Exclusive Interview: Dick Cheney on the Presidential Slugfest of ’76 | HistoryNet MENU

Exclusive Interview: Dick Cheney on the Presidential Slugfest of ’76

By Yanek Mieczkowski
4/6/2016 • American History Magazine

Vice President Dick Cheney was President Gerald Ford’s chief of staff and played a key role in the Ford presidential campaign of 1976. In an interview at the White House, Vice President Cheney discussed the Ford-Reagan rivalry, the Ford-Carter debates and President Ford’s amazing comeback in the 1976 presidential election.

Was the Ford-Reagan clash inevitable?

Reagan had a major following in the party, and had been shooting for the ’76 presidential campaign for probably eight years. He had thought about running in ’68 and stuck his head up and down in Miami at the convention. It didn’t do any good, but he clearly had been waiting for the end of the Nixon administration to jump into the race. We tried hard to persuade him not to. We had various and sundry people close to him talk to him and so forth. He wasn’t interested, for example, in coming to work in the administration as a Cabinet member. So we ended up with the head-to-head contest.

What was the Ford campaign’s strategy for beating back the Reagan primary challenge?

I’d say the main overall strategy we pursued was to run as the incumbent, and take advantage of everything we could think of. From that perspective, Reagan had a tough uphill climb, in the sense that he had to go against that. On the other hand, Reagan had the advantage: He was much better known than Ford. And the president had never run outside of Grand Rapids in his congressional races.

After the bruising primary contests, did the campaigns try to come together?

We had an agreement in advance, before we got to the convention. The night that we had the balloting to see who the nominee was going to be, the winner of that contest would go to the hotel suite of the loser, and there would be a unity meeting. And we did that. We went to the Reagan hotel. There were conversations that night with [Reagan aides] Lyn Nofziger and Paul Laxalt.

Ford was bitter about Reagan’s lack of help after the convention. What was their relationship then?

There were discussions of Reagan making appearances on Ford’s behalf. I don’t recall a particular number. He did do some appearances, but not a lot. The fact was, by the time we got to Kansas City, there were strong feelings on both sides, if I could put it in those terms.

I can remember having [Ford convention manager] Bill Timmons talk to John Sears, who was Reagan’s campaign manager, to set up the meeting. And the message that came back was they would agree to the meeting but only on condition that we not offer Reagan the vice presidency, which we agreed to. So I got the president’s approval and passed that message back, and then we had the meeting. So it was not a close relationship at that point.

 Did Ford and Reagan ever have good personal chemistry?

No. I think it would be fair to say over the long term that Ford ended up probably feeling closer to Jimmy Carter than he did to Ronald Reagan. He and Carter used to do things together after they were both ex-presidents.

 What were the keys to Ford’s victory in the ’76 convention?

It was the last really contested convention. It was about as exciting as you could get under those circumstances. We went into it believing we had the votes, but the Reagan people were claiming they had the votes.

Mississippi turned out to be key to the nomination. When Reagan named [Pennsylvania Senator] Richard Schweiker as his running mate before the convention, we took advantage of that to pull the Mississippi delegation over to our side. I got on an airplane and flew down to Jackson and met with the Republican delegates from Mississippi before the convention. They had a unique rule. They had 30 delegates and 30 alternates, and everybody got half a vote. So a delegate was the same as an alternate. And they also operated by the unit rule: They would cast the votes inside the delegation, and whoever came up with a majority of those 60 votes would then get all of the delegates. So when Reagan named Schweiker, that gave us an opportunity and we got the votes we needed in order to be able to get all 30 delegates from Mississippi. And that was crucial.

The other thing was, we were able to hold the Pennsylvania delegation. Reagan thought when he picked Schweiker, he would bring a bunch of Pennsylvania delegates with him. But they couldn’t break the Pennsylvania delegation; we were able to hold that, and go steal the Mississippi delegation. That really made the difference in the outcome.

The Dole choice was a surprise?

After Ford had won the balloting, we stayed up all night to make the vice presidential pick. He met with Reagan, but Ford met with a lot of other people too, a series of meetings in his hotel suite, and then went to bed without having made a decision. A lot of people thought it was going to be Howard Baker. The next morning I got called early to go down to the president’s room, and he and Mrs. Ford were in there, still in their pajamas and robes, getting ready for the day. And at that point he said to me he thought he’d go with Bob Dole. He surprised everybody.

 Who devised the “no campaign” Rose Garden strategy?

It was two guys who worked for me: Mike Duval and Foster Chanock. I’d given them the assignment of trying to pull together fall campaign plans. As I recall, they were the ones who came up with the debate challenge that Ford had at the convention in his acceptance speech. We were 30 points behind, and we had to try something.

Do you recall preparing for the Helsinki issue that got Ford into trouble in the second debate?

