Saturday, October 26, 2013

Gerald Ford's Views on a Hillary Clinton Presidential Run

Hillary Clinton at the 1996 Democratic National Convention
Today is former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's 66th birthday. In 2016, she will be 69 years old, the same age that Ronald Reagan was when he became the nation's oldest elected president. Still, Clinton -- also a former senator from New York and First Lady during the two terms of Bill Clinton -- is widely seen as a likely presidential candidate to succeed Barack Obama.

Clinton is not the only potential Democratic candidate for 2016. Vice President Joe Biden has made known his desire to run for his current boss's job. Others whose names have been suggested are New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

I was intrigued, while recently reading a book about former President Gerald Ford, to find out that Ford had some strong opinions about Hillary Clinton as a potential president and presidential candidate.

In Thomas M. DeFrank's 2007 book, Write It When I'm Gone, Ford was unusually candid. The premise of the book is that, over a series of interviews conducted in Ford's post-presidency (mostly in the 1990s but also as recently as a year before his death), DeFrank wrote down Ford's thoughts about politics, policy, and personalities with the understanding that nothing from the interviews would be published until after he died.

Ford did not meet either of the Clintons until after Bill's inauguration in 1992, but he admired Hillary (somewhat begrudgingly) and predicted she could be the Democrats' presidential nominee in 2004 or 2008. (Ford did not have the prescience to see the formidable challenge HRC would face in Barack Obama. At Ford's death in December 2006, Obama was barely on the national radar screen, much less Ford's own.)

Over three pages of Write It When I'm Gone (pp. 149-152), DeFrank recounts several conversations with the former president about his assessment of the then-First Lady:
... he and Hillary were polar opposites ideologically, and he wasn't sure she would be a particularly appealing candidate if she ever ran for the White House.

But those first encounters [at the Fords' Colorado vacation home] convinced him she had the emotional toughness for the job:

"I learned this: she's stronger and tougher than he is," he told me in 1994. "When she takes a point, you're gonna have to be damn sure you're well informed, because she won't compromise as quickly or as easily as he. She's very bright, she's strong, and I think he defers to her. When she gets her dander up, she ain't gonna roll over."
When Clinton ran for the U.S. Senate in 2000, Ford thought it was a cynical move to give her a stepping-stone to the presidency, but he also thought it would backfire on her. "Truth is," he told DeFrank, "that's a handicap to her."

Nonetheless, Ford still foresaw a White House run in Hillary's future:
"The Republicans will make a mistake if they think she is gonna be a pushover. She is a tough, knowledgeable,articulate lady. On the other hand, her toughness in the political arena may not be a big asset. She obviously wants to stay in the political spotlight."

By 2002, he was certain Hillary had already decided to make a presidential bid:

"I'll make this prediction, as long as this is off the record. I'll gar-antee [sic] you, either in 2004 or 2008, Hillary Rodham Clinton will be a candidate for president. [And] I wouldn't rule out Hillary in 2004, I really wouldn't."
Obviously, Ford was wrong about 2004 but he was right about 2008 -- 2016 was beyond the scope of his predictions in 2002, of course.

DeFrank reported further:
Asked if Hillary would be formidable, he replied that her nomination by the Democrats was a foregone conclusion: "Hillary is gonna be on the ticket in '04 or '08, one or the other, and you can write that down."

Why was he so sure Hillary was running?

"Because she has unlimited ambition. When you look at her record, she's a bona fide liberal with unlimited ambition.

"You look at her track record. She went to Arkansas and married Clinton because she saw in him a way to get national recognition 'cause she thought from the beginning he would be a candidate for president and she would get to be president. There's nothing in her track record, Tom, which shows any [inclination] to stay in the background."
I have to wonder whether Ford heard that joke making the rounds in the 1990s, which went something like this:
Bill and Hillary were driving in the countryside when they stopped for gas. The gas station attendant smiled and said, "Hello, Hillary, it's been a long time."

Curious, Bill asked her who he was.

"Oh, that's an old boyfriend of mine. We were once engaged to be married."

Bill chuckled and said, "Isn't that interesting! If you had married him, you'd be the wife of a gas-station attendant."

"No, Bill," Hillary said. "If I had married him, he would be President of the United States."
In any case, DeFrank also noted Ford's doubts about Hillary's electability as a presidential candidate.
... he thought she'd have trouble getting elected because of all the personal and political baggage she'd be toting.

"It depends on the public sentiment in the years out [at the time]. Of course, she's very vulnerable -- she was the mastermind of that terrible health care program which she tried to sell. So that would always be a liability for her."
(After 20 years, would Hillarycare be more popular than Obamacare?)

Later in the book (p. 252), DeFrank recounts a 2006 interview in which he and Ford discussed the upcoming 2008 presidential campaign.
His Republican favorite was still Rudy Giuliani. "I think Giuliani is an electrifying guy. He's a great speaker. He's had a good record of winning in New York City, and he can be tough."

Ever the political junkie, the House minority leader who used to travel 250 days a year boosting Republicans said he was relishing a head-to-head confrontation between Hillary Clinton and Rudy. For years he'd been telling me Hillary was consumed by ambition, was intent on running in 2004 or 2008, and that despite her political baggage -- and her husbands -- would make "a darned good candidate."

"That would be a great contest between Hillary and Giuliani." He wasn't sure who would win -- it would depend on what else was happening in the country -- but he thought Giuliani had the edge.
"What else was happening in the country" turned out to be the operative phrase in that speculative paragraph.

It happens that I was present at the 2006 presentation of the Gerald R. Ford Journalism Prizes at the National Press Club, where Thomas DeFrank was one of the recipients. That turned out to be the first time that Ford himself was not able to attend the event, because of his poor health. Dick Cheney, then vice president and much earlier White House chief of staff in the Ford administration, was the principal speaker at that ceremony.

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