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Campaign ’75

Ford plays it by the book; Fred Harris by the seat of his pants

President, Gerald R. Ford, Oval Office, White House, Apollo, astronauts, Soviet Soyez team

President Gerald R. Ford sits behind his desk in the Oval Office at the White House and congratulates the Apollo astronauts and the Soviet Soyez team, Washington D.C. on July 17th, 1975.

Gene Forte/Consolidated News Pictures/Getty

It was on a hot afternoon in August when Dick, who is the proprietor of Dick’s Dutch Mill Cafe and Lunch Room in Lake Manawa, Iowa, saw the strangest thing. He was drawing a draft for the fat man when he saw it.

“What the hell was that?”

“What?” asked the Okie.

“This trailer.”

“What trailer?”

“Just passed down the road. Had a crazy sign. Something about ‘The Road to the White House. Fred Harris for President.’ ” Dick shook his head, “Who the hell’s Fred Harris?”

“Dunno,” said the Okie.

“He used to be a senator from Oklahoma,” explained a stranger, “and chairman of the Democratic party.”

“I’m from Oklahoma,” said the Okie. “Came up with my folks during the dust bowl. My daddy died in ’39. He had us move up here instead of California ’cause he said it was good farm land. Anyway, when he died we sold the farm. Been truckin’ ever since. This Harris any different from the others?”

“Well,” said the stranger, “he says he’s against big business.”

“That’s good,” said Dick. “I’m a small business.”

The fat man, who’d been hunched over his beer, looked up and saw his reflection in the mirror behind the bar. “They all stink,” he growled. “From the dogcatcher down here to the president in the White House, they’re a bunch of crooks. The whole thing stinks. Here I am, knocking my butt off to make $12-13,000 a year . . . and my kid’s sitting on his ass, doin’ nothin’, and he makes almost as much as me. Food stamps. Welfare. They’re crooks just like the politicians.”

“I think it’s changing, though,” said the Okie. “The newspapers are gettin’ after the politicians. Maybe they’ll bring us some change.”

“I’m all for a change,” said Dick, who was not particularly pleased with the serious drift of the conversation, “bring back Nixon.” Everyone laughed. The Okie ordered another beer.

“Maybe Harold Hughes should be president,” said the Okie, who explained to the stranger that Hughes had been a senator from Iowa who quit politics when he found religion. “He was a truck driver just like me, and a drunk too, and he rose above it.”

“Harold Hughes,” said the fat man. “Fred Harris. The last man worth walking into a voting booth for was Franklin Roosevelt.”

***

The village of Vail, Colorado, is a sort of Disney World for the power elite. Little more than ten years ago it was a sheep meadow in the middle of the Rockies. Now it is cluttered with ersatz Bavarian architecture, cutesy little shops, young people who seem excessively healthy and older people who strain to appear informal in their expensive sports clothes. President Gerald Ford skis there in the winter and plays golf there in the summer. His host is a businessman named Richard Bass, who is very big in strip mining. His friends and golfing buddies are also successful businessmen – or advisors like Alan Greenspan, who used to be successful businessmen. The president moves easily through Vail, communing with his peers. He is probably the first president of the United States ever to wear a leisure suit.

Every afternoon, the president goes to the golf course, trailed by two cars full of Secret Service men and one car full of reporters. While the reporters are herded into a small press area near the practice putting green, the president goes over to the driving range for a lesson from local pro Bob Wolf. First the president works on his short irons, then his woods. He swings very slowly, calmly, and the ball sails away, veering neither to the left nor right. Sometimes he will duff a wood shot but that is usually when he lifts his head up.

One afternoon he came over to chat with the reporters and was asked how he felt about the appeals court ruling against his two-dollar-per-barrel tax on foreign oil.

“We are analyzing, of course, the decision by the circuit court of appeals,” the president said, leaning on his putter. “And I will not know until later this afternoon what the Department of Justice and what my White House counsel will recommend. But sometime this afternoon, I can give you a decision.”

Then he went over to the first tee in his golf cart and hit his first shot about 200 yards down the fairway. Up ahead, Secret Service men checked the tees, rattled the flags in the holes and inspected the ball washers to make sure they weren’t booby-trapped. Up ahead, suntanned executives and their suntanned wives sat on the back porches of their imitation Swiss chalets overlooking the golf course, drinking gin and tonics and waiting to applaud politely when the president passed by.

