Washington — Gerald Ford gave Ronald Reagan a counteroofer he had to refuse. Mr. Ford purposely made the price too high, and for these reasons: * From the outset, when the negotiations to put him on the ticket began, Mr. Ford simply felt there was no way a vice-president could be ceded important responsibilities in the operation of the presidency without raising constitutional questions.
* Even though he was tempted by the offer, Mr. Ford didn't want to be vice-president under any circumstances. He had been vice-president. And he had been President. Why take the vice-presidency again, particularly with all the grief that vice-presidents normally have to live with? And -- more than anything else -- why go back to being No. 2 when he had gone out as No. 1? It would be demeaning, he told some close friends.
* Betty Ford was dead set against his taking the offer. Earlier, she was opposed to his running for president again. Mrs. Ford had found life most complicated and troubling from the moment Mr. Ford had moved into the backup job for Mr. Nixon -- and until she finally got out of the White House. Since then, Mrs. Ford has gotten a hold on herself. She was beaming at the convention Thursday night -- happy that she wouldn't have to contend with Washington complexities and pressures once again.
Actually, Mr. Ford's flirtation with joining Reagan on the ticket was almost a replay of his decisionmaking several months ago on whether to run for president.
Mr. Ford moved right up to the brink on that decision, too. Some members of the press were caught out on the limb then also, with one of the most prominent columnist teams predicting flat out on the very day Mr. Ford dropped out of the race that he was going to run. Thus, the news media could have learned their lesson from Mr. Ford's earlier flirtation with a major decision about getting back into public life.
Ford seriously considered a 1980 bid for the presidency, but he was never able to find a way of persuading the party to draft him. And he wanted no part of the long primary process. So by the time he came around to considering a run for it -- in the stretch of the primary period -- it was far too late. Reagan had it wrapped up. Therefore Ford simply decided not to try something that could only result in an embarrassing defeat.
Ford didn't really seriously consider being Mr. Reagan's backup man. Not really. Oh, yes, in the emotional flow of the convention process it seems that, at times, Mr. Ford was caught up with the momentum of it all. In fact, at times Ford was indeed gravitating toward acceptance -- not really wanting it but getting more and more intrigued with it.
But Ford wanted no part of it. So he kept that price for acceptance sky high. What he was asking was for Reagan to grant him part of the presidency, particularly in areas of budgetmaking and national security. He was really saying to Reagan, "I'll be your No. 2 man if you will let me be your partner."
Now maybe that's what the nation needs. It certainly can be argued that the presidential job is getting much too big for one person.
But Mr. Ford knew that this was asking too much -- particularly when there were only a few hours to negotiate a counteroffer which might not be ironed out in a year -- if ever.
Thus, what Ford was asking for in the end was a kind of copartnership with Reagan in the presidency. Can anyone imagine how Ford would have responded if Rockefeller had asked for anything approaching that kind of authority at the time he was chosen as vice-president? Ford did give Rockefeller some assurance that he would be a useful vice-president. But when Rockefeller as veep pushed for even a small share of the executive branch action -- on the domestic planning side -- it only ended up in problems and with the vice-president quickly losing out.
And, again, Ford has been vice-president and knows how frustrating that spot can be.
No, down deep Mr. Ford never wanted to be in the vice-presidential spot. So, while wavering a bit in the process, he protected himself from being carried away and finally accepting by keeping the price very, very high -- impossibly high.