Gerald R. Ford's Remarks at the Harry Middleton Lecture, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library

February 7, 1997

Thank you very much, for that most generous introduction. This evening, I feel as if my cup runneth over. To begin with, it's always an honor to come to the Johnson Library. Long before he became my President, Lyndon Johnson was my friend and colleague. Our respective roles as party leaders ensured that he was also my frequent adversary and occasional critic. He was never my enemy. Those on both sides of the political aisle who worry, justifiably in my opinion, about the loss of civility in today's political arena might well profit from LBJ's admonition that "it's better to win a convert than a fight."

Ladybird, it gives me special pleasure to renew our long and cherished friendship. I don't have to remind anyone in this room or in this state what a treasure she is--so let me just say that Betty joins in sending you our love as well as our gratitude for your lifetime of service to America.

Then there is Harry Middleton, for whom this lecture series is named.

Harry, President Johnson would be so proud of the leadership you have provided over the years--not only in making this great institution worthy of the man it honors-but in setting standards of excellence that have transformed the presidential library system. The next time someone in the Washington bureaucracy or on Capitol Hill says, "let's build a centralized facility inside the Beltway to house presidential papers," I'll tell him: go to Austin, and see what Harry Middleton and the Johnson Foundation have created. Go to Austin, and sample the important conferences, the imaginative temporary exhibits, the educational outreach, and all the scholarly and popular programs that each year enrich hundred of thousands of lives.

Presidents may govern in Washington, but they derive their strength, their convictions- their very identities - from the American heartland. Whether it is Austin, Texas; Independence, Missouri; or Grand Rapids, Michigan, the best way to know America's leaders is to experience America herself. That's what the presidential library system enables us to do.

Certainly Lyndon Johnson was Texas personified. So it's only appropriate that you have assigned me this evening a subject that is Texas-sized. In addressing the state of our political parties and how they might contribute to the revitalization of our democracy, I promise to heed the lesson of Senator Tom Connelly, a great stem-winder, whose long-winded tributes to the glories of the Lone Star State inspired one of President Johnson's favorite stories.

According to LBJ, Senator Connelly was speaking down home about the beautiful piney woods of east Texas. Then he moved on rhetorically through the bluebonnets and out to the plains and down through the hill country to the Gulf Coast. Then he got back to the piney woods and started all over again. After completing a second tour of the state he was about to start in again on all those beautiful woods and bluebonnets, when a little old fellow rose up in the back of the room and yelled out: "The next time you pass Lubbock how about letting me off?"

This evening, I assure you, I have no intention of making more than one pass at Lubbock. Age has its privileges, and one of them is candor. LBJ used to talk about history "with the bark off." It is just that kind of plain speaking that I have in mind tonight. It will come as no surprise that I am a strong believer in the two party system to which I have devoted most of my adult life.

I emphasize "two" parties-not two and a half, or three, or ten, or however many may take root in other lands, where democracy more nearly resembles the Tower of Babble. In much of Europe, for example, multiparty government is the rule. In practice, this turns out to be more about party than government. All too often the result is weak and unstable regimes, in which coalitions form and founder, and ministers of state play an unseemly game of musical chairs. The glory of the American system, by contrast, lies in two strong parties which between them enlist the energies and channel the passions of most of our citizens.

On the surface, you might expect this to be a recipe for polarization. No doubt there are some within the electorate for whom ideological purity is everything. Yet American political parties are instruments of government much more than they are vehicles of protest. First they define our differences - then they mediate them. In doing so they serve as a kind of ideological shock absorber, cushioning the impact of change and forging a consensus acceptable to the vast majority of Americans who travel in the middle of the road.

We should all be grateful to the millions of people who donate their time, their talents and their resources to party building. They are the frontline troops who wage democracy's battles. Yet politics is not war - whatever some grizzled veterans may tell you. Unfortunately, to some activists on the right and the left, consensus is a dirty word. In some quarters civility is mistaken for weakness and compromise for surrender. Those who hold such attitudes forget that articulating a viewpoint is only the first step in the political process. The ultimate test of a party is its ability to win power, to implement its program and demonstrate the practical superiority of its ideas.

You might not guess it from watching the McLaughlin Group, but at heart most Americans are pragmatists. We want to make things work. We place at least as great a value on authenticity as ideology. That is especially true in this age when so much of what passes for public life seems unreal if not irrelevant. Let me be blunt: while righteousness may win you a place in heaven, self-righteousness is unlikely to win you the White House. If you doubt my words, just ask the Democrats who lost elections in the 1980s, or the Republicans who experienced a similar fate in the last two presidential contests. Why? Because they confused a political campaign with a Holy War.