***

Pul-leeze, mister, pul-leeze, don’t play B-17 . . .” Fred Harris sat in the front seat of the camper, swatting flies and singing along with the radio. He had taken off his cowboy boots and his feet were propped up on the dashboard. His stetson hat was pushed down over his eyes. “It was our song. It was his song, but it’s oh-woh-ver . . .” He had a passable country and western voice, complete with sob.

The camper rolled across the Nebraska prairie. Past cornfields and soybeans and feed lots. Harris picked up a copy of People magazine and began thumbing through it. Don Grissom was steady at the wheel; Mimi Mager sat at the table counting the green cards and contributions from the last appearance, a brown-bag lunch at the state capitol in Lincoln. There were 22 people who had signed green cards, committing themselves, heart and soul, to the election of Fred Harris. There was $204.32 worth of contributions and several ham sandwiches the Lincoln organization had thrown in free. The camper trip – 5300 miles from Washington to San Francisco – costs a total of $225 per day. It was more than paying for itself. The Harris motorcade consisted of two cars, the camper and an old Ford driven by a volunteer named Ed Becker, who said he used to own the first topless bar in southern Illinois.

In the back of the camper, Fred’s friends from Omaha, Gene and Evelyn Crawford, were sleeping in the bunks. All was quiet except for the radio and Fred’s singing along with it.

When the song ended, the news came on. Jimmy Hoffa was still missing and the Seagram’s whiskey heir was still kidnapped, and “President Ford, in Vail, Colorado, said today he was studying his legal options after a court ruling that his two-dollar-per-barrel import tax on foreign oil was unconstitutional.” Harris put down the People magazine and listened. “The president will spend the weekend in Vail and then embark on a two-day trip through the Midwest.” Harris picked up the magazine and went back to reading.

***

The president made a mad dash across the Midwest. Four states, ten speeches, 2544 miles, two days. Fourteen staff members traveled with him, 53 press people, a classified number of Secret Service officers, two airplanes. The estimated cost was $13,600, paid by the Republican National Committee. The press billed it as Gerald Ford’s first major political trip of the presidential campaign. Each reporter received a 14-page itinerary – called the Bible – which listed the president’s schedule down to the minute. He was never more than five minutes off schedule.

And so, on August 18th, at 4:10 p.m., central daylight time, the press was ushered into the grandstand area of the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, just as Bill Riley, master of ceremonies, local cable TV magnate and staunch Republican, was working up the crowd. “The excitement is mounting . . . the seconds are ticking away till the magic moment . . . a moment you’ll always remember, a moment you’ll always treasure. The president of the United States at the Iowa State Fair.”

The Valley High School Band, pom-pom girls and twirlers began a rendition of “Rock around the Clock.” The large grandstand facing the podium was filled with about 23,000 people and several hundred empty seats. Off to the right, there was a huge midway with carnival rides. Bill Riley was back at the microphone: “We understand. . . .” The Valley High School Band stopped at about four o’clock rock. “We understand . . . that the president, like so many others, has succumbed to the magic of the Iowa State Fair. He’s visiting the 4-H Club building. Isn’t that wonderful?” Applause. (The Bible: 4:05 CDT. The president Tours 4-H Exhibit Hall.) The Valley High Band began “This Is My Country.”

Marcia Henderson felt her stomach tense up as the band began to play and the people began to scream. She stood at the entrance to the 4-H Exhibit Hall in her little green suit. She tried to remember the tour route – she had practiced it about 15 times with the Secret Service man: Start at the canned preserves, then go to . . . but, there he was. The president. And he was sweating just like everyone else. The president shook her hand and she began the tour. People were pressing in on all sides. Cameras. Police.

