Forty years ago, Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency. Much has been made this week of the anniversary of the resignation and the aftermath for Nixon. There's been little attention to the rapid transition of President Gerald Ford. Never before had a transition occurred following a resignation, meaning there was no precedent for those in White House to begin planning. Ford himself reported to the New York Times that there had been no planning prior to August 8th, but this understated the work of a group of lobbyists and White House insiders that had been secretly meeting for months.
This was news to Donald Rumsfeld who first read of the impending presidential transition on a sunny beach in St. Tropez. He had been stationed at the time in Brussels as the ambassador to NATO. Rumsfeld soon learned that Vice President Ford's office had been eager to speak with him about the Nixon resignation and upcoming transition. Unbeknownst to Ford and Rumsfeld, a long-time friend of Ford's, Phillip Buchen, had been coordinating with a White House staffer, Tom Whitehead, and others for the inevitable ascension of the vice president.
The group discreetly met several times at the home of William Whyte, the main lobbyist for the US Steel, who the Washington Post later called "one of the most influential behind-the-scenes players on Capitol Hill in the 1960s and 1970s." Also present at these secret meetings was a former Eisenhower administration official and Nixon adviser, Bryce Harlow, who had established the Washington government relations office for Proctor and Gamble in the 1960s and served in the summer of 1974 as the company's primary lobbyist. The insider group used their meetings to assemble a 50-page binder that set the initial plan for the early presidency of Gerald Ford.
On August 9, Rumsfeld arrived from Europe to a letter delivered by Dick Cheney from the transition team that read: "You are a member of the 'Transition Team' ... In fact, you are our leader. Your present title is Team Coordinator ... Come to the Executive Office Building - Rm. 263 - quick like a bunny." The transition team first met with Ford in the White House from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. on August 9, 1974, just hours after he had been sworn into office. Ford indicated that he wanted the transition team to focus on collecting information and, according to Rumsfeld, to "take a fresh look at things." Moreover, Ford "said that he didn't want the Transition Group to be oriented toward conservative or liberal but mostly to address organizational questions" or what he called the "organizational setup."
But the speed of the fast-moving transition created deep confusion. Rumsfeld noted that "no one really knew what the Transition Group was supposed to do, least of all the President." So Rumsfeld proposed to meet with the three others to develop a plan and a calendar. Rumsfeld soon offered the president a set of criteria and requirements for his choice of a new vice president, including someone who "should serve to broaden potential support for the Ford Administration," someone "capable of broadening the appeal of the Republican Party," and someone "whose personal behavior ... was consistent not with the ethical requirements of the preceding decade, but, rather ... consistent with the considerably higher standards now required in this Post-Watergate period."
But it was ultimately the lobbyist, Bryce Harlow, who Cheney later credited with the most influence over President Ford's choice for vice president. Cheney explained that he found it "intriguing that here was Gerald Ford ... and the guy he turned to at that moment for help and advice and counsel with one of the most important decisions he was ever going to make ... was Bryce Harlow." Cheney praised Harlow, saying that "he'd built the capacity and the appeal so that somebody like Jerry Ford would immediately turn not to his chief of staff or anybody else in 1974, but to Bryce."
There's an irony to how Ford ended up in the White House. The secretive nature of the Nixon White House was its ultimate downfall, but those chosen to rebuild the institution approached the transition with a similar level of secrecy. Many of the post-Watergate good government reforms aimed to increase transparency and curb unsavory campaign finance practices. But those who gathered to plan the Ford transition were not simply a group of public servants, but representatives of some of the most prominent US industries. And when it came down to choosing a vice president, as Cheney acknowledged, Ford turned to the lobbyist Bryce Harlow, not those in the White House.
Forty years later, we reflect on Watergate and the Nixon resignation, but the transition to President Ford explains a lot about what's happened in the years since and and importance of lobbyists in Washington today.
Note: Portions of this article are drawn from my book, Lobbying the New President: Interests in Transition, published in 2012 by Routledge.
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