On August 9. 1974, my friend Dean Harrison celebrated his tenth birthday. That same day, Richard Nixon resigned. Gerald Ford took over the Presidency and the Republican Party would never be the same. No longer a moderate force in American Politics, the party of Eisenhower shifted from the center to the right. In the fall of 1975, Gerald Ford cemented his stamp on the party in what has become known as the Halloween Massacre.
When Ford took over, most of Nixon’s staff that were not in jail remained on the job. Ford put his own stamp on his administration by firing Henry Kissinger as the National Security Adviser, William Colby as the CIA Director, and James Schlesinger as Secretary of Defense. In were Brent Scowcroft as the NSA, George HW Bush as head of the CIA, and Ford’s Chief of Staff, Donald Rumsfeld, would take over at Defense. Ford’s actions took the nation by surprise.
To many Americans, his actions seemed abrupt, not to say panicky. Instead of strength and certainty, he conveyed the impression that he was bumbling and dominated by political motives. 1
Those political motives would be Ford’s possible re-election in 1976. At the same time, it was also announced that Ford’s Vice-President, Nelson Rockefeller, would not be on the ticket should Ford win the nomination in 1976 (which Ford did). The moderates had been purged.
While today one might see the machinations of the massacre as being done by Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, at the time Ford took all the credit.
Ford insisted that he only wanted to field “my own team” in the crucial area of national security; he invoked the word team 16 times during a 33-minute televised press conference, four times in a single sentence. He exulted, “I did it totally on my own. It was my decision. I fitted the pieces together, and they fitted excellently … These are my guys.” 2
Also coming into the limelight replacing Rumsfeld as Ford’s Chief of Staff was one Dick Cheney. At the time, the purge was seen as a risky maneuver, but in hindsight it was a momentous shift in the thought process of the Republican Party. “Gone” was governing from the center and “in” was governing from the right. The conservatives wasted no time.
Rumsfeld and Cheney quickly gained control of the White House staff, edging out Ford’s old aides. From this base, they waged bureaucratic war on Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger, a colossus of foreign policy, who occupied the posts of both secretary of state and national security advisor. Rumsfeld and Cheney were the right wing of the Ford administration, opposed to the policy of détente with the Soviet Union, and they operated by stealthy internal maneuver. The Secret Service gave Cheney the code name “Backseat.” 3
It is interesting that even in 1975, Cheney’s and Rumsfeld ‘s tactics were still the same as they would be in the Bush administration some twenty five plus years later. Outed in recent books, Bush at War, State of Denial, Plan of Attck, Fiasco, and Gamble, the machinations of the two now have brought down the party that has put America on the brink, both financially and by stretching our military thin by fighting two wars at once.
In the coming years the party will try to rebuild after the crushing defeat of McCain by Obama in 2008. The party is fractured and doing so in public. This fallout could take years as the status quo of the conservative wing avoids changing in any fashion to move to the center. In fact it is going public by condoning, even rationalizing, its mistakes of the last 8 years which led to them being voted out. Be it on talk shows or the radio, the party is sinking in public forums from the defeat. It is odd that one of the people who helped to build the conservative Republican Party of today is trying to hold it together against all the forces of nature and the changing demographics and goals of America. Abortion, Gay Marriage, National Security, and other stalwart issues of the Republican party are not on the mind of most Americans. What is on their collective mind is the economy, energy independence, education, cheaper health care, dwindling savings, and the environment.
The first words of Frank’s Herbert’s Dune proclaim: “Every revolution carries within it the seeds of its own destruction”. What Ford created by bringing the conservatives forward in 1975 ultimately may doom the party and the Republicans could go the way of the Whigs. For if the Republican Party cannot come up with new ideas, even their old ideas will soon be forgotten.
1 – “Ford’s Costly Purge”. Time Magazine. November 17, 1975.
2 – Blumenthal, Sidney. “The Long March of Dick Cheney”. History News Network. November 28, 2005.