Pence Follows Jerry Ford’s Path

Both veeps were sturdy Midwesterners loyal to controversial presidents, but there’s one crucial difference—Pence wants the top job himself.

Gerald Ford
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Tom DeFrank
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Tom DeFrank
Oct. 11, 2017, 8 p.m.

When asked which predecessor he identifies with most, Vice President Mike Pence cites George H.W. Bush—another veep who worked for a controversial president with zero Washington experience.

“Bush 41 didn’t agree philosophically with everything Ronald Reagan stood for, but he was loyal to a fault to him and the Republican agenda and was a stalwart booster and understudy,” a top Republican Party official who knows the elder Bush well told National Journal.

Sound familiar?

But there’s another intriguing historical analogy that Pence and his aides might ponder—Gerald R. Ford, tapped by Richard Nixon as his No. 2 in 1973 when Spiro Agnew resigned to avoid jail time in a kickback scandal.

Like Pence, a Hoosier, Jerry Ford was a sturdy Midwesterner, residing in Michigan from infancy. The two states share a border, and their flagship universities are longstanding members of the Big Ten. Both men served multiple terms in the House of Representatives before being elevated to the job a heartbeat away from the Oval Office. Like Pence, Ford was a true-blue Republican more conservative than his boss.

And like Ford, Pence serves a polarizing president dogged by turmoil and allegations of scandal. A key difference is that Ford worked for an experienced politician while Pence is the understudy to a political neophyte whose first year has been marked by gaffes and feuds with putative allies.

There’s another parallel: Both veeps took pains to show loyalty to their bosses, even as they sought physical distance from them by getting out of the Washington “swamp” whenever possible.

Ford was on the road more than any predecessor in his eight short months as vice president, logging 130,000 miles and visiting 41 states. While stoutly defending Nixon until near the end, Ford steered clear of the carnage of Watergate and tried to save his beloved GOP in the midterm elections. “Somebody has to keep this party from falling apart,” he told me in the spring of 1974.

It’s no secret that Pence has ramped up his own travel schedule as well, dutifully tending to standard VP duties like campaigning for GOP office seekers and raising cash, while vigorously preaching Trump’s gospel, mostly to true believers.

Pence often introduces Trump at events, literally standing behind him and relentlessly praising his stewardship against critics. At the UN General Assembly last month, Pence had such an intense public schedule—meeting with world leaders, giving interviews, and defending Trump and his foreign policy—that at times he seemed almost like a copresident, a characterization that makes both Trump and Pence aides wince.

“He’s sort of the one piece of sanity in the Trump administration,” a Republican mandarin and fundraiser told National Journal. “He looks like Winston Churchill compared to the president, and the contrast helps Pence.”

Pence’s devotion to his patron may have reached its zenith this week when the veep, at Trump’s request, walked out of an Indianapolis Colts football game Sunday after some players knelt during the singing of the national anthem. His departure had been choreographed by Trump for maximum political impact with his conservative base—and Pence was unrepentant when some skeptics smelled a stunt.

“President Trump and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem,” he said in a statement.

The next day, Pence came to Trump’s defense against fresh allegations that the administration’s foreign policy was in disarray.

“While critics engage in empty rhetoric and baseless attacks … President Donald Trump has restored the credibility of American power,” Pence said.

Ironically, that was precisely the same tack Ford took as Nixon’s veep in 1974. Virtually every speech he made for months included this fervent encomium: “Richard Nixon is the greatest president in foreign affairs in my lifetime.” Like Nixon, Ford hoped that the president’s success abroad would save him from malfeasance at home.

Of course, there’s one huge difference between Pence and Ford: Only Pence was running for president as vice president. “He’s already committed,” said a Washington GOP elder with close ties to the White House. “The only question is whether he goes in 2020 or 2024.”

Pence’s political advisers understand he’s been handed a powerful megaphone to advance his presidential aspirations even as he proselytizes for Trump—and they intend to make the most of this circumstance to build bridges throughout the Republican world.

It’s hardly an accident that Pence’s operation “has deep and enduring substantive connections with the Trump crowd, members of Congress, and the party structure—people he’ll need to further his own political ambitions,” a GOP admirer observed.

Neither is it coincidental that Pence’s well-regarded new chief of staff, elbow-throwing operative Nick Ayers, recently told major donors and fundraisers they should launch a “purge” by withholding campaign cash from congressional Republicans who aren’t fully onboard with Trump’s agenda.

“[Pence] pays absolutely no price for being loyal to Trump – that’s his job,” added a prominent GOP operative who has worked for Republican presidents and vice presidents. “He’s out there helping Trump, the party, and his own future ambitions—nothing wrong with that.”

Ironically, Jerry Ford had dreamed of becoming speaker of the House, but he wasn’t interested in being president. In fact, he didn’t object when Nixon confided that he’d support former Texas governor and Treasury secretary John Connally as the party’s 1976 presidential nominee.

As Ford recalled in one of our postpresidential interviews, he wasn’t fazed by the snub. “That’s okay, Dick,” he recalled telling Nixon. “I’ve promised Betty I’m retiring in 1976 and we’re going home to Grand Rapids.”

They didn’t—and Pence has no intention of returning home to Indiana, either.

“He has made his bet and all his chips are in,” a Republican power broker said.

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