The canned preserves. She explained what the different ribbon awards on the various jam jars meant. And the president said, “Strawberry jam, that’s good on morning toast.” He was a big man in a blue suit, with pumpkin-colored hair. He was sweating a lot. And the tour was getting all screwed up, going off course with all these people pushing and shoving. Someone handed the president a hot dog and lemonade. The photographers went crazy. The president said the display of Iowa woods was very interesting. The president said the skeleton of a cat was very interesting and the boy who assembled it should be a doctor. He liked the rocks and plants displays. He took a look at the sample stalk of Iowa corn. He visited the prize-winning hogs, sheep and cows. And then he was back in the limousine and gone, and Marcia Henderson was standing there in her kelly green suit. Later someone asked her if it had been the most exciting experience of her life. She paused a moment, reviewing her life, and said, “Yeah . . . I guess so.”

***

Fred Harris stood on the back porch of his Uncle Ralph and Aunt Wanda’s farm in Ely, Iowa. There were a thousand or more people in the yard between him and the freshly painted red barn. Demographically, it was a wonderfully balanced crowd: equal parts farmers, labor people and intellectual types from the university at Iowa City. They were drinking free beer and lemonade. Some were sitting in chairs provided by the Teamsters Union.

The sun was setting behind the corn rows to the west when Harris began to speak; it was pitch black when he finished. It was the perfect setting for an old-time populist and Fred Harris delivered the kind of speech that went over big in the farm belt in the late 19th century, against the corporations strangling the farmer, against the big money boys. He spoke with a heavy Oklahoma accent that sounds phony in places like Washington but more appropriate when surrounded by corn fields. He spoke loudly, expansively, like an itinerant preacher. His black hair was parted in the middle, his eyes darted back and forth. He poked fun at Henry Kissinger, Nelson Rockefeller, Earl Butz. He talked about “my ol’ daddy” back in Oklahoma. He said, “We oughta have a graduated income tax instead of graduated loopholes.” That drew a laugh. He said he’d break up the big corporations, tax the rich. “Nelson Rockefeller testified in 1970 or ’71 – I always forget the year – that he paid no taxes – zero taxes – for the privilege of living in this great country of ours.” He paused to allow the crowd to shake its head. Then, “Well, I think we oughta sue ol’ Nelson Rockefeller for nonsupport.” Another big laugh. He closed with a plea for contributions and green cards.

The intellectuals from Iowa City were less than impressed. They used words like “simplistic” to describe Fred Harris. The labor people were noncommittal. The farmers, though, were snapping up green cards. One farm woman who said she lived down the road borrowed a reporter’s pen to fill out her card. “This was the first presidential candidate I ever saw,” she explained. “I suppose they all say pretty much the same . . . but he reminded me of my brother-in-law, Ted. Ted’s a Republican and a good talker too.”

Another woman, wearing the plaid crinoline skirt that is the official uniform of her square-dance club, said she just came out to the meeting because Johnny Ketelson’s band was going to play some music, “but I signed a card ’cause I thought Fred talked some sense, ‘specially when he gave it to Kissinger and the other big shots.”

And Bill Crews, a young Republican interloper with modishly long hair, liked Fred Harris a lot. “He just came right out and said he was in favor of decriminalizing marijuana when I asked him… and besides, look at this thing. People square-dancing, drinking beer, having fun . . . and the candidate’s right out there talking to the people. The Republicans never do this sort of thing.” He paused for a moment. “But the Republicans have a lot of money and you can get good jobs if you work for them. So I do.”

The Ely totals: 133 green cards and $1257.32.

***

The Bible said the president would arrive at the Iowa State Fair grandstand podium at 4:30 CDT, and so he did, greeted by an apoplectic Bill Riley, assorted dignitaries and an explosion of red, white and blue balloons. The crowd reaction was impressive but not overwhelming.

After several introductions, the president rose to speak and there was another standing ovation. When the crowd quieted, Ford began in his now familiar plodding, sandpaper voice. He said he would keep his remarks brief and to the point,”because if there’s one thing Iowa doesn’t need in August, it’s more hot air.” Instead, the president chose to emit a fine spray of ether. Within minutes, most of the crowd was staring vacantly off into space. A small trickle of people actually began to leave. The speech thudded through farm statistics, the Russian wheat deals, the grain-weighing scandals and many platitudes. Near the end, he said, “We are a fortunate people – and the American farmer stands ten feet tall in his contribution to this nation’s greatness.”
The president paused. He looked out into the crowd, waiting for applause. The only immediate reaction was a “woooaaa” from the people on the Super Loops ride over at the midway. Finally, some scattered applause as the Iowans realized what was expected of them.

