June 1, 1998
Thank you very much, Doug, for that generous introduction. I am delighted to see so many old friends in today's audience. As you've already heard, between Betty's 80th birthday, our forthcoming 50th wedding anniversary, and my all too fast approaching 85th birthday this is a special year in the Ford household. When I learned that the National Press Club was celebrating its own 90th birthday, Betty said that I could come back this year - on condition that I not tell any of my golf jokes, which she says are older than any of us. Back when she first raised the subject a few years ago, I took the easy way out. I told her that I would stop telling golf jokes the day Washington balanced the federal budget.
Still another anniversary makes this a memorable year for me. It was 25 years ago this fall that I became the first Vice President to be confirmed under the 25th Amendment. There's nothing like the Vice Presidency to keep a man humble. A story about Calvin Coolidge - who presided over the groundbreaking for this club building back in 1926 - illustrates the point. As vice president, Coolidge lived just down the street at the Willard Hotel. One night a fire broke out there, and guests were ushered to the lobby for their safety. After waiting some time for the all clear to be sounded, Coolidge lost his patience. Attempting to return to his suite, he was stopped at the foot of the stairs by a fire warden who demanded identification.
"I am the Vice President", said an indignant Coolidge.
The fire warden was prepared to let him pass, when suddenly a new thought occurred. "Vice President of what?" he asked.
"Vice President of the United States", said Coolidge.
"Then get back here", said the fire warden. "I thought you were Vice President of the hotel".
Fortunately, Betty and I never lived at the Willard. Now I know the Press Club likes to have news made within these walls. Since politicians like to take credit, I thought I might oblige this afternoon by claiming responsibility for the current economic boom, not to mention the one in the 80's. Remember: I'm the guy who first appointed Alan Greenspan to an important economic policymaking job. Since then I'd say he's more than justified my faith in his abilities. His economic scorecard is A-plus.
On the other hand, I have no wish to court the headlines by handicapping the current scandals, real and alleged, that are swirling around this town. I will say this. Much has been made of alleged public indifference to allegations of official wrongdoing. I think this assessment confuses not knowing the facts with not caring about them. I'm confident that in time, the legal, political and journalistic processes will tell us what we need to know. If not in TIME, then surely in Newsweek.
At 85, I'm not sure how many more opportunities I'll have to address this audience. So what follows is not a valedictory, but rather the distillation of a lifetime that has spanned revolutionary changes while reinforcing my basic confidence in the American people and their capacity for self- government. You see, it was 50 years ago this month that my name first appeared on the ballot, as a maverick Republican taking on an entrenched isolationist Congressman from Grand Rapids who thought the world ended at the Michigan-Indiana line. Having just returned from a naval tour of duty in the South Pacific, I agreed with my hometown hero, Senator Arthur Vandenberg, that America could no longer evade the responsibilities of global leadership.
The party establishment, needless to say, was none too happy about my upstart challenge. But they at least knew that my campaign was motivated by principle, and they never doubted where I stood. Much to the surprise of the pundits, a majority of Republican primary voters agreed with my views. In the process they taught me a lesson I've never forgotten - that only those who are prepared to lose for their convictions deserve to win at the voting booth or in the judgment of posterity.
Fifty years later, I'm concerned about a new isolationism that would build high tariff walls around the world's most dynamic economy. I worry, frankly, that the news media is failing to inform citizens for whom the course of Russian democracy or nuclear proliferation in South Asia takes a backseat to the latest sensational murder trial or Hollywood blockbuster. It's been alleged that we are guilty of criminalizing activities once deemed strictly political...I don't know about that. But I do know that we've trivialized them. Which may be worse for the longterm health of a democracy.
In politics as in sports, many Americans today feel like mere spectators at a game, rather than participants in the action. They're turned off to a political culture that measures democracy in decibels. They are tired of made for television campaigns wherein candidates without ideas hire consultants without convictions, to produce TV spots without content. The result, increasingly, is elections without voters.
