- - Tuesday, May 1, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

WHEN THE CENTER HELD: GERALD FORD AND THE RESCUE OF THE AMERICAN PRESIDENCY

By Donald Rumsfeld

Free Press, $28, 352 pages

In 1919 William Butler Yeats wrote “The Second Coming,” a poem that employs apocalyptic imagery to describe the harrowing state of post-war Europe. “Things fall apart;” reads the most famous line, “the centre cannot hold.” More than a decade later, Gerald Ford (born Leslie Lynch King Jr.) played center for the University of Michigan football team, contributing to two undefeated, national championship seasons in 1932 and 1933.

These two seemingly unrelated events serve as the inspiration for the title of Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir of the presidency of Gerald Ford, under whom Mr. Rumsfeld served as chief of staff and secretary of Defense. Mr. Ford, Mr. Rumsfeld asserts, inherited a nation on “the brink of civil and political collapse” in the wake of the Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon’s subsequent resignation — yet he managed to avert such a collapse and restored trust in the presidency.

Born in Nebraska, Mr. Ford studied law at Yale and fought in World War II before his entry into politics. He served almost 25 years as a Michigan congressman before succeeding Spiro T. Agnew as vice president in 1973. With Mr. Nixon’s resignation, Mr. Ford became president — despite never having run on a national ticket.

Mr. Ford was bequeathed a nation on edge. Mr. Rumsfeld begins his narrative by effectively recalling incidents from the year 1974 that place the political challenges the new president faced in their cultural context.

In February a failed Philadelphia businessman named Samuel Byck attempted to hijack a plane in Baltimore with the intent of crashing it into the White House. Four months later, Marcus Wayne Chenault shot and killed Alberta King (mother of Martin Luther King Jr.) during a service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. And just two days before Mr. Ford took office, French daredevil Philippe Petit completed a high-wire walk between the recently completed Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.

Coincidentally, the towers were a project of David Rockefeller and his brother Nelson, who had recently resigned as governor of New York and whom Mr. Ford would nominate in December as vice president.

Mr. Rumsfeld bases “When The Center Held” on notes he dictated to his staff following meetings with Mr. Ford, memos that serve as “a real-time, raw, running log of the Ford presidency from its inception” (transcripts of the memos appear at the start of many of the chapters).

Among the numerous amusing and informative anecdotes sprinkled throughout the book are Arthur Laffer introducing his famous tax curve (via a drawing on a napkin) to Mr. Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney in a Washington restaurant, two million South Koreans welcoming President Ford to Seoul, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger — “to the great amusement of the Soviets” — eagerly devouring several plates of desserts and mints while on a train en route to a summit in Vladivostok.

The author acknowledges Mr. Ford’s missteps in office. Facing the highest inflation rate in more than 50 years — “domestic enemy number one,” the president asserted in his first economic address — Mr. Ford responded with the feckless Whip Inflation Now (WIN) initiative, a voluntary citizens’ program to hold down spending and thus reduce prices. His appointment of Nelson Rockefeller as vice president alienated conservatives, as did his unfortunate refusal to meet Soviet dissident and exile Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn when the latter visited Washington in the summer of 1975. Moreover, Mr. Ford was somewhat wanting in administrative skills.

But to Mr. Rumsfeld, these faus pax were more than counterbalanced by the administration’s achievements. A 1975 tax cut helped revive what had been a moribund economy; by the time Mr. Ford left office in January 1977, unemployment was heading down and inflation had been cut from 12 to 4.8 percent.

Mr. Ford’s strong response to the Khmer Rouge’s seizure of the U.S. merchant ship Mayaguez persuaded the international community that the United States “was on its way back” from the disastrous end to the Vietnam War. Mr. Rumsfeld also maintains that Mr. Ford contributed to the birth of the modern human rights movement via his signing of the Helsinki Accords.

Most important, concludes Mr. Rumsfeld, Mr. Ford’s “honesty, integrity, and basic human decency” helped the nation recover from the Watergate crisis. Although his September 1974 pardon of Mr. Nixon was controversial at the time, the consensus has been that it was necessary to end what Mr. Ford had termed “our long national nightmare.” Even a political foe such as Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill noted that “God gave us Gerald Ford — the right man at the right time who was able to put our nation back together again.”

In that respect, Mr. Ford’s loss to Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election did not matter — he had already accomplished what needed to be done.

David Broder once wrote that “Gerald Ford was the kind of president Americans always wanted — and didn’t know they had.” With “When The Center Held,” Donald Rumsfeld reminds the reader how fortunate the nation was to have Gerald Ford as the nation’s 38th chief executive.

• Ed Bradley is the author of “We Never Retreat: Filibustering Expeditions into Spanish Texas, 1812-1822” (Texas A&M University Press, 2015).

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