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The Ghost of Administrations Past

George W. Bush will not be the second coming of Gerald Ford

Jan 29, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 19 • By DAVID FRUM
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THOSE LONG feature columns on the left and right side of the Wall Street Journal's front page are known inside the paper as "leaders." For many years, reporters at the Journal joked that if you had a fact, you had a leader, and if you had two facts, you had two leaders. Washington journalists seem to be evaluating the Bush administration in the same light-hearted spirit. Two members of the administration held senior posts in the Ford administration: Dick Cheney was chief of staff, Donald Rumsfeld was secretary of defense. A third, treasury secretary Paul O'Neill, was deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. On this slight base has been erected a towering structure of punditry to the effect that the Bush administration represents the second coming of Gerald Ford. Got three facts? You've revived an old leader.


Ford was not a success in office, and the people who draw comparisons between him and Bush mean the latter no compliment. Ford had better instincts than he is usually given credit for: He wanted to free energy prices, control government spending, and aid the anti-Communists in Angola. But he was never the man for the job. He was gullible about the radical social movements of the 1970s, picked bad judges, and compromised with Democrats in Congress when he could have achieved more both in political and in policy terms by taking his differences with them to the country. He himself quipped that he was a Ford, not a Lincoln.


Columnist Nicholas von Hoffman observed more brutally that it would be Ford's ultimate destiny to vex generations of schoolchildren yet unborn with the question whether it was he or Martin Van Buren who fought the French and Indian War. But the hard truth is that the thing that Ford will probably be remembered longest for is his refusal to invite Alexander Solzhenitsyn to the White House after the great dissident's expulsion from the Soviet Union.


However, the casting of Bush II as Ford II overlooks the overwhelming number of cabinet and cabinet-level nominees with no connection to Gerald Ford at all. It ignores the startling difference between the circumstances of the mid-1970s (rampaging Soviets, inflation, unemployment, energy shocks, and huge Democratic majorities in Congress) and those prevailing now. It fails to take into account, too, the difference in experience and acuity between a twice-elected governor of the country's second-biggest state and a politician who had never previously won an election outside of Grand Rapids, Michigan.


If the idea of Bush as Ford II is so misplaced, why is it getting so much traction? Perhaps because it is a roundabout way to phrase a stronger allegation: that Bush's appointments have broken faith with the Republican party's Reaganite inheritance.


Only one of Bush's appointees, Colin Powell, held a senior job in the Reagan administration. A handful of others held posts much lower down the organizational chart: Economic adviser Larry Lindsey was a White House staff economist; U.S. trade representative Bob Zoellick was a deputy assistant secretary of the treasury; interior secretary Gale Norton worked as a lawyer in the interior department. What's missing is the broad band of people in the middle. Where are the assistant secretaries of the Reagan years, the deputy commissioners, the division heads? The incoming secretary of agriculture held the number two position in the department during the presidency of Bush's father; ditto for the incoming secretary of veterans' affairs. Reagan-vintage number forty-threes are drawing top jobs. Why not Reagan-vintage number twos?


The short answer is that those old number twos have either wandered off to the private sector for keeps or else left government on terms that make it impossible for them to return. The Reagan administration was an unusually fractious one. Much of its history can be told in terms of its legendary feuds: Baker vs. Meese, Kirkpatrick vs. Haig, Perle vs. Burt, Stockman vs. Weinberger, Darman vs. everybody. More than in any previous administration, the people who served in Reagan's were wounded and scarred by the use of ethics accusations as a weapon: Think of Richard Allen resigning because he forgot a gift watch in his office safe; Michael Deaver and Lyn Nofziger prosecuted for their lobbying; Anne Burford and Ed Meese -- the list goes on. By January 1989, the Reagan administration looked like a British regiment returning from the Somme: limping, bloodied, missing half its officers.


That's one answer to the question, Where are the Reaganites? But there's another, and it is one that conservatives ought to keep in mind before getting unduly optimistic or unduly pessimistic about the staffing of the incoming administration: The Reagan service medal is not necessarily a badge of merit. That administration contained its fair share of duds: anti-free-enterprise businessmen like the protectionist transportation secretary Drew Lewis; concessions to the liberal wing of the Republican party like health and human services secretary Richard Schweiker; people of self-destructive temperaments like Ed Meese and Al Haig. And sometimes it was the establishment Republicans whom conservatives most distrusted who served Reagan and conservatism best: George Shultz, for instance, and, yes, James Baker.


That may also prove true this time around. It's the Ford legacies, Cheney and Rumsfeld, who are likely to be the most robust members of the Bush foreign policy team; it's the Reaganite Powell who has in the past been most cautious. On spending, Paul O'Neill may yet turn out to have a stiffer spine than some of the supply-siders who mistrust him.


There's a Washington saying that personnel is policy. But that cynical wisdom can also be an excuse: Personnel will adapt to policy, if there is a policy to adapt to. It was the unclear intentions and weak will of the first President Bush, as much as the squishy political backgrounds of his aides, that undid that administration. It's the philosophy of the president, the themes of his campaign, the mandate he won, as much as the backgrounds of his staff and officials, that determine the character of his administration. In those respects, Bush offers a complex and unique mix of reasons for hope and for worry.


Reagan's legacy isn't found in the resumes of the people who served him. It is, as Christopher Wren said of his own legacy, all around us. As for Ford, if everyone in his administration had served the nation as redoubtably as Rumsfeld and Cheney, that administration would have bequeathed a record of which conservatives and Americans could be more proud.




David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.