October 26, 1996
A special thanks to everyone responsible for today's program, and to all those who have come to Ann Arbor to share their thoughts on the American political process and how we might address some of its imperfections. I'm especially pleased to see so many cherished friends and colleagues from my own days in Washington. Your presence honors the Ford Library and this great University. The organizers of the conference suggested that I might like to offer some concluding remarks. And I thought: great--I can finally deliver that speech to the Republican convention that you never heard unless you were watching C-SPAN.
The late John Connally used to startle audiences, especially in the east, by declaring that George Washington was a Texan. (You know how Texans are--they feel about their state a lot like the way we in Ann Arbor feel about the Wolverines).
As John told the story, young Washington's father called him in one day to ask whether he had cut down the mesquite tree in the backyard.
"I cannot tell a lie," said George. "I took my hatchet and chopped down the mesquite tree."
At which point George's father told him to pack his bags--they were moving to Virginia.
"But why?" asked the boy. "Because I chopped down the mesquite tree?"
"No", his father said, "Because if you cannot tell a lie, you'll never succeed in Texas."
Washington, D.C. is a city for which I have great affection, but also some very real concerns. I worry that our capital has become the symbol of a government too large, too remote, too costly and, ultimately, too unresponsive to the people who pay its bills and suffer its consequences.
Age has its privileges. One of which is to offer whatever perspective may come from having lived a long and eventful life. As a matter of fact, San Diego marked the fourteenth time that I have attended a Republican National Convention. The first was in 1940, when I was part of a very vocal crowd in the galleries shouting "We Want Wilkie."
Even then, I was part of a national debate which, in its very intensity, drew millions of people into the political process. That's the very essence of a successful democracy. An election campaign is a conversation we have with ourselves. Lately it seems as if many Americans are barely on speaking terms with each other. Just as bad, millions of us have tuned out to the conversation altogether.
As a result, democracy in America may seem less robust in 1996 than in 1896. A century ago five million people heard William Jennings Bryan in person as he barnstormed the country. Bryan's opponent, William McKinley, had a very different way of getting his message across. He stayed home in Canton, Ohio, and let the voters come to him.
And they did. 750,000 people trooped to McKinley's front porch before election day.
Let me assure you all--I wasn't one of them. But I have been through more than a few campaigns. Out of my experience I have distilled what you might call Ford's Seven Rules of Civic Engagement.Some amount to little more than wishful thinking. But all are designed to address the "trouble" with Washington, and dispel feelings of alienation which have taken root in recent years.
Rule Number One: Politicians should never forget to whom they are responsible. Contrast recent campaigns, with their focus groups, ever shrinking sound bites and consultants who sometimes act as if they are candidates. Contrast all that with the race that Jimmy Carter and I ran exactly twenty years ago. As the first post-Watergate candidates, we were governed by stringent limits on how much we could spend. Today, the same financial laws apply, yet most spending restrictions resemble Swiss cheese. As a result, there is more money, and less participation, in our politics than at anytime in recent memory.
Early in this century the comedian Will Rogers anticipated this dilemma when he said that running for office had become so expensive, "it takes a fortune just to get beat." Now I revere the Constitution as much as any man. If I were a member of the Supreme Court, I might have a different view of the First Amendment as it relates to the unlimited right of individuals to influence political decisions through unlimited expenditures.
But as someone who has spent the better part of a lifetime in political persuasion, I can't avoid the feeling that any system awash with cash will pose at least a subtle temptation to office holders and office seekers alike to represent checkbooks instead of constituents.
Of course, the '76 campaign was shaped by far more than federal spending limits. Because the specter of Vietnam and Watergate loomed so large, I found myself, in effect, running two campaigns: one, to win a full term as president in my own right, and another, to restore the shattered confidence of the American people in our democratic institutions.
I was unsuccessful in the first. But as I left Washington I could take some consolation in knowing that the national mood was very different from what it had been just a few short years earlier.
Twenty years later, it seems as if we've turned the clock back - not to 1976, but to the late 60's and early 70's, when an unpopular war and the taint of political scandal combined to produce a level of distrust that can only be imagined by the students in our audience this afternoon.
In some ways the problems we experienced then were actually preferable to the current climate. For a generation ago, it was possible--if depressing--to trace voter unhappiness to specific policies and personalities. People objected to the war, the way it was being conducted, and the presidents of both parties who conducted it. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Because in a democracy, differences are not only unavoidable--if pursued with civility as well as conviction, they are downright healthy. Only political indifference is lethal. Put another way, I'd much rather deal with honest contention than creeping cynicism. This, I fear, is the greatest single difference between the disillusionment of the seventies and the widespread feeling among today's electorate that the system itself has broken down.
Maybe that's a reflection of the times and the issues which dominate the public discourse. Which brings me to Rule Number Two: Elections should be about more than personal ambition or short term political advantage. In 1948, my first race for Congress, I ran against an entrenched Republican incumbent who believed that the United States had been divinely placed between two oceans to protect us from foreign contamination.
I disagreed passionately. As a young Navy officer, just back from the Pacific war, I felt we could no longer take shelter behind geography or tradition. I had seen enough of the world to know that it was not going to go away.
I ran for Congress because of a big idea--the idea that American isolation was a thing of the past, and that only American leadership could help to shape a future where peace was possible and freedom triumphant.
Across the hall from my office in the Old House Office Building was another young Navy veteran of the Pacific front. His name was John F. Kennedy. Although our parties differed, our priorities were much the same. We were both internationalists in our outlook, both willing to accept the burdens of leadership in standing up to Soviet aggression. We often walked over to the floor of the House together. Once there, we might go our separate ways politically--but we never questioned each other's patriotism or motives.
Which brings me to Rule Number Three: There are no enemies in politics, just opponents who might vote with you on the next roll call.