Now don't get me wrong. Healthy partisanship is the lifeblood of democracy. Substantive differences, if argued with honest conviction and mutual respect, are far better then indifference. Let me give you an example. Back when President Johnson was in the White House, we had a lively debate over the merits of his domestic agenda versus the Republican alternative. I know because every week I used to play straight man to Senator Everett Dirksen in what became known as the Ev and Jerry show. Neither one of us was bashful about criticizing the imagined shortcomings of the Great Society - nor will it come as a surprise to anyone present that President Johnson gave as well as he got. Usually better!

Yet our differences, however sharp they might seem at the time, were programmatic, not personal. We might question the other side's ideas, but rarely its motives and never its patriotism. Everett Dirksen had a great line: "I live by my principles and one of my principles is flexibility."

Perhaps to some in this audience who are disillusioned by politicians whose only principle seems to be flexibility, Dirksen's folk wisdom may appear a cynical contradiction in terms. I didn't see it that way. Neither did LBJ. For in the great defining struggle of Civil Rights, Ev Dirksen's flexibility enabled him to put aside narrow questions of party advantage and remind his colleagues that it was another Illinois Republican, by the name of Abraham Lincoln, who had given the GOP its moral charter as a party dedicated to racial justice.

Thirty years later a very different kind of consensus prevails. The moral imperative of race remains high on American's list of unfinished business. But it has been a long while since any American President electrified the nation as Lyndon Johnson did in 1965 when he stood before Congress and declared, "We shall overcome." For anyone who was in the House chamber that night, as I was, it was impossible to escape a sense of history in the making. Rarely has the two party system risen to the occasion so nobly - however belatedly.

In calling for passage of the Voting Rights Act, LBJ was summoning what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. He was asking - no, he was demanding that we transcend bigotry and make good at last upon the promises we made to each other in declaring our nationhood and professing our love of liberty. The political process responded, as it should when big ideas come along, to ride the current of history.

Almost half a century has passed since my own entry into politics. It was another big idea that led me to take on my party's establishment in Michigan's Fifth Congressional District - the idea that America could no longer hide her head in the sand. Like it or not, we were destined to assert global leadership in the postwar struggle for human freedom against those who would put the soul itself in bondage. Before the war I, too, had naively believed in isolationism. A Navy tour of duty in the South Pacific, aboard a combat aircraft carrier, convinced me otherwise. After four years in the Navy, I came home to Grand Rapids a convert to the bipartisan foreign policy espoused by my hometown hero, Senator Arthur Vandenberg. In the 1948 Republican Congressional Primary, I took on an entrenched incumbent who refused to accept American responsibility in a world transformed. I had seen too much of that world to think it would leave us alone. On election day a majority of Republican voters agreed that Truman and Vandenberg were right. Isolationism and high tariff protectionism were unsound policies. The turnout was heavy, because the issues were compelling and the choice was stark.

Fifty years later we can all agree that no first class democracy can tolerate second class citizens. At the same time, isn't it also true that any popular government derives its legitimacy from the active involvement of all its citizens? Last November fewer than half the eligible voters went to the polls to choose a President. Almost 30 million more Americans watched last month's Superbowl between Green Bay and New England, than exercised their democratic right to select between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. The two events may not be unrelated. For in politics as in sports, many Americans today feel like mere spectators at a game, rather than participants in the action. We are turned off to a political culture that measures democracy in decibels. We draw back from a process that gauges who can shout the loudest in the latest made-for-television confrontation that all too often reduces our nation's capital to a less entertaining version of Crossfire.

Of course, it's pretty hard to listen to each other if you're screaming at each other. It's even harder to hear the voice of those who sent you to Washington in the first place. If parties are out of favor with most Americans, perhaps it is because they appear to have forgotten that ours is a representative democracy. To many voters--and even more non-voters--parties today are suspected of being decidedly unrepresentative. At worst, they appear as little more than conduits for huge amounts of special interest money.

Amid all the controversy regarding the fund raising practices of both parties, and allegations that White House access has been sold to the highest bidders, it isn't enough to identify violations of existing campaign finance laws. For, large as the sums involved may be, they are dwarfed by the still larger loss of confidence in a system that many regard as unduly weighted in favor of the rich and well connected.

Let's face it: politicians today raise more money and enjoy less respect than at any time in memory. Ironically, the exposure of such abuses affords both parties an opportunity to regain public confidence by purging the current system of its inequities while preserving essential rights of free speech. No American should feel that his or her participation in our political process is measured in dollar signs. It's up to the parties themselves to win back the public's trust by devising workable rules that limit the influence of big donors and remove the "For Sale" sign from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. A big idea, I think you will agree, and one that cries out for leadership.

Yet hardly less important than limiting the power of the few is increasing involvement by the many. For much of our history, political parties helped to acclimate newcomers to these shores. No one proposes to turn the clock back to an era of big city machines, when corruption flourished and paternalism ruled. But surely the parties have a role to play in conducting a national civics course, with special emphasis on reaching out to the newest Americans - those who have legally chosen to come here because they prize our freedoms.

