They were presidents all, one incumbent and three exes, gathered beneath the towering spires of the National Cathedral to pay reverential last respects to their colleague who lay in a flag-draped coffin.
Theirs is a most exclusive club, one that forges a special bond that has time and again proven stronger than the differences that once divided them. For they alone know what it is like to bear the burdens of the United States presidency.
There is one burden — isolation — that is considered intrinsic to all who worked in the Oval Office. Yet I discovered years ago that burden was never really a problem for the man these presidents came to honor and respect.
As the funeral of President Gerald R. Ford was being celebrated Tuesday morning, I found myself thinking about the isolation that is perhaps the most detrimental and even most dangerous of all the burdens that afflict just about all of America’s presidents. And how it happened that Ford avoided this isolation — and, too, how the present incumbent has been so crippled by it.
Ford might have become a victim of the impenetrable bubble that shields presidents from reality and truth — except he was outstandingly served by a gutsy young assistant. When Ford was preparing for his 1976 presidential campaign against Jimmy Carter, this assistant oversaw the writing of one of the most extraordinary memos ever given any president. It made sure that Ford would not be isolated by insiders who tell presidents only what they want to hear.
I was permitted to read the memo that year and make extensive notes for my book, “Running for President, 1976.” It read:
“In the following ‘perception’ analysis, we have tried to capture the current perception of the President (Ford) and Carter,” the memo told Ford. “…These perceptions … are a reflection of how the TV viewer and newspaper reader ‘sees’ you. We have presented this with the ‘bark’ off because we must solve this perception problem in order to successfully communicate your leadership qualities. This obstacle must be overcome or there is no chance for victory.”
The memo bluntly told Ford: “You are not now perceived as being a strong, decisive leader by anywhere near a majority of the American people.” Then came bullet points summing up negative public perceptions of Ford:
“Not decisive. Not really on top of the job. Doesn’t seem to have a clear view of where he is going and why; doesn’t seem to understand our problems or have solutions for them. …Not in control of government. HAK (Henry A. Kissinger) and others seem to be able to control him; he is their puppet. He doesn’t seem to want to use his power and authority. Makes errors, may not be smart enough to do the job.”
This was followed by a plan of action.
Ford was helped significantly by that tough-talk memo. It enabled him to confront reality, campaign strongly, make up a huge deficit in the polls and come within a whisker of winning.
The assistant who served his president so well in 1976 by making sure his boss didn’t fall victim to endemic isolation was his clear-eyed and even courageous young chief of staff, Dick Cheney, who was counseled on the value of balance and perspective by his mentor, Don Rumsfeld.
Fast-forward three decades. Cheney has confronted his own mortality on a number of cardiac occasions and emerged as a hardened figure who now served his president mainly by forcing upon him a worldview as he saw it. As in: The Iraq insurgency is in its last throes. Damn the torpedoes, damn the public perceptions and world opinions — full speed ahead!
In the presidency of George W. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld worked hard to assure the isolation of a commander-in-chief who himself seemed willfully determined to have it no other way. After the toppling of Saddam Hussein, President Bush seemed unaware that no one in his administration was really in charge of whatever would then be happening in Iraq. Cheney and Rumsfeld told him things were well in hand.
And when the worst decisions of all were made — disbanding the Iraqi army, banning all from Saddam’s party from the government — there is no evidence that Cheney and Rumsfeld ever passed along the urgent contrary warnings that if this happened, no one would be left to secure Iraq’s arsenals nor run its agencies. It became infectious. Bob Woodward’s book, “State of Denial,” reveals that although America’s first man-in-Baghdad, Jay Garner, objected vehemently to Rumsfeld about these moves, Garner only gushed platitudes when he met with Bush.
So it was that the isolation of yet another president became the peril of us all.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)