Chopping the air with his right hand, Gerald Ford boldly declared: "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford Administration."
Incredulous, New York Times Associate Editor Max Frankel asked a follow-up question that offered Ford a chance to retreat, but Ford lowered his head and charged into a trap of his own making. By his reckoning, Yugoslavia, Rumania and even Poland were not under the Soviet thumb. "Each of these countries is independent, autonomous; it has its own territorial integrity."
Thus, in his second debate with Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford made what could well be the most damaging statement of his career. For any politician, calling Eastern Europe free would be an amazing gaffe. For a President, especially one who is running partly on a campaign theme of experience in foreign policy, the mistake reawakened many voters' suspicions that Ford is a bumbier. In fact, while Yugoslavia is largely free of Soviet domination and Rumania has achieved a measure of autonomy, Poland and several other countries of Eastern Europe are very much in thrall to the Russians.*
Ford got into the jam in the course of answering Frankel's question about whether the Soviets had the better of the U.S. in the grain sales and the 1975 Helsinki agreement, which confirmed the postwar boundaries of Eastern Europe. The President easily came up with justification for the grain deals but ran into trouble trying to defend the Helsinki pact. He has clearly demonstrated in the past that he understands the realities of Eastern Europe, and he apparently meant to say, as he did several sentences later, that the U.S. "does not concede that those countries are under the domination of the Soviet Union." Ford even had studied lines to this effect in the briefing book. But somehow he truncated and garbled the lines, carried away by rhetoric. Then, instead of retracting his misstatementand only running the risk of appearing tongue-tiedhe bullheadedly stuck to what he had said.
Next day Ford struggled to disentangle himself, telling a large crowd of students at the University of Southern California: "It is our policy to use every peaceful means to assist countries in Eastern Europe in their efforts to become less dependent on the Soviet
Union and to establish closer and closer ties with the West." Shouted an unimpressed student: "Good try, Jerry." Two days later, Ford tried again, telling California businessmen that citizens of Poland "don't believe they are going to be forever dominatedif they areby the Soviet Union." That only made the situation worse.
The gaffe injured Ford's chances of winning what he must: the crucial northern states of Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. All probably will be decided by the shift of a few percentage points, and in those states live millions of voters of Eastern Europeanand Germanorigin. The Eastern Europeans are largely Catholic, urban and blue collar, and they traditionally vote Democratic. Ford had seemed to be wooing them with some success by emphasizing his rigid opposition to abortion and by playing on fears of Carter's born-again Baptist evangelicalism.