Not that the love-hate relationship between television and politicians is anything new. Forty years ago Adlai Stevenson's campaign interrupted the most popular program on the air to broadcast a five minute commercial. Afterward the candidate was inundated with angry letters, one of which read simply, "I love Lucy. I like Ike. Drop dead".
Tomorrow California voters go to the polls in a critical primary election. The candidates cannot be said to suffer from media overexposure. Indeed, it's been suggested that the best way to get television to cover the race for Governor would be to stage it as a high speed highway chase. At least then the skycams might pay some attention. It's easy to blame local affiliates whose pursuit of ratings resembles one of these high speed chases. But the main fault, it seems to me, lies with politicians and their handlers who talk in soundbites and listen to their pollsters at the expense of their conscience. I would remind you that anyone can take a poll. Only a leader can move a nation.
At the end of the day, no leader worth his salt will take comfort from the consultants he hired, the attack ads he ran, or the tactical victories he may have scored. For true leadership is much more than tactical. It is the ability to see beyond the next election, to the next generation and yes, the next century. It is the willingness to defy conventional wisdom and reject focus group findings where lasting values are at stake.
One of the most inspiring stories I ever heard concerned the late Senator John Stennis of Mississippi, for over 40 years a lawmaker of towering integrity. In 1982 Senator Stennis faced the toughest reelection fight of his career. At one point early in the campaign, he found himself listening to a room full of experts who kept prefacing every sentence of advice with the words, "To win, we will have to do this".
"There is one thing you really need to understand before we go any further", Stennis finally told his political operatives. "We don't have to win".
Among the principles that can never be compromised is respect for others whose principles differ from yours. During my 28-1/2 years in this city, I often disagreed with people. But I questioned their ideas, not their motives - and never their patriotism. I had opponents, to be sure, but not enemies. As a conservative, my distrust of government programs is exceeded only by my faith in the problem solving capacities of grassroots Americans. It is precisely because I fear a government grown too intrusive as well as too expensive, that I want the government out of my wallet, out of the classroom, out of the boardroom, and out of the bedroom. I want it to leave the most personal of life's decisions to me, my wife, and my family. You might not guess it from watching the McLaughlin Group, but at heart most Americans are pragmatists. We want to make things work. We want to do the decent thing by one another, for we believe that no first class democracy can tolerate second class citizens. When it comes to choosing leaders, we value authenticity at least as much as ideology. Unfortunately there are some in both parties who prefer the politics of division to those of multiplication. Equating civility with weakness and compromise with surrender, they confuse the clash of ideas with a modern day Holy War.
Fortunately, I have seen too much of the American past to harbor doubts about the American future. It was a big idea that lured me into politics 50 years ago. It's a big idea that prompts me in this tabloid era to insist that the only way politics will regain its luster is for principle and moderation to go hand in hand.
It is traditional for speakers here at the Press Club to mark their visit by signing the club's famed Gold Book. Early in this century the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy added his own name to the extraordinary company of history makers who have graced this podium. He also wrote a personal sentiment that bears repeating as we near the end of this century scarred by war but also ennobled by freedom's triumph over those who would put the soul itself in bondage.
"Without faith", wrote Tolstoy, "man is an animal." In the evening of my life, I have a robust faith in the creativity and resourcefulness of my countrymen. I believe in their character and their courage. I take heart from what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.
The view at 85 confirms the optimistic outlook I brought home as a young naval veteran...to Washington as a freshman Congressman, my party's leader on Capitol Hill, and as a President unexpectedly called on to heal a divided nation that had lost faith in its leaders and institutions. It's been a grand adventure, one shared with countless friends, and blessed every step of the way by a loving wife and supportive family. So before I conclude, may I take this opportunity to publicly thank those who have done most to confirm my faith and who have returned my love with compound interest...Betty...Mike...Jack...Steve, and Susan. Thank you, and God bless you all.