***

The camper moved slowly west through Iowa. Bugs splattered against the windshield. The cornfields shimmered in the August heat, mile after mile. Fred sang “B-17” over and over. Twice a day he would climb down from the camper and deliver the same speech, usually to prim, proud people who were worried about the high price of everything, and a bit more concerned about welfare for the poor than welfare for the rich. The people listened, were entertained, laughed and applauded. They signed green cards but probably signed them the same way reborn Christians take the pledge, only to fall into sin until the next time an itinerant preacher comes to town and they are reborn again.

At Des Moines, a brown bag lunch near the state capitol: 28 green cards, about $200 and several soggy tuna sandwiches.

At Council Bluffs, a meeting in a municipal building: 25 green cards and $304. During the question and answer period, a farmer named Ron Honeyman, who had a severe crew cut and owned about 222 acres, gave Harris some grief about bowing down to the Russians. Later he said George Wallace was his choice for president. “But they’ll probably shoot him again.”

“Who’s they?” he was asked.

“The super rich,” Honeyman replied. “And you can be sure if ol’ Fred’s campaign starts catching on, they’ll shoot him too.”

The camper crossed the Missouri River into Nebraska.

***

10:10 p.m., CDT. The president arrives Twin Cities International Airport, Air Force Reserve Ramp, Minneapolis, Minnesota. A familiar face was there greeting Ford: Hubert Humphrey, looking like the ghost of Christmas past.

10:30 p.m., CDT. The president arrives L’Hotel Sofitel, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Hubert Humphrey arrived there too. The president made his way through the cheering crowd in the lobby up to a balcony on the sixth floor for a final wave. Hubert Humphrey made his way to the bar where – as he must have expected – much of the White House press corps had gathered. Hubert sat down for a drink with the hotel manager and, one by one, the reporters drifted over. They began asking him about presidential politics and Hubert compared the various Democratic contenders to the bunch of grapes on the table in front of him. No difference among them.

“Is there an apple in the grapes?” a reporter asked.

“Can’t tell yet,” Hubert said, adding that he wasn’t interested in the job . . . unless, of course, the convention deadlocked and the party approached him in its hour of need.

The reporters asked questions and Hubert answered them all, gradually gathering steam, the answers becoming longer and longer. Even the younger reporters forgot that the man doing the talking was silly old Hubert, with preposterous hair that was half sepia dye and half gray, with the all-too-familiar sagging face and pinched in mouth. After Ford, this was a relief. The man was, at least, palpably alive. “What are people interested in?” he was saying. Crime. Inflation. The economy. Crime? Well, it’s their crime now. Republican crime. Inflation? Republicans, people like Greenspan, treat inflation the same way 18th-century doctors treated sickness. They bleed people. That’s how they killed George Washington. Bled him for a toothache, bled him to death. The economy? You attack certain sectors. Housing, for example. People can’t get mortgages. . . .

It was the conventional wisdom but the normally cynical reporters were mesmerized. And it went on for hours, until 1:30 a.m. Hubert Humphrey holding forth in a hotel bar, occasionally plucking a grape from the bunch in front of him, until all the grapes were gone.

***

The second day of Gerald Ford’s swing through the Midwest was utterly ridiculous. Seven speeches in nine hours. Five in Minneapolis, one in Pekin, Illinois, and one in Peoria. The motorcades sped from event to event, local cops blocking off intersections. The press followed mindlessly, the crowds seemed to merge into a single vision of a healthy, prosperous, comfortable America, without tooth decay or acne, slightly overweight, almost completely white and absolutely intent on falling asleep every time the president opened his mouth. There was a growing suspicion that this was a definite strategy on his part. Gerald Ford was using boredom as a political tool: A comatose America was, most likely, a Republican America.

