Poland, Yugoslavia, and Romania
Many are celebrating the late President Ford's sense of humor. For example, he sent his press secretary, Ron Nessen, to host Saturday Night Live
in 1975. But I am surprised how little attention has been paid to President Ford's tongue-in-cheek op/ed piece immediately following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, "Poland: I Told You So."
Ford began his Washington Post
op/ed piece by saying that his mother taught him not to gloat. The former president then took a shot at his former opponent and current friend, Jimmy Carter:
Boasting, like lusting, is best limited to one's heart. So when my friends say, "You know, what you said about Poland not being dominated by the Soviet Union wasn't so stupid after all!" I give them a Sphinx-like smile and accept their (I guess) compliments.
Ford then lays the stage for the debate gaffe that, like anything in a close race, "could have cost him the election." He begins with a recounting of Carter's dig at Ford's foreign policy credentials:
"I might say this in closing . . . as far as foreign policy goes, Mr. Kissinger has been the president of this country. Mr. Ford has shown an absence of leadership and an absence of a grasp of what this country is and what it ought to be."
Now it was my turn to respond. I tried to focus on national defense, where Gov. Carter had made a lot of conflicting proposals to cut the military budget by $15 billion or $9 billion or $5 billon-you name it. Then we went back and forth for a while playing ping-pong with numbers. Soon it was Mr. Frankel's second turn to ask a question, this time of me.
He cited a catalog of apparent Russian gains, including the assertion that "we virtually signed in Helsinki an agreement that the Russians have dominance in Eastern Europe."
Forgetting the quibble that nobody can "virtually sign" anything-the "virtual" qualifier belonged with "dominance"-I made matters a lot worse in my reply by changing "dominance" to "domination," a much tougher word. One could say that the Monroe Doctrine declares U.S. dominance in the Western Hemisphere but certainly not U.S. domination....
The former president was probably surprised by the recent development of e-signatures, which could be characterized as "virtually signed." Here is the how the actual debate played out from that point:
MR. FRANKEL: Mr. President, I'd like to explore a little more deeply our relationship with the Russians. They used to brag back in Khrushchev's day that because of their greater patience and because of our greed for - for business deals that they would sooner or later get the better of us. Is it possible that despite some setbacks in the Middle East, they've proved their point? Our allies in France and Italy are now flirting with Communism. We've recognized the permanent Communist regime in East Germany. We've virtually signed, in Helsinki, an agreement that the Russians have dominance in Eastern Europe. We've bailed out Soviet agriculture with our huge grain sales. We've given them large loans, access to our best technology and if the Senate hadn't interfered with the Jackson Amendment, maybe we - you would've given them even larger loans. Is that what you call a two-way street of traffic in Europe?
MR. FORD: I believe that we have uh - negotiated with the Soviet Union since I've been president from a position of strength. And let me cite several examples. Shortly after I became president in uh - December of 1974, I met with uh - General Secretary Brezhnev in Vladivostok and we agreed to a mutual cap on the ballistic missile launchers at a ceiling of twenty-four hundred - which means that the Soviet Union, if that becomes a permanent agreement, will have to make a reduction in their launchers that they now have or plan to have. I've negotiated at Vladivostok with uh - Mr. Brezhnev a limitation on the MIRVing of their ballistic missiles at a figure of thirteen-twenty, which is the first time that any president has achieved a cap either on launchers or on MIRVs. It seems to me that we can go from there to uh - the uh - grain sales. The grain sales have been a benefit to American agriculture. We have achieved a five and three quarter year uh - sale of a minimum six million metric tons, which means that they have already bought about four million metric tons this year and are bound to buy another two million metric tons to take the grain and corn and wheat that the American farmers have produced in order to uh - have full production. And these grain sales to the Soviet Union have helped us tremendously in meeting the costs of the additional oil and - the oil that we have bought from overseas. If we turn to Helsinki - I'm glad you raised it, Mr. uh - Frankel. In the case of Helsinki, thirty-five nations signed an agreement, including the secretary of state for the Vatican - I can't under any circumstances believe that the - His Holiness, the Pope would agree by signing that agreement that the thirty-five nations have turned over to the Warsaw Pact nations the domination of the - Eastern Europe. It just isn't true. And if Mr. Carter alleges that His Holiness by signing that has done it, he is totally inaccurate. Now, what has been accomplished by the Helsinki agreement? Number one, we have an agreement where they notify us and we notify them of any uh - military maneuvers that are to be be undertaken. They have done it. In both cases where they've done so, there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.
MS. FREDERICK: Governor Carter?
MR. FRANKEL: I'm sorry, I - could I just follow - did I understand you to say, sir, that the Russians are not using Eastern Europe as their own sphere of influence in occupying mo- most of the countries there and in - and making sure with their troops that it's a - that it's a Communist zone, whereas on our side of the line the Italians and the French are still flirting with the possibility of Communism?
Now back to Ford's 1989 op/ed piece:
I blew it. Still seething from Gov. Carter's opening salvo, I said with an asperity not usually in my repertoire: "I don't believe, Mr. Frankel, that the Yugoslavians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Romanians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union.
"Each of these 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. As a matter of fact, I visited Poland, Yugoslavia and Romania (in 1975) to make certain that the people of those countries understood that the president of the United States and the people of the United States are dedicated to their independence, their autonomy and their freedom."
Demonstrating his forensic acumen, Gov. Carter immediately dropped Romania and Yugoslavia from the lineup and replaced them with "Czech Americans and Hungarian Americans"-seeing more votes there. But it was Poland that people remembered, and still do.
(Let me interject here that Gov. Carter and I, as members of the very exclusive Ex-President's Club, have long ago beaten our campaign swords into plowshares. Nor do I feel the media panel asked me unfair questions; there are no bad questions, only bad answers. I am also trying really hard to forgive the stand-up and fall-down comedians.)
Reading the verbatim record with 20/20 hindsight in the light of recent developments in Poland and throughout Eastern Europe, I come out pretty well as a prophet. But, of course, the key question always comes down to: What happens next?
The ex-president's op/ed then makes some conciliatory statements about how all presidents want to protect freedom. In closing, Ford manages to take a good-natured shot at both Reagan and Carter and talks about his place in history:
Finally, the encouraging changes in Poland, Hungary, East Germany and, most remarkably, in the Baltic republics and other ethnic regions of the Soviet Union make me prouder than ever to have signed the Helsinki accords. I did not symbolize an America abandoning the hopes and aspirations of the captive nations, as many pundits and some former governors charged at the time. Rather, I acted for 200 million Americans by countersigning the Eastern Europeans' own initial and cautious declarations of independence, with formal Soviet concurrence.
Now, 13 years later, they are writing themselves new constitutions, based on fundamental human rights and freedoms. By coincidence, it took the United States the same time, from 1776 to 1789, to solidify its independent destiny as a nation-years that were anything but easy.
From the White House you can see a statue of the great Polish hero Gen. Kosciuszko, who came to help us win our American Revolution. Who knows, some day there may be a statue in Warsaw dedicated to all the American people who stood by Poland. I'd like my name to be among them.
Not bad. Pretty funny for a former president. May he rest in peace.