good reputation. I probably turned down three (offers) for every one I accepted.”
Just 12 days after withdrawing his name from the presidential race, Ford joined his first corporate board of directors. Santa Fe International Corp. was only a moderately sized international oil-drilling company, but it had good connections to Ford. Roderick M. Hills, who worked for Ford in the White House and then chaired the Securities and Exchange Commission, had been on the Santa Fe board since early 1977. In January, 1980, Santa Fe acquired C. F. Braun & Co., an energy and construction company, and with it, oil consultant Darius N. Keaton Jr., an old friend of Ford’s, who sat on Braun’s board of directors.
Soon after Keaton arrived at Santa Fe, he asked Hills what he thought about asking Ford to join the company. Hills liked the idea. “It was a California company,” Hills says. “It only met six times a year. And the President did have an expertise--unlike some of the other boards he’s on--because we deal with geopolitical issues.” Hills asked the chief executive officer, E. L. Shannon Jr., Shannon asked Ford, and the former President accepted. (Kuwait Petroleum Corp. acquired Santa Fe in 1981, and Ford remained on the board until he retired from it last year, drawing some criticism along the way for serving in a company controlled by foreigners.)
Now came the jet stream’s heavier gusts. Six weeks later, Ford joined the board of G. K. Technologies. Eight days after that he was elected to the board of Shearson Loeb Rhoades, a Wall Street brokerage. Ford also signed consulting deals with both companies.
Shearson pursued Ford aggressively, primarily at the instigation of Milton R. Fenster, a New York public relations consultant responsible for burnishing the firm’s image. Fenster first tried out the idea on Frank Zarb, a former Shearson executive who had been energy czar in the Ford Administration. Zarb told him that landing Ford would be a “real coup” for Shearson, which was still considered nouveau by the street’s bluebloods. Fenster met several times with Ford, and after a breakfast summit at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel between Ford and Shearson’s ambitious chairman, Sanford I. Weill, the former President took his first step onto Wall Street.
“Shearson very much wanted a former President on the board because they were a Johnny-come-lately on Wall Street,” says Tim Carrington, author of “The Year They Sold Wall Street,” a book about Shearson’s eventual sale to American Express Co. “One of the problems they had was getting in corporate board rooms--getting big companies to give them investment-banking business. They needed some panache, something to say they were Establishment.”
More offers fluttered in. Over the next few months Ford joined the board of directors of Tiger International, the air cargo company, and AMAX Inc., the mineral giant. He became a consultant to both of those firms, too. In 1981, his friend Marvin Davis acquired 20th Century Fox Film Corp. and put him on the board. Around that time, Texas Commerce Bank lost a board member when James A. Baker III went to the White House as chief of staff. Already on the bank’s board was Robert Mosbacher, a Houston oilman who was Ford’s top fund-raiser in the 1976 campaign. “I had seen that he had gone onto a board somewhere else, and the idea of asking him to join Texas Commerce just popped into my head,” Mosbacher recalled.
Connections begat connections.
Raymond K. Mason, chairman of the Charter Co.--a troubled oil, insurance and communications conglomerate--had met Ford when he was vice president. Mason stayed in touch over the years, and in 1980, he hired Ford as a consultant to Charter.
Later, Charter obtained a substantial stock holding in Tesoro Petroleum Corp., and with it the right to name two members of the company’s board of directors. Tesoro’s chairman and chief executive, Robert V. West Jr., was a big Gerald Ford fan. West had met Ford a few times in the late 1970s at political events, but he really came to know the former President at the World Forum, an annual event held by Ford on behalf of the American Enterprise Institute.
At the forum, a select group of about 50 business chief executives and two dozen world leaders get together for a weekend of off-the-record discussions in Beaver Creek, Colo. They hold workshops on economic policy, sip cocktails at Ford’s nearby condominium, walk around in shirt sleeves, and ease through the kind of unstructured, unobserved mingling that propels the jet stream.
Many of the corporate executives swear by the event, West among them. It was there that he developed a deep respect for Ford. So when Mason called West to discuss Charter’s seats on the Tesoro board, West says he told Mason: “ ‘You should be one of the directors, and if you haven’t got your mind made up, could you get Gerald Ford as the other?’ He said he would try, and Ford agreed, which tickled me to death.” West not only put Ford on his board, but hired him as a consultant as well.
