Aides wield influence

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Every November for three decades, former Ford administration aides gathered at an exclusive club just down the street from the White House to reminisce over lunch, make speeches and snap pictures.

But when President Bush took office, the venue changed.

The Ford advisers had assumed key positions in the new administration, including the vice presidency. And their new meeting spots inside Washington's highest corridors of power reflected a surprising legacy of Gerald R. Ford's presidency: a deep impact on the actions of the current White House.

"The talent from the Ford administration that came to the Bush administration was significant," said Rod Hills, Ford's counsel and then his chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. The Ford staffers' impact on the policies of the current president, he said, has been "large."

Vice President Dick Cheney, a former Ford chief of staff, led the influx of Ford veterans into George W. Bush's administration. Others joining him included Donald H. Rumsfeld, who was secretary of defense until recently, and Paul H. O'Neill and John W. Snow, who were Treasury secretaries.

The transplants in the current White House have been called the "Ford Foundation." Their experiences during Ford's brief and tumultuous tenure shaped the current administration in important ways, say former officials, analysts and historians.

Friendships forged as young men in the Ford administration helped them get their way as senior policymakers under President Bush. Experiences leading the country after Watergate shaped their moves in the current White House.

"This was their first political gig. There is nothing more important or lasting," said John Robert Greene, a Ford biographer.

But the way they made policy under Ford and the current president could not be more different, say officials familiar with both administrations.

And that contrast has drawn attention as critics have probed the judgments that led to an Iraq war that is increasingly troubled.

In seeking answers to problems, Ford - a veteran of more than two decades of debate in the House of Representatives - relished the give-and-take of open and sometimes heated debate. He would force the strong egos that surrounded him to make their case in person during lengthy White House sessions, where he would constantly question the most minute details.

Said L. William Seidman, a top Ford economic adviser, "I worked for three or four presidents, and I think more than any other president, [Ford] was determined that all views be presented to him before he made a decision. I think it's very clear in the early days of the Bush administration, they did not have a process like that, and you had people like [Secretary of State Colin L.] Powell saying the State Department never had a chance to present to the president what would happen after the war started."

Critics have cited the Bush team's strong ideological position on Iraq from its earliest days, and questioned why faulty assumptions about that nation's unconventional weapons program and its reaction to a U.S. military occupation were not more vigorously challenged before an invasion was launched.

Presidential historians and former Ford aides warn that too much can be made of the comparison in White House management styles. Bush, they note, now appears to be listening to more outside voices, particularly in his recent rethinking of Iraq policy. And Ford's White House in his early months as president were contentious ones between holdovers from the Nixon administration and former House aides who moved down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Bradley H. Patterson Jr., a White House aide who sometimes reported to Cheney and Rumsfeld, said Ford staffers felt they had to restore the luster to an institution Watergate had tarnished.

"We were ashamed that a White House would do that, that a president would do that," Patterson recalled. "Ford and any president after him would have to work to restore that honor. I think Cheney was as aware of that as anybody."

Under Bush, Cheney, in particular, has tried to reassert the authority of an executive branch whose powers he believes were unjustly diminished after Watergate and when Ford became president.

Measures enacted during the Ford administration "served to erode the authority I think the president needs to be effective," Cheney said in November 2005. "To some extent now, we've been able to restore the legitimate authority of the presidency."

Early in the Bush presidency, Cheney successfully fought congressional efforts to learn about a secret energy task force he led. And after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the White House asserted broad powers to designate fighters as "enemy combatants" and eavesdrop without warrants on Americans suspected as terrorists.

All were designed to enhance the power of an executive branch weakened by Watergate.

After President Richard M. Nixon's resignation, the White House was under attack. Fresh memories of Watergate had emboldened Congress to challenge the president, while the end of the Vietnam War meant there was no immediate foreign policy crisis Ford could invoke to strengthen the executive.

"There is almost nothing in American history that compares with Watergate and the major impact it had on people at that time," said Donald A. Ritchie, a Senate historian.

A Democratic-controlled Congress wanted to reassert itself, even calling on Ford to testify about his decision to pardon Nixon.

On its heels, the White House desperately tried to protect its prerogatives. Ford vetoed 48 bills during his two years in office, almost double the number that Nixon had vetoed during six years as president.

"Congress reasserted its authority in very dramatic ways at that time, and the people in the Ford administration felt hampered by that, and have been determined ever since to get it back," said Andrew Rudalevige, a Dickinson College specialist on presidential powers.

The bruising battles affected Cheney and other Ford aides. Cheney "has a sort of leftover grudge against Congress from those days," Rudalevige said.

To this day, Patterson chafes at Ford having to testify about his pardon of Nixon before a House subcommittee.

"I don't think that was proper for the president. I don't think a president has done that since, and I don't think you'd see President Bush do that ever," he said.

Peter Spiegel of the Los Angeles Times contributed to this article.

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