The occasion was an ornate, protocol-laden state dinner for Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. The host at the glittering White House affair was President Gerald Ford, a man clearly conscious of his status as an unelected incumbent and desperately anxious to demonstrate his fitness for office. The applause when Ford rose to toast the Egyptian leader was generous, the atmosphere congenial. The President tried gamely to respond with dignity, cordially raising his glass to salute Sadat and “the people you represent, the great people of the government of Israel—Egypt, excuse me.” The gasping was audible.
It wasn’t the President’s first gaffe as election fever began spreading late last year and it wouldn’t be his last. Others were to follow in quick succession: Ford sprawling down the steps of Air Force One; Ford smashing his head on the doorframe of a helicopter; Ford again bumping his head when he swam straight into the wall of a Florida swimming pool. And so it went. In a land where image is everything, the impression of Gerald Ford as a kindly but stumblebum, accident-prone President was imprinted on the American consciousness with agonizing predictability and maximum hilarity. But that was the old Ford, the 1975 model. Whatever else may be said about the President’s battle against Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination, rarely has there been a swifter or more dramatic change in the public appearance of any leading American politician in the electronic age.
Behind the almost overnight transition in the Ford image from bumbler to a polished professional with a taste for the jugular were two Californians known to insiders as the golden boys of political campaign management: Stuart Spencer, 49, and William Roberts, 51. Called in late last year to administer a faltering campaign, at a fee of $54,000 plus expenses, the two men stage-managed Ford’s activities, cued his speech writers or fired them, masked the President’s deficiencies and blurred the issues to an extent that few, at least, remembered he held the office only because of the disgrace and resignation of Richard Nixon. It was a technique, ironically, that Spencer and Roberts had perfected a decade earlier when they ran Rea-
gan’s first campaign for governor of California with astonishing success, overcoming his total lack of experience and presenting him as a new kind of citizenpolitician.
Over the next several years they transformed the public view of Reagan from that of a grade-B movie actor into one of a smooth, confident, polished politician rising gradually above the confined arena of California politics and assuming the role of a prominent national figure capable of contesting the Presidency. At the same time, Spencer and Roberts were achieving success after success in promoting the campaigns of scores of Republican congressional aspirants.
Why then, in October of last year, did these two master manipulators coldbloodedly switch sides? “Because we decided Ford was the guy for the White House,” says straight-man Spencer. But also because, as Roberts acknowledges: “We’re mercenaries.” In fact they had dropped out of the Reagan camp some time before joining Ford, feeling the exgovemor had been less than grateful for what they had done to help him win a second term in 1970 with a whopping majority. So Spencer went to Washington as advance man to help blaze the trail for Ford. In state after state he found the incumbent’s campaign in a shambles. Gerry was Mr. Nice Guy, but dull. And he did keep falling down.
To try to turn it around, Spencer and Roberts convinced Ford to take the offensive, to strike at the most vulnerable part of his rival’s armor, depicting Reagan as an irrational extremist whose finger you wouldn’t really want on the H-bomb button. The philosophy behind their approach is difficult to define. But basically Spencer-Roberts tell clients—and none more than Ford—never to reply to an attack but to hit your opponent where it hurts most. In order to break normal voting patterns, they advise candidates to tell the voter what to be scared about: it can be war, the Reds, the oil companies, swine flu.
Just keep the real gut issues out of it. V oters don’t care about views, in the SpencerRoberts calculation. They want an image of strength, a father figure.
To give more precision to their art, they took advantage of a so-called computer simulation model developed in the 1960s. Given appropriate data it could, in theory at least, forecast voter responses to nearly every imaginable policy position. Once a candidate knew what really moved voters he could then custom tailor his speeches for different areas and swing results for what were often emotional, irrelevant reasons. Even a voter’s fears of sexual impotence were taken into consideration.
In Ford’s case, Spencer-Roberts quickly advised him to make a full disclosure of his personal finances, forcing an embarrassed Reagan, who had used a variety of tax loopholes while governor, to follow suit. It turned out the citizen-politician was several times richer than the President. The Reagan camp was as infuriated at the Spencer-Roberts switch as Ford workers were delighted. One Reagan aide commented sadly: “The gaffes just suddenly stopped. Stu (Spencer) got that organization together.”
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