Gerald Ford takes the vice presidential oath of office in late 1973, just months before President Richard Nixon would resign. Ford was the last vice president to assume office in crisis.
Gerald Ford takes the vice presidential oath of office in late 1973, just months before President Richard Nixon would resign. Ford was the last vice president to assume office in crisis.

WASHINGTON – Vice President Mike Pence is no Gerald Ford. The former president was a moderate. That species of Republican is almost extinct. 

Those who are still occasionally spotted in the political wild are known as RINOs – Republican in Name Only.

Pence has staked out a position on the far right, becoming not just a darling of conservative Christians but their lodestar.

There’s that word again. It’s a favorite in Pence’s lexicon – and it was conspicuous in the anonymous Sept. 5 New York Times  oped by a “senior administration official.”

If that piece was the beginning of an attempt to pave the way for Pence to triumphantly enter the White House after a forced exit by President Donald J. Trump – either through impeachment or resignation – then Pence would do well to consider the Ford model for a vice president to succeed an ethically challenged commander-in-chief.

The New York Times piece excoriated Trump’s leadership style and intellect and asserted that the writer and others in the administration are working furiously and furtively to check the president’s worst instincts and decisions before they harm the country.

Recent speculation – by some Hoosier political insiders and by no less an authority than former Trump-loyalist-turned-fierce-enemy Omarosa Manigault – has centered on Pence chief of staff Nick Ayers as the author.

Pence asserted on the CBS political talk show “Face the Nation” on Sept. 9 that he is “100 percent confident that no one on the vice president’s staff was involved in this anonymous editorial. I know my people, Margaret [Brennan, the host].”

Pence made that statement after he asked that he be given a chance to clarify a more tepid initial answer: “I just; I wouldn’t know. And I would – I really would hope not.” Pence said that he misunderstood the initial question, although Brennan clearly asked him whether he thought anyone on his staff had written the piece.

It’s common for a principal to start sounding like an aide who shapes his rhetoric. Likewise, it’s common for an aide to start sounding like a boss whose rhetoric he hears every day. The Ayers guesses are no worse than others that have been floated.

But if someone on Pence’s staff wrote the New York Times oped, what was the motive? Was it to lay lay the ground work for a narrative about Pence’s heroic efforts behind closed doors to try to keep the worst of Trump from undermining the best of America?

If that was the goal, it’s going to be a difficult one to achieve because Pence lacks the bipartisan appeal and gravitas of Ford, the last vice president to ascend to the Oval Office under desperate circumstances.

First of all, Ford was able to achieve Senate confirmation when he was tapped by President Richard Nixon to replace Spiro Agnew as vice president because he drew bipartisan support in the chamber. During his many years as a House leader, he gained the trust, friendship and admiration of Republican and Democratic colleagues.

Of course, Pence was elected vice president. But if he were to succeed Trump after Trump’s premature departure, he would hardly have a deep reservoir of Democratic support on Capitol Hill.

His years as an aggressive partisan have made many Democrats suspicious. He would start from a huge political deficit that Ford did not have when Ford began to restore American’s faith in their government.

Another reason Pence will have a harder time emerging from Trump’s shadow than Ford did from Nixon’s is the fact that Pence’s loyalty to the president borders on obsequiousness.

“The truth is I think that President Donald Trump is the most accomplished president of my lifetime and I think already one of the most successful presidents in American history in our first two years,” he said on “Face the Nation.”

Ford defended Nixon on Watergate until the bitter end, often by employing a see-no-evil approach, according to a biography of Ford by Douglas Brinkley. But when even Ford had to admit that Nixon had done wrong, it didn’t bring Ford down, too.

“Perhaps more so than even he realized, he fell prey to Richard Nixon’s inordinate demand for loyalty at all costs,” Brinkley wrote. “Doing so had ruined dozens of others – but not Gerald Ford. Over his long congressional career, Ford had built up what seemed an unassailable reputation. As [George H.W.] Bush put it in his diary on August 6 [1974], ‘this era of tawdry, shabby lack of morality has got to end…I will take Ford’s decency over Nixon’s toughness because what we need at this juncture in our history is a certain sense of morality and a certain sense of decency.”

Perhaps Pence should become a Gerald Ford Republican. 
Schoeff is HPI’s Washington correspondent.