–Bill Kauffman, writer.
Barber B. Conable, Jr., was a ten-term (1965-1985) representative from a largely rural district in Western New York. “There never has been a better congressman,” said George Will of the man voted most respected member of the House by his colleagues in a 1984 survey by U.S. News & World Report.
Although commonly regarded as a leading GOP moderate, he called himself a “decentralist” and a “Jeffersonian,” tendencies for which there are no House caucuses.
Conable was a friend and ally of Gerald Ford’s, but their relationship was not without tension, as will happen when one man is the House minority leader and the other a headstrong intellectual.
For 17 of his 20 years in Congress, Barber Conable kept a frank and searching journal. In 2021, the University Press of Kansas published an edited version, from which most of the quotes in this essay are taken.
The newly elected Conable supported Ford in his narrow victory over Charlie Halleck for the position of minority leader. Ford then helped his younger friend gain such plum assignments as Ways and Means (on which he would serve eight years as ranking member), the Joint Economic Committee, and chairman of the House Republican Research Committee.
The first sign of friction—or maybe that word is too strong for the inevitable disagreements in political life—came in November 1969, when Conable was “somewhat perplexed to find how much Jerry Ford pushes me nowadays to vote the way he is voting. Perhaps this is part of his new responsibility as a result of having the Nixon administration in the White House. Always before, I have had the impression that he couldn’t care less how I voted.”
Conable had dissented from the GOP position by voting against a $54 million authorization to supply F-4 fighters to Taiwan and in favor of an unencumbered extension of the Voting Rights Act. In the next session, he resisted heavy pressure from Minority Leader Ford and voted against federal funding of the supersonic transport plane, or SST. After that vote he recorded, “Jerry has been very nice to me. I’m afraid he felt that I was being disloyal in not supporting him, but unfortunately compromise was not possible on either side.”
The Tenure of Conable
Throughout his tenure in office, Conable accepted no contribution of more than $50 from any individual source, and his preferred donation was $10. He didn’t flaunt this or drip sanctimony; he acknowledged that he entered each race as the favorite, and therefore was “in a very poor position to judge the problems of my colleagues.” (In the Watergate election of 1974 Conable was outspent almost 2-1 by the labor-backed Democrat Midge Costanza, yet he stuck to the $50 ceiling and won his closest race as an incumbent.)
Conable assumed the lead role in the small GOP faction that favored limits on campaign spending and federal matching funds for candidates. “I have been criticized by Gerald Ford” for this “personal idiosyncrasy” in fundraising, he wrote, “since he feels it reflects on other members of our party and on our colleagues. I have told Jerry that I consider the Republican Party to be altogether too preoccupied with money.”
Ford and Conable remained personally friendly and politically allied. Neither had a personality of the sort Conable descried in Rep. Jack Kemp (R-NY): thin-skinned and perceiving every policy disagreement as a personal insult.
In the wake of Vice President Spiro Agnew’s resignation, Conable contacted the Nixon White House to push for the selection of Gerald Ford as Agnew’s successor. Although “I have never had any illusions about his brilliance,” Conable wrote on October 18, 1973, “the singular thing about Gerald Ford’s leadership is that it has not offended the Democrats, despite his partisanship, and that on both sides of the aisle he is considered a loyal, decent man doing his job as well as he can and working very hard at it. It is also remarkable how many people seem to be talking in terms of having a friend in the Vice Presidency; Gerald Ford has been so uniquely accessible to his colleagues in the Congress that virtually everyone thinks of him as a personal friend and certainly this attribute is going to serve him in good stead not only in his relations with Congress but in his relations with the public generally.”
Ten months later, when his friend assumed the presidency after Richard Nixon’s departure, Conable “was thrilled at the delicacy and tact of his inaugural statement.” As the congressman went through the post-address handshake line, “I gave Betty Ford a hug and she pushed me away, saying again that she should kick me in the shins. She had reacted similarly when Jerry was appointed Vice President. Apparently she still thinks I had a good deal to do with his appointment.”
The Ford Presidency
Ford was inaugurated on Friday, August 9, 1974. Conable drove home that night (for most it is a seven- or eight-hour trip, but the heavy-footed driver routinely shaved his travel time). He arrived at 2:30 am and was up Saturday morning for his weekly “coffee with the boys” at Genesee Hardware. That afternoon Conable was hosting a luncheon for the Cornell Club (Cornell is the Oxbridge of Upstate New York’s muck-spattered aristocracy) when he was called to the phone. It was the new president, asking if they could meet at 2:30 the next afternoon to discuss vice presidential possibilities. Conable was up at 4:30 Sunday morn to drive back to Washington.
Conable says, with mild embarrassment, that he called the President “Jerry” three times during the conversation. He asked why Ford was meeting with members individually rather than as a group; the President replied that he wanted frank appraisals, which would not be possible with an audience. Ford “showed some impatience when I asked him what kind of vice president he wanted to have, saying that he had brought me in to tell him what kind he should have, that I knew him better than he knew himself.” Conable spoke favorably of Nelson Rockefeller, George Bush, and Melvin Laird, and soon found himself in hot water with the camps of the first two, each suspecting that he had endorsed his rival. But he pronounced himself “well satisfied” with the choice of Rockefeller, despite widespread opposition in his district, for he “took it as evidence that Ford wanted strong people rather than sycophants around him.”
