Saturday, October 06, 2007

October 6, 1976:

Ford Misspeaks

In the second presidential debate of the 1976 election, held 31 years ago today, President Gerald Ford made a gaffe that hasn't yet been forgotten. In a discussion of US-Soviet relations, New York Times associate editor Max Frankel asked the president whether the Russians had gotten the better deal with the signing of the Helsinki Accords the previous year, which essentially confirmed the boundaries of Eastern Europe that had been drawn by Stalin a generation earlier.

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... We've virtually signed, in Helsinki, an agreement that the Russians have dominance in Eastern Europe... Is that what you call a two-way street of traffic in Europe?

MR. FORD: I believe that we have negotiated with the Soviet Union since I've been president from a position of strength. And let me cite several examples.... If we turn to Helsinki - I'm glad you raised it, Mr. Frankel. In the case of Helsinki, 35 nations signed an agreement, including the secretary of state for the Vatican - I can't under any circumstances believe that His Holiness the Pope would agree by signing that agreement that the 35 nations have turned over to the Warsaw Pact nations the domination of 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 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.

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 most of the countries there and making sure with their troops 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?

MR. FORD: 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 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. As a matter of fact, I visited Poland, Yugoslavia and Romania 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.

With his response to the follow-up question, Ford ignored the maxim about what to do when you're in a hole -- namely, quit digging any deeper. Years later, when there really was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe -- no Soviets at all, for that matter -- Ford told Jim Lehrer of PBS that "there's no question I did not adequately explain what I was thinking. I felt very strongly, and I, of course, do so today, that regardless of the number of Soviet armored divisions in Poland, the Russians would never dominate the Polish spirit. That's what I should have said. I simply left out the fact that at that time in 1976, the Russians had about 10 to 15 divisions in Poland. Well, of course the presence of those divisions indicates a domination physically of the Poles, but despite that military occupation of Poland by the Soviets, it never in any way ever destroyed the strong, nationalistic spirit of the Polish people... I get a little satisfaction that maybe I was right in 1976."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

At some point in the campaign, President Ford was photographed in Texas trying to eat a tamale without removing the corn shuck wrapper; akin in the local mind to biting into a Snickers bar without removing the plastic wrapper. There are those who think it may have cost him Texas in the election. ANK