Why Jack Ford Lives at Home
Five days before the Michigan primary, on a sunny Saturday afternoon in May, the sprawling Fairlane shopping center, an indoor mall in Dearborn, is so thick with campaign workers of both parties that it’s hard to take a step without being accosted by zealous volunteers brandishing buttons and bumperstickers.
Today, the shopping center is being visited by a major campaign figure — once removed. A young Republican worker rushes up to a knot of people, breaking the news with breathless reverence: “Did you hear? The president’s son Jack is here! Just around the corner!” There’s a commotion around the corner, all right, and a strange, nervous chuckle is rising above the hubbub; sort of an emphatic ah-ha, followed by three slightly forced heh-heh-hehs.
Then around the corner comes the owner of The Laugh, surrounded by swooning teenage girls. Jack Ford’s three-piece suit — its color an exact match for his tousled sandy blond hair—hangs perfectly on his sleek, athletic, 24-year-old body. He loosens his tie and proceeds to sign the crinkled slips of paper thrust in front of him. He poses for dozens of Instamatic flash pictures and pumps every hand in sight.
“I’m Jack Ford and I’m here working to reelect my father. Can we count on your support?” That’s the stock line he recites to almost everybody. Everybody, that is, except the prettiest girls, who get a slightly bolder variation. The steely blue-green eyes linger a little longer on theirs and, at the beginning of the handshake, Jack will simply say, “Your hand feels a little cold.” On occasion he’ll turn to one of his Secret Service agents and remark wistfully, “I wish there was something we could do about that.” The effect is devastating, and instantaneous. One melted girl.
You get an immediate feeling that even if all these swooning young ladies were of voting age, they still wouldn’t be thinking about reelecting the president. “God, what a fox,” one squeals from across the mall. Very much within earshot, Jack flashes a self-conscious, gap-toothed grin and out comes . . . The Laugh.
Jack rolled out of his White House bed at 5:30 that morning. At 7:00 he boarded a commercial jet that landed at Detroit Metro Airport at 9:18. At 10:30 he was at television station WXYZ for an appearance on AM America. At noon he walked Kennedy Square, and at 1:00 WWJ radio interviewed him. The Dearborn Phone Bank had him at 2:30. He held a press conference at 3:15, and at 4:00 he arrived at the shopping center.
Three minutes after the autograph session, Jack, special press secretary Sheila Rabb Weidenfeld and a cluster of Secret Service agents took a small elevator to the shopping center tram stop. The tram would shoot them across the street and into the Hyatt Regency Hotel where Jack would have exactly 80 minutes of “personal time” — campaign jargon for that one small block of the day that is not filled with TV, radio and newspaper interviews, question-and-answer sessions with the public and pep talks to campaign volunteers.
I finally met Jack in the elevator. His campaign smile immediately sank, then went rigid. There was no grip in his handshake. His face was expressionless; the eyes as icy as the feeling you get watching yourself squirm in six pairs of Secret Service reflector shades.
Later, over dinner at his hotel, Jack remained distant. Talking issues, his studied tone sounded mostly like he was on automatic pilot. Understandably. The pace had been grueling ever since Ronald Reagan’s sudden resurrection in the Texas primary a month before. And besides, Jack would have rather been back in Washington, checking out the Eagles-Jackson Browne-Linda Ronstadt concert. But wait. Wasn’t that a benefit for . . .
“Jerry Brown.” Jack’s voice was matter-of-fact. “Yeah, that should be a good show. But there’ll be plenty of concerts this summer. Frampton is coming. He’s a pretty hot dude.”
We inched through another half-hour of small talk — about the Playboy interview in which Abbie Hoffman called his father “a fucking bimbo . . . [who posed for a picture] marmalading the wrong side of his English muffins” (“I kinda liked that interview,” Jack ventured), est and Scientology (“I lost a couple of friends to those organizations”), Hunter Thompson (“What kind of guy is he?”), Ron Nessen’s appearance on NBC Saturday Night (“I didn’t see it, but I don’t think it was too popular around the White House”) and about his notorious fling with Bianca Jagger last summer (silence). With the exception of a few brief glimmers of animation, Jack was wooden throughout. At the mention of being photographed for a magazine cover, he stiffened even further.
And finally I understood. Perhaps this wasn’t quite the White House coaching him to play it straight, after all. Maybe Jack was nervous.
He sighed and toyed with his cheeseburger. “Well, yeah, a little bit. I knew you guys would catch up with me sooner or later. I’ve been kinda waiting around, wondering when Rolling Stone would show up.
“When I finally heard you wanted to come out on the campaign, I got really unsure. All the delays you got from the White House. That was me going back and forth on the whole idea. Ultimately, Sheila convinced me it was a good thing to do. . . .”
Scared of what?
“Well, I wasn’t really scared.” More cheeseburger fiddling. “I was leery about whether it was an interview . . . uhm, in terms of Jack Ford or whether it was an interview where I could convey my father’s message a little bit better. I’m not looking for publicity. It isn’t my personality to be even campaigning like this, much less doing interviews. I just wanted to participate. I’ll never get a chance to do it again. Besides, none of my brothers or my sister were really up for it . . . the public campaigning. Susan’s not political. She thinks politics are boring. Mike is real intense—all he wants to do is graduate from divinity school and preach the gospel. Steven is only a little active. He spends most of his time on a ranch in California — Mission Viejo I think it is — and going to college at Cal Poly. So that leaves me.
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