President-elect George W. Bush's transition has set off a debate over whether his presidency would mean a restoration of his father's administration or a rebirth for conservative Reaganites. Instead, a third alternative has emerged that virtually nobody anticipated: the return of the Ford administration.
The latest evidence was this week's appointment of Donald H. Rumsfeld to reprise the role of defense secretary that he played under Gerald R. Ford. His appointment was overseen by Vice President-elect Dick Cheney, Ford's White House staff chief. Another Ford alumnus, Office of Management and Budget official Paul H. O'Neill, was named treasury secretary last week.
O'Neill, accepting the nomination, cited his friendship with Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan -- another Ford veteran (from the Council of Economic Advisers) whom Bush publicly courted on his first post-election visit to Washington. Bush's designated secretary of state, Colin L. Powell, was a White House fellow during the Ford administration and a protege of Frank C. Carlucci -- like O'Neill, an OMB official.
In a broader sense, Bush's circle has come to rely heavily on Ford hands. James A. Baker III, Ford's campaign chairman from 1976, ran Bush's post-election recount effort in Florida. George Bush was Ford's CIA director and was considered a possible running mate for Ford in 1976. Various other Ford advisers, including Brent Scowcroft, Caspar Weinberger and Henry S. Kissinger, have counseled George W. Bush.
"In many ways, it's the restoration of the Ford administration," said Ron Nessen, Ford's former press secretary. Now ensconced at the Brookings Institution, Nessen has not been called back into service. "Am I the only one who hasn't?" he jokes.
The Ford revival has put political analyst Marshall Wittmann of the Hudson Institute in a "retro" mood. "Get your WIN button out, play 'A Time to Heal,' " he said, referring to slogans of the Ford years. "They're getting the band back together. It's very exciting. He's going to be pardoning a president soon. Chevy Chase (who played Ford on 'Saturday Night Live') will have a new gig now."
Wags wondered if more Ford advisers would be resurrected: retiring Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., could return as United Nations ambassador, while Ford hands Carla A. Hills, John Robson and Richard Thornburgh could return to government. In truth, more high-level appointments of Ford veterans are unlikely, but each of the alumni could hire former Ford colleagues.
Bush also has plenty of advisers tied primarily to Reagan or to the elder Bush, or with no ties to previous administrations. Also, the hiring of officials from earlier administrations isn't unusual.
"People who have mileage on their tires in federal service often get recalled," said Robson, who served on Ford's Civil Aeronautics Board and later was George Bush's deputy treasury secretary. Might Robson himself get recalled for, say, the Transportation Department? "Don't add me to the speculation," he pleaded.
Still, Bush may be sending a message by hiring many warhorses from the Ford administration. Like Ford, who ascended to the presidency without being elected, Bush is trying to find respected names to counter doubts about his capability, some say.
"Ford had the problem of whether he was smart enough to be president and he dealt with that by surrounding himself with very good people," Nessen said.
Ford, a success in football, war and Congress, had enough self-confidence not to feel threatened by strong advisers. "I think that Bush in many ways has the same kind of self-esteem," Nessen said.
Ford's administration, like the team George W. Bush is assembling, was a potpourri of GOP advisers that was hard to categorize.
Ford cobbled together an administration with aides from the Hill and former Nixon hands. Bush has assembled an administration of Texas aides, governors and Washington insiders, and an ideological mix ranging from the moderate Christie Whitman as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency to the conservative John D. Ashcroft as attorney general.
Bush has also imported advisers from the corporate world. Rumsfeld, the former head of G.D. Searle & Co., a pharmaceutical company, continues that pattern, too.
Whatever the cause of the Ford administration's surprising rebirth, veterans of those years can't help but feel a bit of nostalgia.
"I do have an old WIN button," Nessen said, recalling Ford's much-lampooned "Whip Inflation Now" campaign. "This is an authentic, original WIN button. I'm going to auction it off on eBay maybe."
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