WHEN President Ford shocked the nation with his decision to pardon Richard Nixon, he had been riding high in public approval. Instantly he plunged, dropping to a record low for a president who had been in office for only a few months. He never recovered, almost lost the GOP nomination in 1976, and lost his bid for election.
Mr. Ford's experience may be instructive when looking at the possible future of another president who has taken a similar dive from high public favor. Is President Clinton in lasting trouble? It is a fair question. His rating has dropped to 38 percent, 5 percentage points below where Ford had fallen after pardoning a disgraced president.
Ford said he had pardoned Mr. Nixon to put that controversy aside so that he could govern. I always felt that there was another reason: Ford, a compassionate man, had come to believe that Nixon had been punished enough by the threatened impeachment and being forced out of office.
Whatever the reason, Ford threw away his popularity with just this one act. He thought it would blow over. It didn't, because he had done more than make a move that was widely criticized. By pardoning Nixon, Ford had - with so many people - become a part of the Watergate episode from which he had, up until then, effectively separated himself.
Mr. Clinton's popularity hasn't eroded because of one action. He has made a series of mistakes and shifts that have brought his public-approval ratings down to where they are today.
Just mention the names of Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood for starters in listing Clinton's blunders and wobbles. Then add to those his lack of constancy on Bosnia and his failure to fulfill his pledge to provide tax relief for the middle-class.
Clinton has taken various positions on how to deal with Iraq's Saddam Hussein and with Haitian refugees. By withdrawing Lani Guinier's nomination as assistant attorney general for civil rights, Clinton once again has shown less than a firm hand at the helm of the Ship of State.
Can Clinton recover? Of course he can. He has plenty of time. Perhaps this early ineptness will pass as Clinton once again, as he did as a governor and as a candidate for president, learns from experience. He is a quick learner.
In retrospect, Ford's blunder was one from which there was no road back. Voters had been attracted to him because he was so refreshingly different from the departed president. They loved him when he told them in his first speech that the "long nightmare" was behind them. But so many of these same people left him permanently when he pardoned a president they despised and thought deserved being tried and punished.
But one question never was asked about Ford: Was he a firm and constant leader? He stuck to his decision on Nixon and has defended it through the years as being right, despite its disastrous effect on his own political future. History may well agree that Ford was right, that he could have done nothing as a president if a Nixon sideshow held the spotlight for months on end.
By contrast, even people who voted for Clinton now ask: What's inside this man? What does he really stand for?
Do the American people, indeed, have a vacillator in the White House? And is he a president without the consistency and courage to carry through on a promise or a policy?
New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis may have put his finger on a basic Clinton problem when he wrote: "Mistakes can be corrected. What is worrying about Bill Clinton is the possibility that something fundamental is lacking in this very smart man. He may inadvertently have said it in his comment on dropping Lani Guinier: `This is about my center, not about the political center.' "
David Gergen has been brought to Clinton's side to help the beleaguered president with the press. But can he do it? Writes columnist Robert J. Samuelson: "If Gergen has any blunt advice to offer, it ought to be: Tell the truth." And columnist David Broder, after citing a number of Clinton blunders, comes to this devastating judgment: "That this is happening to the man who will remain as president for the next 43 months is an international disaster."