He used his veto power 66 times in his two and half years in office, the highest rate among modern presidents, and Congress responded with override votes 12 times.
President Gerald R. Ford meeting with Dick Cheney, left, and Donald H. Rumsfeld in the Oval Office on April 22, 1975. Mr. Cheney and Mr. Rumsfeld served under Mr. Ford as the White House chief of staff.
Recent Flexing of Presidential Powers Had Personal Roots in Ford White House
WASHINGTON, Dec. 29 — This year’s annual gathering of Gerald R. Ford administration alumni took place in June at the National Archives, where graying former officials socialized near a display of the Constitution.
The setting had an apt symbolism. Since taking office as part of the Bush administration in 2001, both Vice President Cheney and Mr. Rumsfeld, who stepped down as defense secretary this month, have consciously sought to restore what they see as the constitutional powers of the presidency, which they believe were severely eroded under President Richard M. Nixon and President Ford. Some of their colleagues from three decades ago — evidently including Mr. Ford — have wondered if they have gone too far.
In the 1970s, reacting to the upheavals of Vietnam and Watergate, a Democratic-controlled Congress acted repeatedly to curb the executive, passing the War Powers Resolution, which requires consultation with Congress before entering into hostilities; approving amendments expanding the Freedom of Information Act and probing deeply and publicly into intelligence agency secrets.
Mr. Ford, a 25-year veteran of Congress, fought back, despite his conciliatory personal style and sense that his presidency in the wake of the Watergate scandal, was, in the title he would give to his memoir, “a time to heal.” He used his veto power 66 times in his two and half years in office, the highest rate among modern presidents, and Congress responded with override votes 12 times.
“He was an unelected president coming in a horrible time and facing a Democratic House and Senate,” said Max L. Friedersdorf, Mr. Ford’s top liaison to Congress. “In Congressional relations, the main job we had was trying to sustain those vetoes.”
In other ways, too, Mr. Ford tried to exercise his presidential powers. He pardoned Nixon without consulting Congress. He ordered the Marines to retake the American merchant ship Mayagüez after it was seized by Cambodian forces, informing Congress only afterward.
“Ford dug in his heels as best he could to stop the erosion of presidential power,” said John Robert Greene, a Ford biographer and historian at Cazenovia College.
Ringside seats for this constitutional combat went to Mr. Rumsfeld, a former Illinois congressman whom Mr. Ford chose as chief of staff in 1974 at age 42, and Mr. Cheney, a former political science graduate student who served as his deputy. When Mr. Rumsfeld was named defense secretary the next year, Mr. Cheney, just 34, took the top White House job.
“Ford treated Cheney and Rumsfeld in effect as his students, eager young men willing to learn the art of government at his side,” Mr. Greene said.
Just days after arriving at the White House, those pupils saw Mr. Ford suffer an important defeat. At the urging of a Justice Department official named Antonin Scalia, who would later join the Supreme Court, Mr. Ford vetoed the Freedom of Information Act amendments, which he believed infringed the secrecy of the intelligence agencies and the F.B.I.
Newspaper editorials denounced what they said was a violation of Mr. Ford’s pronounced policy of openness. A defiant Congress overrode the veto, by a vote of 371 to 31 in the House and 65 to 27 in the Senate.
“I think Ford, Cheney and Rumsfeld felt like Gulliver being held down by the Lilliputians,” said Thomas S. Blanton, executive director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, who helped edit a collection of documents on the episode.
After leaving office in 1977, Mr. Ford kept up the battle, devoting his first major public addresses to a critique of the War Powers Resolution, which he called an unconstitutional and impractical invasion of presidential power. He said it had been passed amid the “boiling passions of Vietnam and Watergate,” which he said had encouraged “too much tampering with the basic machinery by which the United States government has run successfully for the past 200 years.”
That theme would be picked up repeatedly in later years by Mr. Cheney, who laid out his constitutional theories in the Republican minority report on the Iran-contra affair in 1987, and by Mr. Rumsfeld, who testified to Congress in 1995 about the problem of “legislative micromanagement of the executive branch.”
After President Bush took office, they could put such views into action. Mr. Cheney took a stand on the secrecy of his consultations with industry officials on energy policy. Mr. Rumsfeld expanded the Pentagon’s authority at home and abroad. Mr. Bush would cite his powers as commander in chief to justify the first eavesdropping on American soil without warrants since the 1970s.
Mr. Cheney has most explicitly linked such actions to a historic reassertion of presidential power. “In 34 years, I have repeatedly seen an erosion of the powers and the ability of the president of the United States to do his job,” he said in an interview on ABC’s “This Week” in 2002, referring to several 1970s laws.
In December 2005, after the disclosure of the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping without warrants, Mr. Cheney told reporters that the program was a proper assertion of the president’s authority. While the “the nadir of the modern presidency” had come in the 1970s, he said, “I do think that to some extent now, we’ve been able to restore the legitimate authority of the presidency.”
In all the intervening years, Mr. Ford maintained close and friendly relations with both his former chiefs of staff. When Mr. Bush selected Mr. Cheney as his running mate in 2000, Mr. Ford lauded the vice-presidential candidate in an Op-Ed article in The New York Times for “a towering intelligence and probity, razor-sharp judgment and a seriousness of purpose that is the antithesis of modern political spin.”
This year, when Mr. Rumsfeld came under fire from senior retired generals for his conduct of the war in Iraq, Mr. Ford issued a rare public statement defending his “creativity, vision and courage” and rebuking his critics.
But a private disillusionment appears to have been taking shape. In a 2004 interview with Bob Woodward, reported for the first time in The Washington Post this week, Mr. Ford singled out Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Cheney by name and sharply criticized the decision to go to war in Iraq.
“I don’t think I would have gone to war,” Mr. Ford said.
Of Mr. Cheney, he said, “He was an excellent chief of staff. First class.” But as vice president, he said, “I think Cheney has become much more pugnacious.”
Mr. Ford’s remarks echoed those of some of his former aides. Brent Scowcroft, Mr. Ford’s national security adviser, expressed puzzlement at his former colleagues in an interview last year with New Yorker magazine, declaring, “Dick Cheney I don’t know anymore.”
Carla A. Hills, Mr. Ford’s secretary of housing and urban development, said Friday that “many of the travails of this administration could have been avoided with more transparency and collegiality, which were hallmarks of the Ford administration.”
Some officials seem deeply torn. In an interview Friday, Mr. Friedersdorf, the former Congressional liaison, described his joy in speaking with both Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Cheney — “wonderful guys” — at the National Archives alumni gathering in June.
“I talked to the vice president about what a great place it was to get together — you could walk right up to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution,” Mr. Friedersdorf recalled.
But he added, “When I see them supporting the foreign policy of this president, the deficit spending, the eavesdropping, Guantánamo, I don’t recognize them.”