What Bush '92 Can Learn From Ford '76

THIS is the first national political convention that I've attended - and this is my 20th - where an incumbent president needed to "define" himself.

That seems to be George Bush's problem: People appear to relate to him personally, accepting him as a nice, amiable, well-intentioned fellow. But it seems that for most Americans the president's public persona still remains vague. "Where is he taking us?" One hears that question again and again. Also: "What is he going to do about our problems?" and "How does he feel about us - all of us?"

Since Eisenhower, Americans have grown used to Republican presidents succeeding themselves - without too much trouble. It was clear what they stood for: pushing the economy forward, keeping taxes down, fighting communism, backing a big defense, bucking most social programs. Their public image was always well defined.

Gerald Ford would seem to be the one exception. He, too, stood for the usual GOP positions and solutions. People generally liked him, too. But Mr. Ford destroyed his political future long before the nominating convention with one act: the pardon of Richard Nixon.

He never recovered from this. So when he left Kansas City, after fending off a challenge from Ronald Reagan and becoming the choice of his party, he trailed Jimmy Carter by 32 points. Some of this stemmed from the appeal of the smiling, personable Carter. But a lot of it was the Nixon pardon.

It's appropriate now to look at the Ford chase after Carter. Notwithstanding Carter's lead, Ford made a spectacular comeback and almost won - despite his Nixon baggage.

How Ford did fight! It began at the convention where he stood at the podium, raised his right arm, and loudly challenged Carter to a series of debates.

During the campaign that followed, Ford would toss aside his jacket, roll up his sleeves, and light into the Democrats with gusto. He would shout and wave his arms. Gone was the composed, rather impassive president. He cracked jokes. He poked fun. It was raw politics. But the crowds, cool at first, began to like this battling president. Voters everywhere took a new look at Jerry Ford.

Shortly before the election, Ford misspoke about the status of Eastern Europe under the Soviets. This damaged him just as he was about to overtake Carter. Even then, Ford only missed winning the popular vote by 2 percentage points. Many observers thought he was on an upsurge that would have given him a victory if there had been just a few more days before election time.

Ford did not win over the public simply by portraying himself as a fighter. Sure, his unwillingness to give up was attractive to voters. But what came through in the Ford campaign was that here was a fellow fighting to be elected so he could continue his efforts in behalf of America and Americans.

The Ford campaign could be instructive to Mr. Bush as he contemplates how to reduce Bill Clinton's wide lead in the polls.

Bush should indeed deliver a "fighting" acceptance speech, one in which he challenges Mr. Clinton to not one, but three debates. He, like Ford, should glory in the role of underdog. He must become "Battling George Bush" as he talks and shakes hands at stops all over the United States.

In the last few days the likelihood of a Ford-like comeback effort by Bush has been increased by Jim Baker's move into the campaign-leadership position. Mr. Baker helped orchestrate the Ford campaign. He may very well lean toward the same tactics this year.

But Bush cannot win with tactics alone. Ford had defined himself. Bush hasn't. Being anticommunist is no longer a helpful position. Being anti-taxes helped Bush four years ago, but he's diluted his persuasiveness on that position. And not too many people believe he's been the education, environmental, and anti-drug president he promised he would be.

So the president finds himself in the uncomfortable position of having to "define" himself and his aspirations after being in office four years. Somehow he must do this - in terms that will be attractive to voters. Then follow it up with a fighting, come-from-behind effort.

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