Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Gerald Ford's footnotes in N.C. political history

The late President Gerald Ford, who died at age 93 Tuesday, has several footnotes in North Carolina political history. His 1976 campaign for the presidency reflected the sharp divisions that had emerged in the state Republican Party. N.C. Gov. Jim Holshouser, a Republican moderate, backed Ford’s re-election and chaired his Southern states campaign. U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, then still in his first term as a staunchly conservative Republican, liked Ford personally but was backing former California Gov. Ronald Reagan for the White House.
In time, the Helms faction won, but not right away. Going into the N.C. Republican primary in the late winter of 1976, Reagan had fared poorly in other state primaries and a number of influential Republicans were urging him to quit the race. Ford invited 39 North Carolina reporters and editors to the White House in late March to talk about his campaign, and Ford insisted no one in his campaign had been authorized to urge Reagan to quit.
Ford met with the N.C. reporters and editors in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House on March 18, 1976. Just before his arrival, his daughter Susan was walking the Fords’ two dogs though the White House hall and one of them – Liberty, I think – spotted Fayetteville Times editor Roy Parker and bounded into his lap.
In the interview, Ford said he believed Democrats would nominate another Midwesterner for president – Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota. But he was wrong about that: Democrats nominated Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia, who would defeat Ford that fall for the presidency.
A few weeks after that interview, Ford lost the N.C. primary to Ronald Reagan in a stunning defeat. Reagan won in large measure because Helms’ key aides at the Congressional Club put together a persuasive television piece featuring Reagan and ran it extensively throughout the state before the primary. It showed the power of well-done television ads, anointed Helms and his political advisers as media-savvy, influential forces in American politics and polished Reagan’s reputation for a successful run for the presidency in 1980 and the defeat of President Carter after one term.
A footnote: Two days after that White House interview, Ford earned another, though minor, footnote in N.C. political history. He made a speech to the Future Homemakers of America in the Charlotte Civic Center that, I do believe, may have been one of the most unremarkable presidential utterances ever delivered. Among his observations: “I say – and say it with emphasis and conviction – that homemaking is good for America.”


David P. McKnight said...

Despite the political trauma of the immediate post-Watergate months in Washington, for many of us in North Carolina, the presidency of Gerald Ford was filled with many happy-go-lucky days of optimism and venturing forth to a return to better days for the country.

From my editorial writer's corner at the Fayetteville Observer, I had an unexpected opportunity to write about national political issues since our great Fayetteville Observer editor, Charles Clay, had really dug in on some important local issues affecting the Upper Cape Fear Country.

At point in the developing 1976 campaign, it appeared that three present or former Southern governors--George Wallace of Alabama, Jimmy Carter of Georgia and Terry Sanford of North Carolina might all be signing up for the North Carolina presidential primary, so I penned an editorial call with a cheerful but perhaps naive suggestion that all three should run and by golly, let North Carolina Democrats, including Jimmy Carter's sister Ruth Carter Stapleton in Fayetteville, could just decide which candidate should emerge victorious. Later I was to learn on a more personal level that trying to please both the Carter and Sanford people backfired: the Sanford folks got all the good political jobs in the N.C. Democratic Party and wouldn't turn loose of any of them while editorial backers of Carter from points south racked up all the best newspaper writing jobs in the state and have held on to them with an iron grip ever since!

Meanwhile, after Sanford left the race for health reasons as Carter carried the day in the Tar Heel state, it appeared more likely that a genuine Southern Democrat from east of the Lone Star State of Texas would be nominated for president by the Democrats. So it was time to chat up an idea "to make things interesting"--the Republicans ought to think about nominating North Carolina Gov. Jim Holshouser for the vice presidency to make it a good final sprint to the electoral checkered flag in the South.

Holshouser, who could outgrin Al Gore and a possum too, could engage Carter in an ear-to-ear chuckling contest for the cameras, and we would have a regional neighborhood donnybrook in the fall of '76.

President Ford made a visit to Fort Bragg before the campaign heated up, and we were able to see the ease and affability with which he interacted with the assembled troops, and with the golf courses of Pinehurst and Southern Pines just up the road, the former star of the "Ev (Dirksen) and Jerry Show" on Capitol Hill in his congressional years seemed right at home as a President who took to the hustings as naturally as did Harry Truman in serving out Franklin Roosevelt's fourth term.

History could have had it either way, with Truman winning a White House term in his own right in 1948 and Ford losing his race in 1976, or with some states leaning the other way in those exciting election contests, Truman losing to Dewey (as the Chicago Tribune proclaimed in early editions) and Ford edging out Carter.

What's important for history is that Truman and Ford met their responsibilities as presidents who came to their office under unusual circumstances and that it just happened to be that Truman, like Lyndon Johnson in 1964, got the opportunity to stay on the job for another spell.

Then, looking back to those heady days, who can forget the snazzy wide ties that President Ford sported in '75 and '76 which could even match up with Dean Smith's classic ties on the sidelines of the UNC basketball Tar Heels.

Yes, he was "a Ford, not a Lincoln," and he gave the country a good and comfortable ride back to the constitutional moorings upon which our republican democracy depends.

Frank Burns said...

Excellent note David! I always felt that Ford lost his race in 1976 more as a vote against Republicans due to Nixon. The Democrats never got to nail Nixon's hide to wall which they so badly wanted to do.

Ford was always portrayed by the press as an afflable bumbler who tripped all the time. Now that he's gone, we learn what a nice man he was and how wise it was for our nation that he pardoned Nixon.

What's amazing to me is the fact that Mr. Ford died before his wife. Betty Ford is 80 years old and going strong after she battled cancer and pills. When I first moved to Charlotte in 1981, I noted to my wife that Charlotte was the only city to name a street after a first lady (Betties Ford Road).

Anonymous said...

Here is a copy of the speech that Gerald Ford gave on 3/20/1976 and the infamous homemaker reference. I remember this speech very well since I am the one who introduced him. In fact, I even pinned a rose on his lapel.

He was a patriot and a decent man.

Ann Cooper

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