The aftermath of Watergate. The fall of Saigon. The dual economic demons of inflation and recession. The energy crisis.
They are all milestones from the brief but tumultuous presidency of Gerald Ford, 1974-77.
But one part of his legacy is as current - and as controversial - as the fuel economy stickers on every new car and truck in every showroom in the country.
In December 1975 the Republican president signed the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, sent to him by an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress. Among its many provisions was a requirement that manufacturers begin in 1978 to meet Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, or CAFE.
Dan Becker, global warming director for the Sierra Club, recently called CAFE 'the most successful environmental bill ever adopted.'
James Johnston, former General Motors vice president in Washington, said in his 1997 book Driving America, 'CAFE has not only produced the unintended consequences of higher vehicle costs and higher fatalities and injuries, it has completely failed in achieving the goals for which it was intended.'
Ford's decision to sign the bill was all the more confounding to the automobile industry because he had been a Michigan congressman for 25 years and he was opposed philosophically to government control of private enterprise.
Ford, 85 and still active, was in Washington recently and agreed to an interview with Staff Reporter Harry Stoffer about CAFE and other effects of his presidency on the industry.
An edited transcript of the interview follows:
You came into the presidency facing many serious problems, but automotive people remember the energy bill of 1975 most clearly. Do you recall the battle over that particular piece of legislation?
When I became president, we were still plagued by not only an economic problem with a recession and with high interest rates and inflation in high numbers but also the energy crisis that was precipitated by the action of the Middle Eastern countries in calling for an oil boycott. And in that oil boycott ... we had long lines of people at gasoline stations, and we had prices escalate.
If my memory is correct, the price of oil went from $3 a barrel up to about $10, $12 a barrel. Subsequently, we had another price increase that went from $12, $13 a barrel up to, as I recall, almost $40 a barrel. So the energy crisis was a catapult for legislative action.
Now, Congress always doesn't do the right thing, but it gets into action, and in this case they called for higher standards of mileage.
The industry wanted you to veto that bill?
Right. As I recall - that's a long time ago, so I don't recall the details - but there were people in the automotive industry who thought it was too stringent, extreme, and of course wanted me to veto it.
But the practicality of the situation was we had to do something. And as always happens in the legislative process, you end up between the two extremes on both sides.
There is a story that you already had vetoed a lot of bills, and you were faced with both the common situs picketing bill (to allow overall construction site picketing even if only one contractor has a dispute) and the energy bill, and your aides told you that you could sustain only one more veto, and you chose common situs? Is that an accurate story?
I wouldn't put it quite that way. I did veto a number of bills. It's my recollection about 67, most of them involving appropriations and expenditures.
But one of the most controversial of all was the common situs picketing bill. I had almost unanimous cabinet views that I should veto it. My secretary of labor was very anxious that I not veto it. Well, I did veto it, and unfortunately my secretary of labor resigned as a result.
I do not recall that I vetoed the common situs and then said in contrast I would approve the energy bill. I thought the energy bill had more pluses than minuses. There were some things I opposed, some things I thought were necessary. And the net result was I signed the legislation.
You have said you prefer free-market forces to work when possible. The fuel economy standards are a regulatory regime that still exists, and the industry still struggles to try to meet them. In retrospect, was it the right thing to have the government set fuel economy standards?
I think under the atmosphere we were in at the time it was essential that there be legislative standards. The problem was: Were they fair, were they constructive? And there was an honest difference of opinion in that regard.
In retrospect, looking back, my judgment is that they were reasonably fair and produced significant benefits.
One goal of that bill, I guess the main goal, was energy independence for the United States by 1985. We haven't made it, have we?
As I recall, we were utilizing about 16 million barrels a day in 1975, half of which came from overseas. Half was domestic production. I could be off on those figures, but it was about 50-50.
What we tried to do was to have energy conservation that would reduce the utilization and at the same time would try to produce alternative means of producing energy. And some progress was made although my observation is the windmill effort was never productive.
If you want to see a mess, you should go out to the Palm Springs area in California, where they have five or six thousand windmills, which were supposed to replace the oil production somewhere.
Vehicle miles traveled continue to go up. The marketplace is at work, and people are choosing bigger vehicles again. Are you concerned that we are headed for the same sort of crisis that you encountered 25 years ago?
I think we're actually more dependent on foreign crude oil than we were previously. So we're in potentially worse shape than we were in 1975. If we had another oil boycott by the Middle Eastern countries, we could have another energy crisis. Because fundamentally we have not solved our supply problem.
Back in the mid-1970s the industry was under pressure not only because of energy but also because of imports, the economy, questions about workmanship and new safety and other environmental regulations. Did you have concern at that time that America's biggest industry was on the skids and possibly endangered?
I was always an optimist that the automotive industry in the states, once they recognized the challenge, would take whatever action had to be done to be successful. ...
(During the recession, businessman and Republican activist Max Fisher arranged a White House meeting for top executives of the Big 3.)
We had a very good meeting, where I understood their problems and they in turn understood what I could do to turn the economy around. By late 1975 we had turned the economy around. Alan Greenspan at that time was chairman of our Council of Economic Adviser, and he was the architect of my economic program that did move us from a recession to reasonable prosperity, which in turn helped the automotive industry.