Wherever I go, I sense a longing for community and the desire on the part of grassroots citizens to be part of something bigger and nobler than themselves. This attitude is particularly evident among the young, many of whom feel deprived of a great cause in which to enlist. Writing recently in Newsweek, Jon Meacham spoke for millions who belong to what the media likes to call Generation X. His parents and grandparents beat the Depression, crushed Hitler, abolished Jim Crow and won the Cold War, wrote Meacham, leaving his generation historically challenged.

"Something will ultimately test us," he asserted near the end of his essay. "Americans are never comfortable for long without a crusade; one is sure to be thrust upon us." May I suggest that the challenge has already been posed. It is to restore both honor and realism to a political process awash in denial and manipulated by spin doctors who find their convictions in focus groups. Anyone can read a poll. Only a leader can move the nation.

Today we look with horror upon the smoke filled rooms of legend. Well, over the years I've sat in more than my share of smoked filled rooms. I've even inhaled from time to time. I ask you: who is more accountable to the voters--those in the smoked filled room whose jobs depended on keeping their word--or the professional hired guns whose services are for sale and whose loyalty may not outlast election day? Who better reflects our values: the party leaders who gave us Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower--or the television network executives who decide how much of a convention you will see, and who belongs in the political mainstream?

Based on personal experience, I believe that our parties will never regain public confidence until they look beyond the consultants and the tracking polls. One of the most inspiring stories I have ever heard involves the late Senator John Stennis of Mississippi, for over 40 years a lawmaker of towering integrity. In 1982 Senator Stennis faced the toughest re-election fight of his career. At one point early in the campaign, the Senator 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."

Courtly as ever, Stennis heard everyone out before replying. "There is one thing you really need to understand before we go any further," he told the political operatives. "We don't have to win." John Stennis understood that in a system such as ours, details can always be comprised, but principles never. As President, facing a stiff challenge from the right wing of my own party in 1976, I was urged to abandon our efforts to promote black majority rule in what was then Rhodesia. Did Henry Kissinger really have to choose the height of the Republican primary season, I was asked, to fly to Africa and denounce the vestiges of colonial rule?

The polls gave one answer, and individual conscience a dramatically opposing one. Kissinger went, as he and I had scheduled - I lost a few primaries, and undemocratic Rhodesia was set on the course to genuine self-rule as the independent nation of Zimbabwe.

Perhaps I was all the more inclined to stand my ground on Africa because I had yielded to expediency a few months earlier, by not convincing Nelson Rockefeller to stay on the ticket when he offered to withdraw from the 1976 campaign. Most of my White House political advisors alleged a fight to keep Rockefeller on the ticket would have lost votes among southern and western conservatives at the GOP Convention in Kansas City.

I was wrong to let Rocky go. It is one of the few things in my public life that fills me with remorse. It illustrates the dangers that arise when any leader starts to calculate his chances at the expense of his conscience. In the high stakes game of history, only those who are willing to lose for principle deserve to win at the polls. Only those whose principles do not blind them to the search for common ground, can hope to rally a political system intentionally designed to frustrate utopian reformers.

As a result, it often seems as if our problems go unaddressed until they become all but unmanageable. Then, when management is inadequate to the task, we look for leadership. That is the paradox of our democracy: we are never better than in a crisis, even one generated by our neglect or selfishness.

This much I know for sure: at the end of the day, no leader worth his salt will take comfort in the polls he conducted or the tactical victories he may have racked up. For leadership is about strategy as well as tactics. It is defying the conventional wisdom when justice demands it. It is the ability to see beyond the next election, to the next generation, and the next century.

The bigger the issue, the greater the need for political parties to help us organize a consensus. It was true when I entered politics because I felt strongly about America's global obligations. It was true when Lyndon Johnson summoned his countrymen to stand before the bar of history and honor their commitments to racial inclusiveness. It is just as true for young Americans today who question not only the honesty of the political process, but the future of government programs that my generation takes for granted.

Entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, we are told, represent the third rail of American politics. Touch it and you die - politically at least. Yet even as we meet, courageous leaders in both parties have begun a debate over the future of these and other entitlement programs. The cynics tell us that nothing can possibly be done, that fear and inertia will inevitably lead to panic and even bankruptcy. Well, I'm not a cynic. To be sure, the Founders designed a government in which it is easier to do nothing then 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 necessary.

So I leave you with the most radical thought of all - the notion that big ideas may yet compel the political process to tackle problems that the pollsters and consultants won't go near. Here, then, is the supreme test for our parties and our people - to convert those supposedly untouchable third rails into the very track that carries our politics into the next century on a wave of reform and renewal. Our conscience demands what our children deserve. God willing, we will disappoint neither.

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