On this night in 1976, President Ford and Jimmy Carter met in the second of their three televised debates.
Ford had been making gains on Carter since their first debate. He still trailed Carter in the polls by a considerable margin, but that margin clearly was narrowing. And Carter, who was known to be a "born again" Christian, received negative publicity for an interview he gave to Playboy.
In early October 1976, things seemed to be moving in Ford's direction.
However, Ford himself froze his momentum in its tracks with what can only be called a self–inflicted wound.
When the candidates met in San Francisco 35 years ago tonight, the subject was foreign policy, which was generally regarded as a strength of Republican nominees during the Cold War.
Carter, perhaps feeling particularly vulnerable after surveys had indicated that more people thought Ford won the first debate than thought Carter did and his interview with Playboy drew a sharp response from feminist leaders and Christian evangelicals, went on the offensive from the start.
Ford retaliated gamely, and the tone of the second debate was established. This would be a bare–knuckles brawl.
In their first debate, Carter seemed intimidated by Ford's office. "[T]his time, the aura of the presidency was no shield for Ford," wrote Jules Witcover in "Marathon," his account of the '76 campaign.
Carter was not as timid as he had often appeared in the first debate. He was aggressive, hammering away at every opening, and I recall thinking, about 10 or 15 minutes into the debate, that Ford seemed almost shocked. This wasn't the Jimmy Carter he had expected.
But that hardly explained what happened next. Max Frankel of the New York Times, in a question about U.S.–Soviet relations, observed that "[w]e've virtually signed ... an agreement that the Russians have dominance in Eastern Europe" and proceeded to ask Ford, "Is that what you call a two–way street of traffic in Europe?"
Astonishingly, Ford replied — as he concluded a rather routine recitation of "several examples" in which his administration had negotiated with the Soviets "from a position of strength" — that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration."
The remark was patently ridiculous.
Some of Ford's defenders — and the president himself — later tried to put a positive spin on the remark. They would claim that Ford was really saying that his administration had never acknowledged Soviet domination of eastern Europe.
And that had a defiant, almost revolutionary, sound to it — except that wasn't precisely what he said.
When NPR's Pauline Frederick, the moderator, tried to go to Carter for his rebuttal, Frankel interjected with a followup for Ford.
"[D]id I understand you to say, sir," he asked in disbelief, "that the Russians are not using eastern Europe as their own sphere of influence in occupying most of the countries there and making sure with their troops that it's a Communist zone?"
Given an opportunity to explain himself then, on the spot, Ford further muddied the waters, saying this instead:
"I don't believe ... that the Yugoslavians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Rumanians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. Each of those countries is independent, autonomous: it has its own territorial integrity and the United States does not concede that those countries are under the domination of the Soviet Union."
The damage had been done.
James Naughton of the New York Times observed an "audible intake of air" in the theater that night, Witcover wrote. Even more tellingly, Ford committee director Stuart Spencer, who was watching the debate with security adviser Brent Scowcroft, remembered that "Scowcroft went white. Right then I knew we had problems."
In hindsight, I suppose, Ford's remarks could almost be regarded as prophetic, considering the events that unfolded in the decade to come. But, on this night in 1976, it was nothing less than ludicrous to suggest that Poland and the other countries in eastern Europe were not dominated by the Soviet Union.
But Carter, sensing a vulnerability that he could exploit, said that Ford must have known about the presence of Soviet troops in eastern Europe. If he did not, he was incompetent. If he did and ignored them, pretended they did not exist, he had been dishonest. That was about as blunt as the choice could be. The president of the United States was stupid or a liar. There was no third alternative.
Asked later by Witcover about his reply, Ford admitted he had been "a little careless" but doggedly continued to stand by what he had said.
But it was no temporary storm that had to be ridden out. For Gerald Ford, it was much worse than that. Even before he became president, Ford had been ridiculed by Lyndon Johnson, who suggested that Ford, a star football player at Michigan, had played football too often without a helmet in the years before he was elected to the House.
(LBJ also once said that "Jerry Ford is so dumb he can't fart and chew gum at the same time" — which reporters cleaned up to read "Ford can't walk and chew gum at the same time." I've never been sure which comparison was more damaging.)
In short, it was the resurrection of the ghost that Ford's staff feared the most — the impression that he was dumb. It had plagued him since his career in the House. It had been a national joke when he stumbled a couple of times in front of TV cameras, launching some of Chevy Chase's most memorable skits on Saturday Night Live.
Ford never recovered.
Some people thought at the time — and some people still believe — that Ford's gaffe in the second debate kept him from winning the election, but I disagree.
I believed then — and I still believe today — that Ford was going to lose, anyway, because of the pardon of Richard Nixon. He needed everything to go his way from the time of the Republican convention to Election Day if he was to have even the slightest chance of winning. What happened 35 years ago tonight didn't help his cause.
My personal view of that decision has evolved over the years, and I have reached the point where I am partially inclined to agree with Ford, who argued that issuing a pardon was the only way to put Watergate behind us and refocus on the issues the nation faced in the mid–1970s.
But, in 1974, the majority of Americans were so angry at Nixon that, when Ford pardoned the former president, he sealed his fate with them.