Of course, there were those who got in the way of the Ford strategy. One was an elderly man at the American Legion convention in Minneapolis who introduced himself simply as “Ragland, World War I.” Ragland, World War I, was a rabid Ford partisan who came to the convention even though he was not a delegate, because he admired the president so much. “I’m for him 100%, maybe more,” said Ragland, WWI. And so when the president appeared onstage in his little American Legion cap, the old man went wild. When he applauded, his whole body seemed to shake. And when the president spoke, Ragland would burst into applause every few sentences – occasionally he would start the whole convention going. He would also wake up several sleeping legionaires in his row, whose heads would snap back when Ragland started in, and they would begin to applaud too.

After that, Ford spoke to several gatherings of Republicans, most of them businesspeople who bore a distinct resemblance to the president’s golfing pals back in Vail. They were affable sorts, not the vicious brigades of the Nixon era. And the president told them what they undoubtedly wanted to hear. “Frankly,” he said, “as I travel around the country, I like what I see.”

***

At Grand Island, Nebraska, Fred made stew (an old Oklahoma recipe), cornbread and salad for dinner. Then he sat barefoot at the picnic table next to the camper, eating and drinking beer, laughing as Gene Crawford, who was a Sioux, told Indian jokes. Fred went into the camper to get some maple syrup for his cornbread and when he came back a middle-aged couple named Bob and Mary Neustadt from Riverside, California, approached. “Hi,” said Bob Neustadt. “Which one of you is Fred Harris?”

“Me,” said the barefoot fellow at the end of the table.

“We didn’t want to interrupt your dinner,” said Bob. “But we just came over to say that we admired what you’re doing.”

Mimi Mager rushed into the camper to get the Neustadts some Harris literature.

“Well, that’s mighty nice of you,” Fred said. “What you travelin’ in?”

“That Airstream over there,” said Bob.

“Airstream. They have those big conventions, don’t they? All the Airstream owners get together.”

“We don’t go to those,” Bob said. “All they do is line up and parade around. We like being off on our own.”

“We’re having a meeting downtown tonight,” Fred said.

“Well, we’d like to come,” said the Neustadts, “but we want to take it easy tonight.”

Grand Island turned out to be a smash: a staggering 51 green cards and $380.51. No sandwiches. Bertha Aldrich, who drove 100 miles to see a presidential candidate, said, “I feel like I’ve been to an oldtime revival meeting. He was great! I don’t think he can win, though. Ford’s unbeatable. People are just tired and they’re delighted to have a government that doesn’t do anything.”

North Platte, another smash: 36 green cards and $242. “I like him. He’s got macho,” said a Mrs. Harris, whose hair is dyed so blue it looks like the sky. “I could understand every word he said. Plus, he has the same last name as mine.”

Tom Tomas, a soft-spoken young man who owned a greenhouse, said that most of the other candidates seemed to be emphasizing negative things like welfare chiselers but Harris had a positive program. “I think people want to work – of course, there are some chiselers – but most people, I think, want to work. I just don’t agree with Ford’s trickle down economics, puttin’ so many people out of jobs.”

“That’s right,” interrupted June Popken, who’d just agreed to become the local Harris organizer. “If you give people jobs, then business will be good. It’s got to follow. Trickle up.”

***

Sometime between 3:55 and 4:10 p.m. CDT, on Tuesday, August 19th, Gerald Ford may have noticed, for the first time on his Midwest swing, that there were residents of the United States who lived in something less than total comfort. By a bizarre quirk, the president’s motorcade entered Peoria through the rough part of town. There were rundown factories and grimy workers wearing hard-hats. There were working-class bars and tenements. There were even some black people and a Salvation Army center for derelicts. Earlier in Pekin, the president had ordered his limousine stopped and the top removed so he could stand and wave to the well-scrubbed crowds of white people who lined the streets, waving flags and “Welcome President Ford” signs. Now the motorcade moved briskly through Peoria, windows rolled up, air conditioning on.

Perhaps the route had been deliberately chosen to prepare the president for the last stop on his two-day trip: a White House Conference on Domestic and Economic Affairs where – his press aides proudly proclaimed – the president would, for the first time, actually answer questions thrown at him by average citizens. Well, not exactly average citizens, representatives of the 17 groups who were sponsoring the conference. And so the president was able to experience the anger of the unemployed, albeit once removed, when the AFL-CIO asked him about unemployment. The president replied, rather mildly, that the unemployment was a byproduct of the war on inflation. Some people would have to make sacrifices, he said, “because inflation hurts everyone.”