Henry Kissinger talked to him about the Helsinki thing. What got us into trouble stemmed from a meeting that Hal Sonnenfeldt, who was a senior State Department official, held in Europe with the U.S. ambassadors to Europe in the aftermath of the Helsinki summit. And the allegation was made in an “Evans and Novak” column that there was some kind of Sonnenfeldt Doctrine whereby the administration recognized Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. The president didn’t believe or buy into that. Within the Republican Party, long-time supporters for the captive nations in Eastern Europe refused to recognize the legitimacy of Soviet occupation.

So what happened in the debate?

I always believed that’s what the president had in his mind when he answered the question. I think it was Max Frankel of The New York Times who asked Ford whether or not Poland was dominated by the Soviet Union. And Ford responded by saying Poland is not dominated by the Soviet Union, but what he was thinking about, what he had in his mind, was this notion that was embodied in the so-called Sonnenfeldt Doctrine. And he fired back and said Poland is not dominated.

Even Frankel was shocked?

Frankel came back and gave him a second shot, and asked the question a second time, thinking the president might want to clean it up. Then Ford came back and he hit it again exactly the same way. I was backstage in the green room watching the debate, and I knew it was problematic. But the debate went on and the president did a good job.

When did you realize how big a problem it would be?

Afterward, I had to go down to, I think it was the St. Francis Hotel there in San Francisco, with Stu Spencer and [National Security Adviser] Brent Scowcroft. We walked in and they had a big auditorium, full of reporters, and we were going down to do our postdebate spin. As I walked up to the podium, Lou Cannon of the Washington Post—a great old reporter—Lou hollered at me from the back of the room, “Hey, Cheney, how many Soviet divisions are there in Poland?” And I knew right then we were in trouble. It took us a couple of days to persuade the president that he had to go out and explain that he understood the Soviet Union still occupied Poland and so forth.

But in the meantime, we got hammered hard by Carter. It was interesting, because there was a poll that we had underway that night—it was actually ongoing during the course of the debate nationwide—that showed when Ford made that comment it had absolutely no impact. It had no impact in the questions asked after the debate. It wasn’t until the following day, after the press had worked it over, and the commentators and Carter jumped on it, that it began to sink in and have an impact with the voters.

So how did you go from 33 points down to a dead heat?

We had been way back, about 30 points, on Labor Day, when the campaign started. We sat down and figured out how many votes we had to have to win, in terms of popular vote. I can’t remember the exact total now, but it was something like over that 60-day period of time in order to close the gap, we had to persuade something like 100,000 people a day. And what that did was drive home the point that you couldn’t do it one vote at a time. Shaking hands wasn’t going to get you there; you had to come up with something far bolder that would let you reach out and touch a lot more people. And that’s why the debates were attractive. We had the problem with the second debate on Poland, which we got over in a few days. The other thing that slowed us down about the same time was the allegation that the president had gotten some kind of benefits from the Maritime Union. This was a charge that could only be put to rest by getting a special prosecutor to investigate. It was a phony charge; it wasn’t true. But that, in combination with the debate performance, cost us about a week in the middle of the campaign. We had momentum, we were really rolling and then all of a sudden, boom, these two things stopped us until we could get through that. We still came very, very close—we almost pulled it out. It was an uphill climb from the very beginning—partly because we had the Nixon pardon in the background and it was the first presidential election after Watergate.

What was Election Day like?

The night before the election, we ended up in Grand Rapids, did a big rally there with local folks, spent the night. Got up the next morning, the president went and voted early and then we went to a café that every Election Day he had gone to for breakfast. Then we went out to the airport in Grand Rapids and there was a ceremony at the airport. It was a very, very emotional moment. The president was in tears. The press corps was in tears. I mean, there was just a tremendous outpouring of affection and gratitude.

Then we got on the airplane and flew back to Washington, and all the way across the country there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, I mean, it just was brilliant sunshine, every single place we went. And that meant we were going to get high voter turnout in a lot of the cities in the Democratic areas. So by the time we landed I was concerned. But it was almost as if that ceremony in the Grand Rapids airport that morning had been the ultimate climax of the campaign.

It was then a long night?

We came here, spent a good part of the evening upstairs in the residence. The president was up there together with the family, Jacob Javits from New York, Joe Garagiola, a couple of other people. Bob Teeter and I went up there several times during the course of the evening to deliver the latest results. At about 2 a.m., we told the president we thought it was all over, but we didn’t think he should concede until the next morning. There was still a slim possibility depending on what happened in Oregon and Hawaii or something like that. We were only about 20-some electoral votes short. I’d say that we were pretty sure then we were not going to pull it off, but we wanted to wait until morning before we finally closed the deal.

Did you tell Ford in the morning?

Yes. I can’t remember exactly how the word came in, but by then we had the final count. And the president had lost his voice, so we went out into the press lobby and Mrs. Ford read his concession statement, because he couldn’t speak. Had the kids there, as well. And then we went back into the Oval Office and got Jimmy Carter on the phone. President Ford whispered an introduction of me to Carter; that’s all he could get out. And I sat down on the couch over by the fireplace and read Ford’s concession statement to Governor Carter, and congratulated him on his win.

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