Today our nation's Capital inspires various comparisons. To its harshest critics, it is a chamber of horrors. To many of those holding office it is a pressure cooker. To me, Washington is a mirror held up to the people and the process it represents. If it is less civil than it might be, isn't that a reflection of a society coarsened by tabloid values, one in which fame is confused with notoriety, and shame is the surest ticket to 15 minutes on daytime television?
In a culture where more people recognize Oprah than the Speaker of the House, it's easy to say that politics have been crowded out of our lives by other forms of mass entertainment. The problem with this theory is that Oprah doesn't set your taxes or run your schools or commit young Americans to foreign wars.
Meanwhile, the more the political parties try to make themselves over into vehicles of entertainment, the smaller the audience and the greater the popular disappointment when we fail to solve problems the way Jessica Fletcher solves a mystery--neatly, in sixty minutes, before a final plug for Miracle Grow or the Chrysler LeBaron.
Ford's Rule Number Four: don't make politics more like television; make television pay more attention to politics. That means free time for the major candidates on all leading media outlets. It means more than four and half hours of convention coverage every four years. It even means showing the vice presidential candidate's acceptance speech instead of a "Seinfeld"rerun.
Some network executives complained that the recent conventions were overly scripted. Perhaps we would have more spontaneity if the networks didn't lay down an ultimatum to the parties, restricting coverage to one hour each night of the convention.
But if there is too little media attention paid the unglamorous aspects of self-government, in my opinion there is far too much showered on the trivial and the tawdry. Let me put it bluntly: if I want to attend a horse race I'll go to the track. If I want to choose a president, or member of Congress, I'd like to rely on serious, substantive reporting about issues, character and performance.
Rule Number Five: let's hear from the candidates, not their consultants. Too many of the latter are hired guns, for whom the lure of celebrity takes the place of conviction or even loyalty. Don't get me wrong. There are some superb pollsters, speech writers, strategists and advisers out there. My own campaign in 1976 benefited greatly from their work. But their proliferation since, not to mention their shameless self-promotion, has only furthered the popular belief that politicians are puppets on a string, dancing to the music of the spinmeisters. That tarnishes democracy itself.
Politics is not a spectator sport, much less an episode of American Gladiators. Yet much of the media persist in treating it as such. Worse, one can hardly watch a week's worth of network news without concluding that many journalists aren't just hostile to conservatives - they're anti-politics! They believe conventions are boring, parties are obsolete, and Presidents are guided solely by polls. They think that national political discourse is something restricted to the McLaughlin Group.
They're wrong, which brings me to Rule Number Six. An informed electorate deserves something better than what I call "gotcha" journalism, which puts the spotlight on the reporter rather than the candidate, asks questions designed to entrap rather than elucidate, and ignores difficult issues with long-term consequences to concentrate on the flap of the moment.
In de-emphasizing serious coverage of the political process, journalists and network executives stand on their First Amendment rights. They are hardly alone in this. Thanks to the women's movement, the civil rights revolution, and other campaigns for individual empowerment, we have belatedly fulfilled many of the noble promises that we made to ourselves and to each other two hundred years ago. We are all better for it.
But in pursuing our rights as individuals, we should never forget our responsibilities as citizens. In 1992 approximately 55% of eligible voters cast ballots in that year's presidential contest. That was up from 50% in 1988, yet sharply lower than the 63% who voted in the Kennedy-Nixon race of 1960. Is it any accident that voter turnout has fallen along with party allegiance, a rise in media skepticism, the fragmenting of the television audience and the general fraying of community?
Once upon a time parties mattered. So did party loyalists and the conventions they attended. We could do a lot worse than to recreate that sense of belonging to a cause larger than ourselves, which in turn made Washington something more than a gigantic soundbite factory.
Let me put in a good word for the much abused smoke filled room of political legend. Over the years I've sat in more than my share of such castigated rooms. I won't claim that I never inhaled--but I will argue that a strong party system and yes, a boss or two, gave us Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Truman and Eisenhower--not to mention such distinguished also-rans as Al Smith, Tom Dewey, Adlai Stevenson and even my youthful hero Wendell Wilkie, who owed his nomination to more than those noisy galleries in Philadelphia.
Ironically, the bigger the issue, the greater the need for parties to help us organize consensus. It was true when I entered politics because I felt strongly about the future role America should play in the world. And it will be just as true as we debate such sensitive subjects as the future of current entitlement programs.
I said earlier that Washington was a mirror reflecting our instincts. That includes the instinct for political survival. I'm an optimist. Call it a hunch, but I think it's a mistake to underestimate the American people--millions of whom are willing to help forge the necessary consensus that will keep entitlements from strangling our economy or mortgaging the future of
our children. In any event here is a challenge worthy of American democracy in the 21st century.
Which brings me to my seventh and final rule. The Founders designed a government in which it is easier to do nothing than to do a great deal all at once. But they also counted on the will and wisdom of Americans to conceive and implement reforms where necessity demands solutions. So I leave you with the most radical thought of all--and a hint that big issues and big ideas may yet revitalize public faith in a system that earns our trust by appealing to what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature."
Entitlement programs, we are told, represent the third rail of American politics. Touch it and you die--politically at least. Wouldn't it be ironic if those supposedly untouchable third rails were to supply the very track that will carry us into the next century and a renewal of confidence in a political system that is wise enough to listen and strong enough to lead?
Two hundred years ago, our first President summed up both the glory and the frustration of American politics when he said, "a democratic state must feel before it can see; that is what makes it slow to act. But the people, at last, will be right".
Whatever troubles may plague the city named for George Washington, they can be resolved as long as we place our ultimate trust in the people--and as long as we, the people demand less of Washington, and more of ourselves.