Power Is The Prize

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Not only did Bennett become Ford’s combined police chief and drillmaster; he took on the function of hatchetman for various rough tasks. If Ford wanted an executive fired, a supplier forced into line, or a union group broken, he had only to hint at his wish. By the 1930’s this function was perfectly understood throughout the Ford organization, where Bennett’s presence, felt everywhere, was hated and dreaded at all levels.

He served Henry in the abrupt dismissal of many an executive. At first he would openly ascribe the act to his chief, saying: “Joe, Mr. Ford doesn’t want you here any more. He has asked me to fire you.” As this course provoked troublesome appeals to Ford, he changed his tactics, discharged the man, and took the responsibility himself. Occasionally he declined an especially sensitive assignment; when, for example, Ford directed him to “bounce” Edsel’s brother-in-law and co-planner, Ernest Kanzler, he refused. But more often he took pleasure in the task.

In many respects, as the years passed, Bennett became something near a substitute son to Henry Ford, and a spoiled son at that; for Henry’s relations with Edsel did not improve. When Kanzler was abruptly ejected, close observers were startled by the sudden glimpse of a deep gulf opening between father and son. That gulf remained. Despite all Edsel’s forbearing loyalty, relations between them could never again be quite the same. Edsel’s wife remonstrated with the old man; his own wife, Clara, was deeply troubled; and Edsel’s own grief was often clear. Far from seeing that the son’s superb tolerance, combined with his determination to continue struggling for a more progressive administration, really proved his strength, the father, in a growing conviction that Edsel was weak, turned to Bennett as the tough, realistic, hard-hitting type he had wished his son to be. And as Bennett became a daily companion, earning Henry’s approval at every turn, he achieved the status of lieutenant, son, and crony combined. Henry telephoned him early every morning, sometimes drove him to work, and telephoned him again nearly every evening at nine thirty. He took any criticism of Bennett’s policies, alleged dishonesty, and violent acts as criticism of his own management; and as it was hard to tell where one authority ended and the other began, he was at least partly right.

The crony relationship was important, for Ford enjoyed his companionship with the cocky, hardheaded service chief. They would meet sometimes at one of the Ford farms of Greenfield Village to take long drives together. At other times they would sit in Bennett’s basement office talking, sometimes for several hours. They discussed factory problems from the same point of view. “Ford delighted in the game of cops and robbers,” writes one commentator, “and the service department was that.” Or they would take up politics or the light jottings of a Detroit Free Press columnist called “Iffy the Dopester,” whom both liked, or one of Ford’s many hobbies. Although Ford often urged both Sorensen and Bennett to take vacations, whenever they went away he felt a gap in his life. Bennett on one of his California trips received a letter from Henry’s secretary reporting: “The boss wishes me to ask how you are, etc. I think he misses his daily talks.” A writer for Reader’s Digest elicited a direct indication of esteem when, riding in the rear seat of a car driven by Bennett, he asked: “Mr. Ford, of all the men you have met in your whole business and industrial experience, which one has seemed to you the most remarkable?” Ford silently pointed straight at Bennett.

All in all, the Ford-Bennett relationship was a curious mixture of impulses practical and emotional, reasoned and instinctive, selfish and unselfish. The two men respected each other’s skills and efficiencies, liked each other’s crassness, and saw in each other the strengths needed to cope with a brutal world. A pathetic element may be found in Henry’s attitudes. Lonely, disillusioned, uniting the most brilliant gifts with the most hopeless limitations, he was groping for some stay, some support. Bennett’s attitude, on the other hand, offers little to win our respect. He was loyal to Ford, even to risking his life for his chief, so long as loyalty paid—and no longer, as he proved by signing his name to a vulgar volume of depreciation after Ford’s death. He respected Ford’s genius, admired his achievements, and liked some of his human traits. But here again he was selfish; he wanted so desperately to share Ford’s power, he was so ambitious to seize the levers of authority, that his final determination was to exploit the old man mercilessly to make himself the ruling head.

The decline came late but with shocking rapidity. On Ford’s seventieth birthday, in 1933, his physical and mental health was sound. Down to his seventy-fifth birthday in 1938 associates marveled at his spry stair-climbing, quick, nervous agility about the plant, and alert responses. Even after his first stroke that year, he seemed much his old self, and his attorney, I. A. Capizzi, noticed no deterioration. Then early in the new decade came a change, which after a second stroke in 1943 became pronounced. He was slower in gait; he did not spend as much time on the job as before; on a trip he began to chill and needed wraps; and above all, lapses occurred in his mental grasp. Suddenly he forgot the names of familiar executives and had to ask their identity.

It is not strange that the calculating man closest to Ford, and best able to gauge his mental atrophy, should weigh more intently than ever the chances of dispossessing him of the scepter upon which his grasp now seemed so insecure. The years of the Mad Hatter were beginning; anything could happen.