What Bush can learn from Gerald Ford
President-elect George W. Bush must first rely mainly on words to pull a divided people together. Following a moving conciliatory speech by Vice President Al Gore, Bush had healing, unifying words like these: "I was not elected to serve one party, but to serve one nation.... Our nation must rise above a house divided.... Our votes may differ, but not our hopes."
Is there a memorable quote there, one that will ring down the centuries? It was a most effective speech, well delivered. And, at times, Mr. Bush reached the level of eloquence. But I doubt any of his utterances will take on the permanent life of these:
"Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country" (Kennedy on his inaugural); "Let us continue ..." (Johnson to joint session of Congress a few days after succeeding the assassinated Kennedy); and " ... our long national nightmare is over" (Ford's words after taking over from the discredited Nixon).
Again and again I've heard commentators say that Bush should look to Jerry Ford and the way he lifted and united the nation with his eloquence. So I've turned to the man who wrote that famous "nightmare is over" speech - Ford's closest personal aide, Robert T. Hartmann - to tell me how it was put together.
"Three o'clock in the morning of Wednesday, August 7, 1974, my subconscious was already spinning when the alarm sounded. While the coffeepot boiled I focused on the confidential charge entrusted to me by the next President of the United States. It might well be the most important job I would ever have to do. It must bridge - but also divide - the past and the future. It was not so much an inaugural as an invocation. It would be brief, but every word must ring true."
That was what Hartmann was thinking - he tells us in his book, "Palace Politics, an Inside Account of the Ford Years" - as he went to work on a speech that did so much to put Nixon's Watergate behind us and heal a nation filled with hatred and distrust of the disgraced president. The questions loomed then as they do now: Would Ford be able to pull the people behind him? Would he be able to govern effectively?
Hartmann tells us that on a scratch pad he wrote the words "take charge," as the impression Ford must give from the very outset of his speech. "Next," he writes, "Ford must establish once and for all the legitimacy of his succession." Bush must also establish the legitimacy of his presidency with millions of Gore's supporters.
Next, Hartmann had set the following 1as a speech goal: "Ford would have to pay his respect to the Congress and reaffirm the basics of American foreign policy for anxious ears abroad."
"Somehow," Hartmann's notes conclude, "Ford has to show human compassion for his fallen predecessor. Finally, very simply, he must ask God's help. All presidents have needed it. So would Jerry Ford." Bush has done this.
Hartmann tells us that he sat down at his typewriter and wrote the speech: "Not a fireside chat, just a little straight talk among friends ... the first of many." And then came the operative sentence of the whole speech: "My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over."
"In the early morning silence," Hartmann writes, "I could almost hear the collective sigh of millions. I don't know where this phrase came from, but it didn't struggle to be born. It just flowed naturally."
There were more healing words in the speech: "As we bind up the internal wounds of Watergate, let us restore the Golden Rule of our political process, and let brotherly love purge our hearts of suspicion and hate...."
Hartmann then discloses how the historic "nightmare" phrase was almost lost to history.
He says that Ford looked over the speech draft and said he wouldn't change a word - "except for one thing that troubled him. His finger pointed to the sentence: 'Our long national nightmare is over.' 'Isn't that a little hard on Dick [Nixon]?' he asked."
Here Hartmann put up an impassioned defense of words he told Ford he was convinced would "help you turn the country around." "It's like FDR saying all we have to fear is fear itself.... It is going to be the headline in every paper, the lead in every story."
"Then," Hartmann writes, "Ford thought for a moment, smiled, and said, 'O.K. I guess you're right.' "
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society