Gerald Ford on Reagan, Watergate, and state of the presidency

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Gerald R. Ford may be a president of the past but the fact that his short term (1974-77) rescued the White House from Watergate and President Nixon's disgrace gives his insights historic value. Today's he's a fairly total Reagan-backer and, through contacts with national security adviser William P. Clark, stays in touch with policymaking.

On the main issues of his presidential days, as well as those of 1983, Mr. Ford had this to say recently during an extensive interview here.

Are you concerned that presidential power today is being eroded?

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I think that at times in our country in recent years we have had both an imperial presidency and an imperiled presidency. I think that at times the Congress had tended to encroach on the prerogatives of the presidency. On the other hand, there have been times in our memories when the president tended to disregard the Congress.

It's a very evenly balanced relationship between the legislative and executive. And when one pushes too hard and grabs too much power, it is bad for our system.

So you probably can never define with precision where that line of demarcation should come. But we must be conscious that our country doesn't work well when one branch of the government tries to be too dominant.

You then would not ask for any basic reform in the system?

No. The system is fundamentally sound.

Under the way we operate there can be excesses on the part of the executive or legislative. But the public eventually tells a president to slow down or a Congress to be a little more restrained.

The problems in our system then work themselves out?

That's correct.

Then you are not one of those who would like to see the parliamentary system or a variation of it brought into our governmental process?

Absolutely not. I don't think it would work. Our system does work. We've seen the blessings and the benefits from it.

What were the greatest problems you encountered in presiding over the presidency?

Well, of course, in the initial month or two there was the problem of a somewhat disillusioned feeling on the part of the American people.

The aftermath of Watergate?

The aftermath of Watergate, the aftermath of our tragedy in Vietnam, and the related intensity of feeling among Americans that maybe government had failed them.

So I had to meet that head on and try to bring us together.

There was a perception at that time, wasn't there, among many Americans that maybe the presidency had lost its credibility forever?

Yes. It was a period in which we had to heal the wounds of the terrible disagreements - between families, between segments of our society, between the Congress and the presidency: That whole attitude had to be healed.

Healing was your prime objective then?

Absolutely. And the quicker we could do it the quicker we could get to the substantive problems of foreign and domestic policy.

Is your conscience completely clear on the pardon of Richard Nixon?

My conscience is very clear. There was no deal. I had to get that individual problem of Mr. Nixon's fate off the agenda so that I as President and the American people could work on the challenges we had - challenges at home and overseas. I could not spend as President some 20 percent of my time listening to arguments on what I should do or shouldn't do about Mr. Nixon.

What is your relationship with President Reagan?

The White House, through Judge Clark, keeps me well informed on foreign policy matters. I have good access directly to President Reagan.

Do you use it?

I use it when I feel strongly about something. I have some differences on fiscal policy, not major ones, and I have some differences on how we ought to handle the buildup of our military. I fully support the basic thrust of Reagan's defense policy. I have differences on how much we ought to do over a period of time.

What about your differences with Mr. Reagan in dealing with the Soviets?

I am pleased now that President Reagan is moving toward a posture of negotiation.

Do you think the President should maintain that posture in the light of the shooting down of the Korean plane?

On the basis of what I know right now I approve of the administration's attitude on shooting down of the plane. I believe that the calm but forceful approach in reference to the Korean incident is right. And I also approve of the President's statement that he will continue to seek negotiations for a strategic arms agreement.

How about the Reagan approach to the Mideast?

I fully support the President's Mideast program of September, 1982. I'm disappointed that more progress wasn't made. I was terribly disappointed by the immediate reaction of Mr. Begin. And I was equally disappointed by the lack of enthusiasm on the part of the Arab nations to participate.

We are tragically in a stalemate right now. Somehow we have got to get negotiations on track and moving ahead in the Mideast.

You favored the Panama Canal Treaty.

Right.

And Reagan opposed it?

Right.

How anxious are you that there might be a nuclear war, one that would wipe out civilization?

I do not think it will happen. You cannot ignore the possibility. But we've lived with the atomic bomb now for some 40 years and people in positions of responsibility, whether they are in the Kremlin or in the White House, recognize the terrible consequences of a nuclear war.

And since these consequences are getting worse, rather than better, I feel there will be increasing restraint on those who have the responsibility for starting a nuclear war.

Would you say that because of these increasing mutual anxieties we are on the threshold of an important nuclear agreement?

I believe so. I hope so. And I applaud what I perceive to be the current attitude of President Reagan - that we should negotiate with the Soviet Union for a responsible agreement, whether it is involving missiles in Europe or nuclear weapons on a global basis.

Is there a deterioration in the moral fiber of this country? Is there any lessening in the American people's commitment to its democracy?

I may be optimistic, but I really believe there is more support for our democracy today than there was some 10 years ago. People today are optimistic and are more firmly committed to our kind of government now than they were a decade ago.

But it has been said that the Vietnam war turned some of us into cynics.

I believe this nation of young people is first class. I'm very confident that when the reins of government are in their hands they will do a fine job in perpetuating the basic principles. And they will make the hard decisions and they will face up to any contingency that comes their way.

Are you concerned by signs of deterioration in personal morality in this country?

The major problem I see in this area is the growing drug problem. I'm shocked with what I read on a daily basis about drug use.

Mind-altering drugs of any kind, including alcohol, are worrisome to me. My wife, who is a recovered alcoholic, spends a great deal of her time in counseling with people, speaking to groups. And because of her recovery and because of her involvement, I see this problem more intimately than most people. I see the devastation that it has brought to many, many individuals and to families. And I'm deeply concerned about this. But I'm optimistic that since there is a greater recognition of this problem, more is being done about it.

Finally, regarding ethics in government, in the light of Watergate, can codes of ethics really do the job?

Codes, laws, regulations are not going to achieve a higher moral tone in the presidency.

Americans traditionally believe in heroes. Heroes have to set an example. The young people of this country have their heroes in the sports world, corporate world, and political arena. And if those heroes conduct themselves in an exemplary way, it inspires the younger generation to do what is right.

A president must inspire those around him to do what is right. That prevents Watergates.

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