“Flying Coach To Cairo”

PrintPrintEmailEmail I would not want to pick the date today, but in a realistic way that dialogue has to take place.” Carter restated the point: “There is no way for Israel ever to have an assured permanent peace without resolving the Palestinian issue, so I think Jerry is certainly right in saying these discussions have to take place.” The statement immediately aroused controversy among those, including the Reagan White House, who saw the organization as a terrorist group. But with their forward-thinking notion in the papers, Reagan needed to clarify his position on the matter, and he wasn’t pleased about it. No, he told the press, he had not ruled out talking with the PLO, but would not invite them into a discussion until they recognized Israel’s right to exist.

Ford and Carter also saw eye to eye on the issue of free trade. In 1982 they released a joint statement condemning protectionism as a threat to world trade. Years later they each lent support to the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico and to the establishment of permanent normalized trade relations with China.

The Carter-Ford relationship hit a bumpy stretch when they participated in an international delegation to oversee the 1989 Panama election, which threatened to wrest power from Gen. Manuel Noriega. When Carter judged that pro-Noriega forces had manipulated the ballot count, he condemned Noriega for blocking the path of democracy and successfully appealed to leaders of the Organization of American States to do the same. The press praised Carter; Ford, on the other hand, was denounced for having left Panama on election day, after three days of meeting with proand anti-Noriega coalitions, to attend a celebrity golf tournament in California. The Washington Post pointed out that Ford, unlike Carter, “sits on corporate boards and is available as a golf partner for wealthy groupies.” Ford thought Carter had overstepped his bounds as a former President. “I backed off, and he pushed himself forward,” Ford said not long ago. But this incident notwithstanding, the friendship survived intact and has, through the years, deepened.

When they reunited with their fellow-former George Bush and President Clinton at a dinner celebrating the 200th anniversary of the White House, held at the mansion in December 2000, both commented warmly on their relationship. “Certainly few observers in January 1977 would have predicted that Jimmy and I would become the closest of friends,” Ford told the guests, mostly presidential family members, White House staffers, and historians. “Yet we have, bonded by our years in this office and this house.” During his turn at the podium Carter reciprocated. “I challenge any historian here tonight,” he said, “to find any former Presidents who, after leaving the White House, have formed a closer and more intimate relationship than Gerald Ford and I. I am grateful for that.”

As for the journey to Cairo that Carter initially resisted 25 years ago, though born out of tragedy, he now calls it “one of the best trips of my life.”

Mark K. Updegrove is the author of Second Acts: Presidential Lives and Legacies After the White House, just published by the Lyons Press, from which this article was adapted.