As the corporate offers rolled in, business opportunities appeared, too. In August, 1979, Ford and Leonard Firestone formed a company called Fordstone Inc. Fordstone invested in a controversial hotel and residential project, called The Mirada, that the Houston-based Federated Development Co. wanted to build in the hills surrounding Rancho Mirage, despite the objections of local environmentalists. Looking for a way to make opponents “more comfortable” with the project, Federated briefed Ford and Firestone on the development and, after they indicated their support, invited the two in as the only limited partners, says Sidney Kibrick, The Mirada’s managing partner.
Ford became the leading proponent of the project and helped Federated defeat a 1983 local referendum aimed at stopping it. “There is no doubt when they had Mr. Firestone and Mr. Ford going to cocktail parties and saying that would be a good project, that was very difficult to combat,” says Anita B. Richmond, a Rancho Mirage City Council member who was one of the development’s principal opponents.
According to Kibrick, Fordstone subsequently withdrew its investment, without receiving a return, while the developer tried to more precisely determine the costs of the project. That review is expected to be completed by next June, and Kibrick says there is “no question Fordstone will be involved” again at that point. Fordstone’s investments are currently confined to two Colorado radio stations, Barrett says.
Ford now sits on eight boards and is a consultant to eight companies (including five for which he is also a board member). Ford had to leave several boards recently because he reached the mandatory retirement age (he’s 73), and he says he will be leaving most of the rest in the next few years. He can afford to slow down. Last year, the companies with which Ford is affiliated paid him at least $541,300, according to a review of corporate records by the Media General News Service. Ford also gives about 30 speeches a year at $12,000 to $15,000 each and receives a substantial stipend from the American Enterprise Institute. His pensions as a former President and representative last year brought him $153,268. In his retirement, Ford has become a multimillionaire.
WHY DO SO many companies want Ford around? It’s not unusual for businesses to hire former government officials to open doors. An ex-President carries a lot of keys. But Barrett and the companies that employ Ford insist that he almost never lobbies directly, though he does offer his assessment of how to approach officials.
If Ford doesn’t open doors, what does he do? The executives who work with him universally agree that he is a diligent director. He shows up for meetings, reads the briefing papers and asks questions. But, as Ford himself says, “I rely on those who have been involved in that aspect of the business in making business judgments.”
In any case, inviting Ford into the board room doesn’t appear to be as risky for management as taking onto the board, say, H. Ross Perot. Ford’s views on business are soft-edged, celebratory; he sees no merit in the criticism--appearing now with increasing frequency from top Reagan Administration officials--that flabby corporate management bears much of the responsibility for the country’s competitiveness problems. “It is a very competitive situation,” he says. “On the other hand, I admire the response of the American business community in meeting these challenges. I wish government would analyze itself as effectively as most business corporations have done.”
Several of the companies say they prize Ford for his ability to analyze trends in government policy and world affairs. At Texas Commerce, he is chairman of the board’s international banking committee. “We wanted his international experience,” says Ben F. Love, the bank’s chairman and chief executive officer.
International experience is nice, but a lot of people can bring international experience to a board. Government experience is nice, too, but board candidates with high-level Washington experience are common. There is, however, only one ex-President who is joining corporate boards. As long as Carter and Nixon spurn the business world, Ford, in effect, carries the exclusive copyright. And that allows him to offer a company something even more singular than experience. He offers them cachet.
Ford helps companies get noticed. When they hire Ford, they buy his imprimatur, too. Asked what Ford added to his board, Donald G. Stark, president of Nova Pharmaceutical Corp., says, “Compared to other ex-Presidents or what?” Nova is a Baltimore-based pharmaceuticals company with a glittering array of scientific talent and a shelf full of promises, but as yet with no government-approved new drugs. Bringing Ford on board was a way for Stark to assert that Nova was an enterprise worthy of attention and respect.
It seemed to work. “At the time when he joined us we had an increase in activity, approaches by Japanese companies, perhaps because they had a good image of him,” Stark says. “I’m certain that the name Ford was important at that stage of our life.”
At Shearson, Ford served the same function. So, too, at Santa Fe. “It wasn’t that we weren’t on the map,” says Hills, who left the company’s board several years ago, “but in the drilling business you are dealing with a lot of state companies, you’re dealing with the government, and the fact that the President was on our board, we felt, would cause us to be treated more substantially.”
The symbolism of a former President on the payroll isn’t aimed only at investors and foreign governments. Officials at IDS Financial Services, a Minnesota-based American Express subsidiary that markets financial products to Middle America, have brought Ford to sales meetings as a way of encouraging their troops. “Everybody always likes to sit around and talk to a former President,” one senior American Express official says. “You have a drink or have your picture taken with him, and these people come back inspired.”
