Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Balancing Party with Collegiality: The Example of Gerald Ford

by Matthew Green, The Catholic University of America

Many accounts of Gerald Ford’s service in Congress, where he served from 1949 until 1973, depict him as a moderate-minded lawmaker who was willing to work with members of the other party to pass legislation.1

A closer look at Ford’s congressional career, however, reveals a politician who was hardly an ideological moderate. Based on how he voted in the U.S. House, Ford consistently ranked among the top 20% of the chamber’s most Right-leaning members, and his voting became steadily more conservative over time.

Ford was also unabashedly partisan. As a member of his party’s leadership (first as GOP Conference Chair, then as Minority Leader) Ford spent much of his time helping Republicans win elections and campaigning against Democratic candidates.

He was also unafraid to criticize leaders of the other party, including Democratic presidents, sometimes quite sharply. Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen, his partner on a weekly news conference known colloquially as the “Ev and Jerry” show, liked to call himself “the oil can” while Ford was “the sword.”

Furthermore, Ford went beyond merely supporting the G.O.P. and sometimes acted as a party entrepreneur, developing or participating in new ways to attack Democrats or otherwise help Republicans win power. Consider:

  • During the 1960 presidential campaign, he helped form a “truth squad” that tailed John F. Kennedy on the campaign trail, advocating for Nixon and against Kennedy to audiences around the country and foreshadowing such contemporary campaign practices as videographers who “track” opposition candidates to capture embarrassing footage.
  • Six years later, Ford proposed offering a televised response to the president’s State of the Union Address. This novel tactic eventually became the standard tradition for members of the presidential out-party.
  • Ford also helped pioneer the idea that the minority party should offer their own policy platforms to voters. In 1968 he circulated a list of twenty legislative proposals that Republicans would act upon if they became the majority party – a ploy that House Republican whip Newt Gingrich made famous in 1994 with the Contract with America.

If Congressman Ford was such a conservative partisan advocate, how did he develop a reputation for bipartisan statesmanship?

For one thing, Ford was not blindly dogmatic. He was sometimes willing to cross party lines and vote with Democrats on some notable issues, such as space exploration, military funding, and environmental protection. It was his inclination to keep an open mind about casting his ballot with Democrats that led Ford biographer Scott Kaufman to describe him as a “pragmatic loyalist.”

Ford was also personally likable. Members of both parties enjoyed his company and admired his ability to act with conviction while, as Gleaves Whitney has written, not “tak[ing] himself too seriously.” (In the new Ford biography by Richard Norton Smith, the section about Ford’s congressional career is entitled “Everybody’s Friend.”)

Perhaps most important, Ford believed that partisan combat should remain within certain bounds of appropriate behavior. Specifically, his critiques of Democrats focused on policy differences and rarely on personalities or the motives of his opponents. Ford himself explained that he always tried to emulate former Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, who had regularly urged new lawmakers to “disagree without being disagreeable.”

Ford followed this ethos even when the opposition did not show the same restraint. President Johnson, for example, opined that Ford “played football too long without a helmet” and “couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time.” But as Ford later put it, he mostly “brushed off his attacks” and never questioned Johnson’s patriotism (something that he reminded Johnson in Johnson’s last days as president).

To be sure, Ford could be a strong critic of Democrats. By chastising the Johnson Administration for its conduct of the Vietnam War – at one point accusing the White House of “shocking mismanagement” – Ford was willing to cross a line that many thought was inappropriate during wartime.

Nonetheless, on the whole Ford demonstrated how a political leader can be collegial with his partisan opponents while staying true to his own party’s principles and working hard to win power. It was arguably one of Ford’s most important legacies in Congress, and it paid handsome dividends when both the House and Senate – despite being led by Democrats – overwhelmingly confirmed Ford to be Nixon’s Vice President in 1973.

Could Ford’s model of party leadership be replicated today? Given our current hyper-partisan era, where politicians of the opposite party are routinely viewed with suspicion, if not open disdain and hostility, it’s hard to imagine that it could.

But there are recent signs that it is possible. Recent news reports suggest that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (a Republican) and Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (a Democrat) have developed a good professional relationship, certainly better than the one between McCarthy and Jeffries’ predecessor, Nancy Pelosi.

The process by which McCarthy and President Joe Biden reached an agreement over the debt limit in May was also encouraging. Though the talks between both sides occasionally stalled, neither McCarthy nor Biden resorted to personal attacks, which may have helped them resolve their differences and get bipartisan approval for the final debt limit bill.

In short, Ford showed that it is possible to be a strong party loyalist while maintaining the respect of your political opponents. Our nation’s elected officials would be well advised to emulate Ford as a model of good leadership.

1 When I asked ChatGPT to summarize Ford’s accomplishments in Congress, it produced an essay that touted his bipartisanship and desire to find common ground with Democrats.

Matthew Green is a Professor in and Chair of The Department of Politics at The Catholic University of America. He is the author of many articles and several books, including Newt Gingrich: The Rise and Fall of a Party Entrepreneur .

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do our concerns about partisanship sometimes cause us to romanticize a supposedly bi-partisan past or its main figures?
  2. How would Ford’s approach of making disagreements about policies and not personalities play in today’s media environment?
  3. Did the political parties in Ford’s day have the “extreme” elements in them that today’s parties seem to have? Were parties better back then at maintaining their own rank and file?

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