Washington Tough as the governing challenge facing President-elect George W. Bush may be, it is no harder than what confronted Gerald R. Ford when he was sworn in as Richard Nixon's successor in the summer of 1974. Nixon had been forced to resign in the wake of the Watergate scandals, the first such resignation in American history. Nine months earlier, the same thing had happened to Vice President Spiro Agnew. So Ford came to the White House without any American having voted to put him even in the line of succession to the presidency.
Given this history, I thought some of the veterans of the Ford administration might have useful thoughts for Bush, as he seeks to solidify his position with the narrowest of Electoral College margins and a loss to Vice President Al Gore in the popular vote.
I found some of them frankly gloomy about Bush's prospects. Jim Cannon, a onetime Newsweek correspondent who was a domestic policy adviser to Ford, and Ron Nessen, Ford's press secretary, both said that, in significant ways, Bush's challenge may be tougher.
Cannon said, "No one (in the public) knew much who Ford was, but they were so ready to get rid of Richard Nixon that when they found out Ford was an honest man, they welcomed him." Nessen added that "Ford had never been elected president or vice president. But nobody ever questioned his legitimacy. Ford had been confirmed (as vice president) by both houses of Congress, with many Democratic votes. That gave him legitimacy. And people liked him. They thought he was the right person for the time."
By contrast, Cannon said, "There will always be questions about the legitimacy of Bush's victory," because of the Supreme Court intervention which cut short the Florida vote recounts. "I wonder," Nessen added, "whether, with the Senate evenly divided and the House so narrowly Republican and half the voters thinking the president does not belong there, anything can be done."
But not even the gloomiest of the five Ford White House alumni I interviewed thought that Bush was without tools to build stronger public and political support.
Cannon recalled that "the very first thing Ford did after being sworn in was to go to a meeting with the Democratic and Republican leaders of Congress. Bush needs to reach out to Congress the same way" as he did on his very first visit to Washington as president-elect this week.
Nessen added that it would help if Bush found a useful role for his predecessor, President Clinton, to play. "He could ask Clinton to continue as a Middle East peace negotiator, for example," Nessen said.
John O. Marsh, another of the senior Ford staffers, also focused on the critical role Clinton could play, even during this transition period. Marsh was the liaison to the incoming Jimmy Carter administration in 1976. "Ford had been defeated by Carter," Marsh said, "so there was an opportunity for some rough feelings. But he set the tone of cooperation, and Clinton can do the same thing. I predict that Clinton will be very helpful and that will make a big, big difference."
Robert Teeter, who was a polling consultant for both Ford and the first President Bush, said the public focus on the long-disputed election outcome has been so intense "it could make it easier" for the younger Bush.
Teeter's suggestion: Start with agenda items like education, "which the public thinks are important and where you think you can get cooperation." Focus public attention on the four leaders of House and Senate Republicans and Democrats alike and be "tough from the beginning" in challenging them not to grandstand or add ideological baggage to the bills. The public will back him, Teeter said, because the prevailing opinion is "we've got a president now, so let's get on with it."
Finally, Donald Rumsfeld, Ford's White House chief of staff until he moved over to run the Pentagon, leaving his old job to Dick Cheney, was the most upbeat alumnus I found. "Presidents who face difficult situations also have a wonderful opportunity to excel," he said. "The people who believe Bush is weakened, crippled or dead on arrival, because of the closeness of the vote, are not going to end up being correct."
Rumsfeld said the Democrats will certainly have their eyes on the 2002 election and the chance to regain control of Congress. "That's politics, but in the last analysis, people can see through that. If either party tries to frustrate what the president does, it will pay a penalty. It is not a bleak situation."
David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.