TEN YEARS AFTER HEleft the White House, Ford’s business career still raises hackles. For years, Sen. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.) has argued that it is wrong for an ex-President to use taxpayer funds to help generate income. In addition to his pensions, as a former President, Ford last year received federally funded office support of $286,000 (primarily for a six-member staff and his 4,135-square-foot office in Rancho Mirage), and the Secret Service spent more than $3 million to protect him. Chiles is fond of saying that Ford costs the government so much money every time he delivers a speech that the taxpayers could save a few bucks by paying him to stay home.
That’s a sensitive subject for the Ford camp. A mention of Chiles’ remark drives Barrett into an extended riff of profanity. Chiles has repeatedly introduced legislation to cut back on office support and protection for the former Presidents, and his staff is optimistic about the prospects for such a measure in the current session of Congress. But the cost of maintaining the ex-Presidents is really a secondary issue. In an era of trillion-dollar budgets, the actual expenditures (about $27 million a year, including the presidential libraries) aren’t that significant.
The real question is defining what we expect from a former President. The answer has never been clear, though it is apparent that some boundaries exist. In part, the criticism of Ford’s second career reflects the enduring feeling, even in the gilded age of Reagan, that business is somehow base. Says Texas Commerce Chairman Love: “To have an activist possessing the energy that Gerald Ford has, who gets down in the trenches with those who are trying to create jobs--well, that’s the most constructive use of our former President’s time I could imagine.”
But the employment of Ford also carries a whiff of indulgence and distraction in the board room. It’s not only salesmen who enjoy palling around with a former President. “Some business people want the image that they’re associated with big names,” says John M. Nash, president of the National Assn. of Corporate Directors. “They want to say ‘I’ve got the ex-President around, I’ve got the former chief of the armed services.’ They are putting them on the board for cosmetic purposes, not because they know about business.”
A generation ago, Wall Street gave to Washington its best--the wise men of the Eastern Establishment, who guided the State Department with imperious grace. Now the movement seems to be in the other direction. Ford, of course, isn’t the only former government official who has found the corporate world congenial. Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, through his consulting business and his stints on several boards, is a familiar face in business circles. David A. Stockman, former director of the Office of Management and Budget, joined Salomon Brothers. Just-departed White House spokesman Larry Speakes has signed up with Merrill Lynch & Co. at a reported six-figure salary. Not only familiar figures spin through the revolving door. Pentagon officers responsible for monitoring quality control regularly join defense contractors after leaving government. Anonymous agency officials routinely accept jobs in the industries they regulated.
Like many observers of the capital’s rituals, political scientist James David Barber of Duke University worries that the prospect of high-paying business jobs can shape the decisions government officials make while in office. “It is corrupting,” says Barber, a leading student of the presidency. “There is a mythology of transition, when people leave, which is designed to make you believe they hadn’t thought while in office about what they were going to do when they left. That’s not how the world works.”
In Ford’s case, the circumstances of his transition diminish that concern. After leaving office, he waited four years before joining any companies; it’s improbable that his decisions as President were affected by the imminent expectation of another job. And since he’s launched his business career, Ford, fearing conflict of interest, has shied away from defense contractors, whose prosperity is built almost solely on sales to the federal government.
In a broad sense, Ford’s business career is a natural progression. Others may have expected something different from Ford--some of his former aides speak wistfully of an elder-statesman role he hasn’t quite assumed--but Ford himself never seemed to share their expectations. He was reared on the pieties of free enterprise; long ago he absorbed them, and now they have absorbed him. He sees nothing in his business career that requires great soul-searching or introspection. No, he says, it doesn’t bother him that the other living former Presidents have refused the business opportunities offered them. “Each one of us has our interests.” No, he’s never asked the companies he works for why they want him around. “I assumed they had good reasons.” Ford’s weary voice makes it apparent that he doesn’t quite see what all the fuss is about. His conscience is clear.
“It is all totally in character,” says Michael Kammen, a professor of American history at Cornell University. “It is important to keep in mind that throughout his career in Congress, Ford was extraordinarily chummy with business.”
It may be, as Kammen suspects, that Ford is unique and unlikely to be emulated by future Presidents. But Barber isn’t so sure. What worries him more than the example Ford has set for his successors in the Oval Office is the message that his business career sends to thousands of lower-level officials contemplating their options for life after government.
“Isn’t it the case that the worst ethical exemplars are otherwise good people who do terrible things?” Barber asks. “If someone who is otherwise admirable, like Gerald Ford, takes a wrong action, that is more a precedent for error than if the same thing had been done by a political rascal.”