Black people were doing better than ever, though, he assured the NAACP representative, who wasn’t convinced. “What about busing?” the black man asked, in a followup question. “Busing is not the proper way to get quality education,” Ford replied, to tumultuous applause.

The force of these questions was, most likely, blunted by the other questions the president fielded. The man from the Press Association asked about second-class mail rates, the asked about tax breaks on charitable donations to private colleges, the Future Farmers of America asked about vocational education. In that context, the AFL-CIO and the NAACP must have seemed like two more special interest groups with their own little problems.

In any case, nobody laid a glove on the president during the questioning and he returned to his limousine saying he was “certain this conference will be long remembered in the history of verbal communication.” He was whisked out of town by a more appropriate route.

***

It was a very busy Friday night in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. Three events were taking place simultaneously on Broadway, which is the main street in town. At the Bluffs Theater, Jaws was opening and there were lines of people around the block. Meanwhile, American Graffiti seemed to be playing in the middle of Broadway itself, with jalopies full of teenagers cruising around, looking for some excitement. And over at the National Bank building, Fred Harris was holding a meeting of sorts.

There were only about 20 people in the room and Fred was plainly disappointed. He sped through his speech, talking much more softly than was his wont and moved on to questions.

“You say you want to take the rich off welfare and I agree,” said a woman with short brown hair in the back row. “But what about the people on welfare at, uh, the other end of the economic spectrum?”

“I don’t think there’s much abuse there, compared to the other,” Harris replied.

“Well, I disagree and I speak from personal experience.”

Harris looked up at her. His body seemed to tense. “What’s your complaint, specifically?”

“I’m a school teacher,” she said, tentatively. “And it’s the free lunch program, the . . .”

“The free lunch program?”

“Yes, there are kids who are getting free lunches who just shouldn’t be . . .”

“And you don’t like that? How many kids would you cut out of it? What kind of kids?”

“Well, mostly minority . . .”

“What minority? Be specific.”

The woman faltered a bit. “Well, it doesn’t . . . well, Mexican Americans for the most part.”

Harris exploded. “Well, I want you to know, I want you to know this straight out, I want it to be very clear, that if I make a mistake as president, I want to make it in favor of those little kids who get the school lunch program.” His face was red, he began pacing back and forth. “I remember, as a kid, we were very poor. It wasn’t that my daddy didn’t work hard either. But we were poor. And I had to stand in line with a little yellow cardboard, waiting for a free lunch. And it was the most shameful thing I ever did do. I was so ashamed I would try and trade the yellow cardboard for a dime so I could get a piece of pecan pie and eat it for lunch. . . . No, I’m not gonna cut back on those little kids. I’m gonna cut back on the $94 billion that the big corporations get in tax breaks, not those little kids.”

Half the people in the room sat there with their mouths open. The woman’s husband, a postman, tried to rise to her defense.

“You say you’re on the federal payroll and you’re complaining about welfare cheats?” Harris stormed. “Well, that’s the most amazing thing I ever did hear. You know, there are people who say the post office department is inefficiently run and the bureaucracy should be cut back. . .”

“That’s mostly bad publicity by the media, you . . .”

“. . . and I agree with them. Maybe we should cut back on the bureaucrats at the post office who do nothing but sit around all day . . .”

The man was utterly speechless. Harris continued, “People want to work. I remember when I was on the Senate Finance Committee and Russell Long wanted to pass this law to force women on welfare to work. He called them ‘brood mares.’ And there were a few of us who said you don’t have to force ’em, but Russell Long kept talking about ‘brood mares’ and the bill passed. And do you know what happened? Ten times as many women volunteered for work as they had places for. They had to turn ’em away. People want to work.”

Not many people wanted to ask questions after that. It had been a startling display of honest anger from a politician. It netted Fred Harris 11 green cards and $21.

***

Two candidates crisscrossing the Midwest during a hot week in August, a year before the election. The yin and yang of American politics quietly pass each other in the cornfields, and move on.

Gerald Ford returns to Vail for some more golf.

Fred Harris leans his head down on a parking meter, staring across Broadway at the long lines of people waiting, in the middle of Nebraska, to see a movie about a shark.

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