In his journal, Conable frequently praises President Ford’s open and relaxed conduct of meetings. On February 4, 1975, he writes that the “new formula of leadership breakfasts in the White House family dining room” is “far superior to the procedures of the Nixon administration because they turn out to be considerably less formal than the meetings around the cabinet table. There is real give-and-take, and it seems to be invited by a president who doesn’t stand on his dignity and who is used to the members present yammering back and forth with him in a less dignified forum.”
Ford, he notes later, “really invites vigorous exchanges, participates in them himself, and thus carries on his tradition of wanting a good collective input before he makes up his mind about matters of policy and strategy. This was his pattern when he was minority leader, and he appears to continue it as president. He is clearly capable of making up his own mind—I have never thought him indecisive—but he is extremely careful to be sure that he has not forgotten anything by encouraging colleagues he trusts to poke and pull and push all kinds of diverse brainstorming thoughts at him during the process.”
The President’s inclination to compromise with the overwhelmingly Democratic House eventually frustrated Conable:
“I find myself embarrassed to be one of the few people in the leadership group who concerns himself about the President’s image as a man who is weak and unable to take a strong posture relative to a Congress that is carving on his gizzard. I seem to be emerging as a hard-liner, a man who is constantly advising the President to go beyond what he himself is willing to do. It seems to me that his legislative background and training push him toward compromise, when his image would be much better enhanced by the appearance of willingness to stand up and fight for what he believes in.”
He muses: “It would be an interesting study to see how differently motivated a president is from a member of Congress. Gerald Ford would be a good subject for that study because he was always loyal, direct, hard-hitting, well prepared, and comparatively disciplined to compromise. Now his training as a member of Congress seems to have prepared him for the role of a compromising president.”
Politics and Friendship
Although Barber Conable had been considered a stalwart of the moderate wing of the Republican Party, to the “left” of Gerald Ford—not that those directional words mean anything anymore—he pivoted temporarily to a posture of intransigence, worried that Ford was too willing to “cave” on energy issues and a federal bailout of New York City. In the latter instance, Conable believed that Ford was being played by New York Democrats, who were angling to secure federal aid and then blame Republicans for the inevitable state tax increase. Skeptical of the “dimensions of the crisis,” Conable urged a hard line, which may have been the correct position, policy-wise, but politically it resulted in the infamous New York Daily News headline “Ford to City: ‘Drop Dead.’”
Barber Conable campaigned for Gerald Ford in the 1976 GOP primaries against insurgent Ronald Reagan, whom he consistently underestimated. On February 26, 1976, he wrote, “I am convinced the Republican Party will not survive as a national party if it is led into this election by a candidate who appeals to a very narrow ideological segment……Thus, I see Ford’s leadership not only as vitally necessary to my own survival as an effective member of the House but a necessary ingredient in the continuance of the two-party system as we have known it.”
Ford fended off Reagan’s challenge, but by October 10 of that year Conable was despairing of Ford’s chances in the general election: “He is a decent, earnest, well-intentioned man in over his head and swimming in a school of sharks who seem increasingly lethal as he thrashes around in the water. Jimmy Carter himself is the shark with the sharpest teeth and the most insatiable appetite.”
The last time the political interests of Gerald Ford and Barber Conable intersected—and collided–was at the 1980 GOP convention, when Conable, chairman of the steering committee of the George H.W. Bush campaign, was a vocal and active critic of the brief boomlet for Ford as Reagan’s running mate in what was advertised as a potential shared presidency. He lobbied against it on the convention floor and over the airwaves out of a conviction that “Jerry Ford was getting in bad trouble because there could be only one president….[A] collective presidency would not be good politics in the long run because it would not lead to good government.” (As a partisan of the New Jersey Plan advanced at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, which called for copresidents chosen by Congress for a single fixed term and removable by Congress if so directed by a majority of state governors, I rather wish Reagan had teamed with Ford.)
Barber Conable chose not to run again in 1984, saying that after two decades in Congress his status as a citizen-politician was in jeopardy. His post-congressional relations with Gerald Ford remained cordial, and in fact the ex-president advised his one-time mentee “not to accept more than eleven” corporate directorships. Conable accepted four. He would serve a single five-year term as president of the World Bank before returning to his home in Alexander, New York, where his gravestone is in a cemetery bordering a cow pasture.
- What does the relationship between Ford and Conable tell us about how ideology affects politics?
- Why does it seem to be the case that politicians were more moderate 50 years ago than they are now?
- What were the main virtues Ford possessed that appealed to Barber?
Bill Kauffman is the editor of The Congressional Journal of Barber B. Conable, Jr., 1968-1984 (University Press of Kansas), is also the author of eleven books, including Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette (Henry Holt).