Thursday, June 01, 2006

A History Lesson: What Might Have Been

There are an uncounted number of definitions of the word “history,” but the one I like best was offered by Ambrose Bierce, a rather sardonic journalist/columnist/editor/ novelist, who lived from the mid-1800’s to the early 1900’s. He defined history as “an account mostly false, of events unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools.” What’s that saying?—If the shoe fits… Then there is the definition by Aldous Huxley who wrote, “That men do not learn very much from history is the most important of all the lessons history has to teach.”

This seeming obsession with history was ignited when the gas pump hit the $50 mark as I was filling up my car. It was then that I recalled a piece of legislation from over 30 years ago that, had it gained approval in the Congress, might have, at the very least, ameliorated our “addiction to oil.” How much of this, your history lesson for the day, do you remember? A part of this quiz relates to the fact that certain names have been purposely omitted to test your memory. See if you can guess who they may be.

In 1975, the Vice President of the United States, Nelson Rockefeller, developed legislation, ultimately offered to Congress involving the creation of a $100 billion government corporation to be called the Energy Independent Authority (EIA). [Adjusted for inflation, this would be the equivalent of about $250 billion today.] With $25 billion to be provided by the government, and the rest to be raised through a special bond issue, the plan was to provide loans and guarantees to private companies in order to encourage the development of new domestic energy sources. This plan was envisioned as an oil related Manhattan Project, or Man on the Moon effort to establish America’s oil independence.

The ultimate fate of this legislation must be viewed in its historical context, and it is also necessary to become familiar with the political scene at the time. The historical record used here, and the facts in the quotes below are taken from two presumably objective and non-partisan sources: one is the official website of the United States Senate (Google: United States Senate Art and History> Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller); the second is the Gerald Ford Presidential Library’s “Encyclopedia of the Presidents.”

Although there is a long run-up to it, our story begins (and I quote) “In 1974, after Richard Nixon’s resignation, Gerald Ford assumed the presidency and prepared to appoint his own vice president; Rockefeller and George Bush headed his list of candidates. Bush, a former Texas congressman and Chairman of the Republican National Committee, was the safer more comfortable choice. But Ford preferred a balanced ticket. Weighing the assets and deficits, Ford acknowledged that Rockefeller was still anathema to many conservatives. Still the new president believed that the New Yorker was well qualified to be president, would add executive expertise to the administration, and would broaden the ticket’s electoral appeal if they ran in 1976.”

When Ford announced Rockefeller’s appointment to the vice-presidency, “the media applauded the selection. The New York Times called it a ‘masterly political act and Newsweek congratulated Ford for adding a ‘dollop of high style’ to his ‘homespun presidency.’ Time observed that President Ford felt secure enough to name a dynamic personality as vice president. Ford basked in his accomplishment [and] in November, when reporters asked him what he considered the top achievement of his first hundred days as president. Ford replied, ‘Number one, nominating Nelson Rockefeller.’”

The article then describes the contentious confirmation process that greeted this nomination of an individual that many Republicans considered not conservative enough. Nevertheless, Ford pushed both houses for approval and on December 19 th, 1974, after both houses agreed, Rockefeller was sworn in. “Gerald Ford told the nation that he wanted his vice president to be ‘a full partner,’ especially in domestic policy.” The article then explains that “…during the months while Rockefeller’s nomination stalled in congress, Ford’s new White House staff [headed by…] established its control of the executive branch and had no intention of sharing power with the vice president and his staff.”

The article continues by describing how “Rockefeller envisioned taking charge of domestic policies the same way that Henry Kissinger ran foreign policy in the Ford administration. Gerald Ford seemed to acquiesce, but [his] chief of staff… [and his deputy]…objected to the vice president preempting the president. When Rockefeller tried to implement Ford’s promise that domestic policymakers would report to the president …[Ford’s chief of staff] intervened with various objections.”

A key domestic issue at the time was America’s increasing dependence on foreign oil. This is described in the second source, the Gerald Ford Presidential Library’s Encyclopedia of the Presidency. It states, “The power of OPEC, almost everyone agreed, made it essential that the United States become ‘energy independent,’ or at least greatly reduce its dependence on foreign oil. [Does this sound familiar?] Ford in his 1975 State of the Union message proposed to approach this goal by decontrolling the price of domestically produced oil and increasing fees on imported petroleum, coupled with a windfall profits tax on oil companies. The result, Ford conceded, would be even higher gas and oil prices, but domestic production would be stimulated. The Democratic leadership in Congress rejected Ford’s plan...Arguing between the two sides continued through 1975, with Democratic members of Congress from the oil-producing states generally supporting the administration.”

It was at this point that Vice President Rockefeller entered the fray with the proposal to establish the Energy Independence Authority (EIA). In order to lend maximum significance to his plan, Rockefeller sought out a major legendary figure to lead his proposed organization, the famed scientist Edward Teller, known as “the Father of the Hydrogen Bomb.” However, “EIA was hotly opposed within the administration by [William] Simon [the Treasury Secretary], [Alan] Greenspan, [head of the Federal Reserve], [James] Lynn [Director of the Office of Management and Budget], and more quietly by …[Ford’s Chief of Staff] on the grounds that it would be enormously costly and violated principles of free-market economics. Ford nevertheless submitted the plan to Congress, but did almost nothing to promote its enactment.” As a result, the legislation never passed.

There is a sad epilogue in the historical records. The Senate website has a sub-headline titled, “Ford’s Biggest Political Mistake.” It states, “In the fall of 1975, President Ford determined to run for election and appointed Howard ‘Bo’ Callaway of Georgia as his campaign manager. Ford did not consult Rockefeller until the day he announced the choice. Callaway immediately began spreading the word that Rockefeller was too old, and too liberal, and too much of a detriment to the ticket. Some administration officials believed that …[Bush’s Chief of Staff] wanted the vice-presidential nomination for himself and hoped that this humiliation would encourage Rockefeller to remove himself from contention.”

At that point, Rockefeller “announced that he would not be a candidate for vice president the following year. Although he publicly insisted that he jumped without having been shoved, privately he told friends, ‘I didn’t take myself off the ticket, you know—he asked me to do it.’” The article continued commenting that Ford later said, “Dumping Rockefeller embarrassed Ford as much as it did Rockefeller. It was the biggest political mistake of my life,” Ford confessed, “And it was one of the few cowardly things I did in my life.”

Here is where the “What if...” or the “What Might Have Been” phrase comes into effect. With $100 billion available under the tutelage of Edward Teller, what could have been accomplished? Perhaps the technologies of the time were not advanced enough to produce much progress. On the other hand, the benefits of Ethanol, for example, were well enough recognized that in that very same year, 1975, Brazil embarked on its very successful program that has resulted in its position of oil independence today. If Ford’s staff had been less concerned about political posturing, might we be where Brazil is today?

As the gas pump hit that $50 mark I couldn’t help but conjecture, “What Might Have Been.”

If you have not yet guessed the name of Ford’s Chief of Staff, it was Donald Rumsfeld. His deputy was Dick Cheney.


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