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Ford At The Wire

Philadelphia--Six days before the end of this miserable presidential election campaign, Gerald Ford was half through a road trip that had turned out to be fundamentally phony. In glimpses caught on television screens at stops along the Ford route, Jimmy Carter appeared to be cautious to the point of fright and to be justifying the skepticism about him that reporters traveling with him reflected in published accounts and in conversations. A choice between this unimpressive pair being obligatory, I choose Carter. With that said, I move on to my proper business, which is to note some impressions of the President and of his performance during the 10 days before the election.

The road trip that was to take the President through Virginia, the Carolinas, California, Washington state and Oregon and back to the capital by way of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas and New York was phony because the conventional rallies and other events that occurred along the way were props for something else. The something else was a series of 30-minute television interviews for which the White House campaign adjunct, the President Ford Committee, had bought air time in states that Mr. Ford would have to carry if he was to have a chance of election. The interviews were supplemented with shorter TV and radio "spots" in a massive electronic blitz that would close the evening before the election with a half-hour on each of the three national networks. Taped shots of the President on the hustings, with his family and with accompanying dignitaries, padded out the first of the 30-minute interviews. They were conducted by Joe Garagiola, a retired baseball player turned sportscaster who traveled with the President. He would have done the work for free if his union had not required him to charge the PFC a minimum fee of $360 for each interview. Garagiola was regarded with considerable scorn by professional journalists, but they missed the point. The point was that, in the first Garagiola-Ford interviews the true Jerry Ford came across as he'd never come across from interviews with orthodox and certified journalists. The explanation begins with the fact that Joe Garagiola in his televised self proved to be a slightly modified Archie Bunker. He boasted of his ignorance of complex issues and invited the President to explain them in terms that ignoramuses like Joe could understand. Mr. Ford obliged, in terms that didn't explain anything but satisfied his pal Joe. Watching the President and Joe together on the screen, manifestly and perfectly at ease with each other, one realized that Gerald Ford really is Archie Bunker, slightly modified, and that he was depending for election upon the nation's Bunkers in their numerous variations.

A realization that this was a campaign triponly in the most nominal sense and was actually designed to provide taped scenes and other material for the television and radio scripts on which the Ford Campaign Committee was spending some four million dollars in the last 10 days was necessary if anyone on the road with the President was to retain sanity. It was also the occasion for bows and bids to interest groups that would have been roundly denounced if anyone interested in denouncing such behavior had bothered to notice. In Portland, at a regional convention of the National Association of Broadcasters, 13 of 14 questions addressed to the President during what was intended to be a news conference were crassly selfinterested. Print reporters in the traveling press party were outraged and broadcast reporters were either embarrassed or moved to remind each other that nothing better was to be expected from the owners and managers in their industry. When NAB president Vincent Wasilewski tried to terminate the exhibition, Mr. Ford said "I am enjoying this" and invited more questions of the kind he had been getting. When press secretary Ron Nessen was asked whether questions of this sort had been anticipated, he said it was natural for broadcast executives to raise with the President matters of concern to them. In short, the meeting had been arranged to provide station owners and executives a chance to lobby the US President.

Some of the appearances were merely weird. In Chicago, during an afternoon chiefly devoted to preparing the second of his television sessions with Joe Garagiola, the President visited the home office of the Allstate Insurance Company, conferred with members of its executive committee, and addressed some of its employees in the headquarters cafeteria. Apart from a reiteration of his opposition to federalized health care, nothing in the President's remarks particularly concerned the insurance industry. He delivered essentially the speech that he had just delivered to a crowd in the central building of the Ford City Mall in Burbank, a Chicago suburb. The Ford City Mall is a huge shopping center, connected only by name with Gerald Ford. The acoustics in the closed space where the President spoke were terrible. A steady roar of indistinguishable chatter all but obliterated the President's remarks. "Listen very carefully," he said, thrusting his right forefinger at the noisy crowd. The tumult was unabated and Mr. Ford frowned, looking as if he'd just realized that nobody was listening very carefully. He grimly recited his central point—"my idea of tax reform is tax reduction"—and hastened through the similar profundities that comprised his standard rally speech.

A visit to a Jones & Laughlin steel plant near Pittsburgh puzzled the accompanying press. The visit occurred between shift changes, the workers present were working and had no time for handshakes, and Mr. Ford didn't appear to be any more interested in them than they were in him. He watched, and cameras watched him watching, 200 tons of molten iron being poured into a ladle. He didn't say a word in the hearing of reporters. That probably was just as well, considering that Jones & Laughlin was in the process of heavy layoffs and other plants in the Pittsburgh area were also furloughing or had furloughed thousands of workers. A camera crew under contract to the President Ford Committee had a preferred position during the visit. It was filming scenes for the Pennsylvania edition of the Ford-Garagiola interview to be broadcast in Pennsylvania. The President's major address in Pittsburgh was to the Pittsburgh Economic Club. The attending members had expected a discussion of economic problems and policy. They got a dissertation on Ford foreign policy. It was well conceived, well delivered, and singularly inappropiate. It caused one to wonder whether Mr. Ford and his people really cared at this stage about anything except the television interviews, the radio-television spots, and the pre-election shows in paid time on the three networks that were counted upon to snatch victory from Jimmy Carter.

By John Osbourne