A political disaster averted

Some saw it as an out-of-this-world "dream ticket" which would guarantee Ronald Reagan's election this fall. In the frenzy and mesmeric emotion which prevailed for a few hours on the floor of the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, it looked irresistible that Gerald Ford could step down from the presidency and run and later serve, if elected, in a meaningful role as vice-president with shared powers.

To me it looked more like a "nightmare ticket" and in the calmer wake of the convention I believe most of its advocates will conclude that the Republican Party and the nation have been saved from a disaster by the final decisions of both Ford and Reagan that such an arrangement was unwise, unworkable, and unrealistic.

There is no doubt that it came near to fruition. Several weeks ago during a conference between the two men in Palm Springs, Ford apparently opened the door a tiny crack to the possibility that he might consider being Reagan's running mate if Reagan wanted him and if suitable arrangements could be made. Reagan did want him and this minute opening was enough for high-level Reagan and Ford people to begin talking it up -- without thinking much about the complications.

As the talk of such a ticket began to reach ecstatic proportions among the delegates on the floor of the convention, the staffs of the two men were exploring arrangements which would give the former President enlarged responsibilities in office so that his service near the top of the administration would be sufficiently attractive to appeal to him as worthwhile.

They discussed how as vice-president Ford might have been assigned responsibility in a large area of national security, and share the decision-making on appointments to the cabinet, Council of Economic Advisers, and the Office of Management and Budget. That shows how far they appeared prepared to go to obtain a "restructured presidency" -- half Reagan and half Ford -- to get what for a while they believed would be the "perfect ticket" to ensure a certain Reagan victory.

I was convinced at the time, and am more convinced in the aftermath of the convention, that it would be the "imperfect ticket" which would likely ensure Reagan's defeat and, if it should come to pass, grievously impair the functioning of the presidency -- until it fell apart.

It would have been a campaign liability to Reagan and it would have been a reckless way to try to run the government.

I say this as one who has high esteem for President Ford and the record of his administration. But just think what his opponents would be able to do to Reagan by picturing him (not inaccurately) as seeking to be elected to half the presidency! It would be massively counterproductive in the campaign.

Fortunately when both Mr. Ford and Mr. Reagan looked such a concept squarely in the face, each made the wise and right decision.

Ford saw it wouldn't work. He knew from his own experience that it was an impossibility to share the authority of the presidency and in the end he told himself and Reagan an instinctive "no."

Reagan saw it wouldn't work and agreed with Ford that it shouldn't be tried.

I happen to believe that they made the right decision -- for themselves, for their party, and for the nation.

But it seems to me that there ought to be an orderly and effective way for the government to be able to utilize the experience and wisdom of ex-presidents.Such experience and wisdom are always in short supply and there needs to be a means of access so that they do not appear to be intervening as outsiders.

Shouldn't retired presidents have an authoritative forum? Would there not be merit in an idea advanced by Gov. Thomas E. Dewey when he was running for president in the 1940s. He drafted and proposed a constitutional amendment which would give former presidents a nonvoting seat in the US Senate, thus providing them with an appropriate forum so that they could be heard and questioned on urgent and timely occasions.

Better debate on the floor of the Senate can mean better government. Ex-presidents as nonvoting members could promote such debate.

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