Congress tries Ford's way

The late president's emphasis on compromise is recalled as the 110th Congress is set to convene.

The coincidence of Gerald Ford's state funeral and the start of a new Congress is shining a bright light on the qualities embodied by America's 38th president: decency, compromise, and especially a hearty respect for difference.

Best known for telling Watergate-era Americans that their "long national nightmare is over," he is also remembered on Capitol Hill for a 2001 speech he delivered in the Old Senate Chamber. Former Senate colleagues, who invited him to speak on leadership, still talk about it.

"We might question the other side's ideas, but never its motives or its patriotism," Mr. Ford told the senators, then gridlocked in a 50-50 split. "A few mistake the clash of ideas for a holy war."

In that spirit, the Senate's incoming majority and minority leaders planned to meet with their colleagues Thursday to talk about how to bury partisan hatchets and rebuild a spirit of civility and bipartisanship. The meeting, scheduled right before the formal convening of the 110th Congress, was billed as an opportunity for senators to talk among themselves – away from staff, reporters, and TV cameras.

"The American people have made it clear that they are tired of political gridlock in Washington. Democrats and Republicans are ready to work together in the 110th Congress," says Jim Manley, a spokesman for Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, the incoming Senate majority leader. "We'll try to work together when we can and oppose them when we must."

Minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky quickly signed on to the idea, says his spokesman, Don Stewart.

On the House side, incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi and top Democrats promise a return to respect for minority rights and bipartisanship. Democrats will offer a rules package that promises a return "to regular order in committees, a fair and open process for amendments, and sharing of information with the minority," according to Democratic aides.

"We had a lot of animosity when Gerry Ford was there, and he brought us together," said Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan, the incoming chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and an honorary pallbearer at Ford's state funeral, in an interview with Fox News.

Of course, promises of bipartisanship are easier to make than to keep. After the 9/11 attacks, senators linked arms with House colleagues on the steps of the Capitol and vowed a return to civility and cooperation. That spirit didn't last long.

Nevertheless, in using the language of conciliation, elected officials were capturing one of the key themes of Ford's presidency.

"He respected people who disagreed with him, and he saw political opponents just as that – political opponents, not as enemies," says former House historian Ray Smock, now of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at Shepherd University in West Virginia. "That makes a huge difference in how you conduct business with people. It also means you're able to compromise."

Speakers at Ford's state funeral Tuesday in Washington recalled that spirit of openness.

"He had an impact so profound it's likely to be viewed as providential," said former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, citing Ford's decency and integrity.

"We could be adversaries, but we were never his enemy, and that was a welcome change from his predecessor's term," said former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, also speaking at the state funeral.

The brunt of endless late-night jokes, Ford was the first president to hire a comic writer to direct his presidential speechwriting operation.

"President Ford used humor a great deal," says Robert Orben, a comedy writer for Red Skelton and Jack Paar before accepting this job at the White House. He understood the value of self-deprecating humor before it became a staple of national politics.

On the foreign policy front, Ford presided over the end of war in Vietnam, the first political agreement between Israel and Egypt, the Helsinki Accords, and the rescue of some 150,000 Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon.

Within the Republican Party, he was a strong advocate for openness, at a time of widening rifts between liberals and conservatives within party ranks. He also reached out to the news media.

As minority leader during years of Democratic control of the House, Ford helped the GOP develop its own legislative program on issues such as education and crime, which became law.

Americans who stood in lines to pay their respects to the late president in the Capitol on Saturday most often cited his personal qualities.

"He was a stabilizing force when the country needed it. It's right to honor him," said Bill George of St. Francisville, La.

"He didn't just stand for how it would affect him politically when he pardoned President Nixon," says Catherine Herman, a history student here.

He sets an example for our time, she adds. "There are very big problems now, and whether you are a Republican or Democrat, there are no easy answers. We don't have togetherness now."

In that 2001 speech, Ford sounded his vision of effective leadership.

"It's the job of political parties to define difference," but they must also "mediate them" and forge a consensus "acceptable to the vast majority of Americans who travel in the middle of the road," Ford told the senators.

"This is the paradox of our democracy," he added. "We are never better than in a crisis, even one generated by our neglect or selfishness. Ironically, the bigger the issue, the greater the need for parties to help us organize consensus."

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