What Gerald Ford said, in a crucial debate with Jimmy Carter, was: "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, an there never will be under a Ford administration." In a 1989 interview, Jim Lehrer asked "why did you say that?"
There's no question I did not adequately explain what I was thinking. I felt very strongly, and I, of course, do so today, that regardless of the number of Soviet armored divisions in Poland, the Russians would never dominate the Polish spirit. That's what I should have said. I simply left out the fact that at that time in 1976, the Russians had about 10 to 15 divisions in Poland. Well, of course the presence of those divisions indicates a domination physically of the Poles, but despite that military occupation of Poland by the Soviets, it never in any way ever destroyed the strong, nationalistic spirit of the Polish people. And I felt, and of course, I'm pleased now the Poles are going to throw the Russians out And the quicker they do it, the better. And I'm proud of what they're doing, and, of course, I get a little satisfaction that maybe I was right in 1976.By the way, I watched the debate at the time, and I understood what he meant as he said it. I heard how the spinners spun it immediately after the debate and saw how it played in the media and how much it hurt him. If only there had been bloggers back then to push back!
JIM LEHRER: Let's go back at the time you said that. I'm sure you've replayed this in your mind a million times. I don't have to remind you what happened. You gave that answer, and then there was a follow-up, and you repeated it, so my question is did you have any idea that you had said something wrong?
PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: Not at the time. Not at the time, because as you may remember, I included Yugoslavia, and Hungary, I believe, and Poland in the initial answer, and I said the Soviet Union does not dominate these countries. They're autonomous, and of course, it related to an earlier comment I had made about the Helsinki accord, which had established the borderlines of all the Eastern and Western European countries. So at the time, I did not feel that I had made an error. In retrospect, obviously, the inclusion of a sentence or maybe a phrase would have made all the difference in the world.
JIM LEHRER: When did you realize that you had made a mistake, or at least or do you honestly believe you made a mistake, now, sitting here now?
PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: Well, I can see that I made a mistake in not adequately explaining what I had in mind. I have never had any doubts, none whatsoever about the strength of the Policy people to throw the Soviet or the Russian forces out, and to reestablish an independent Poland. I felt after the debate was over that I had overall done well because we had pointed out that Mr. Carter had been calling for significant reductions in military expenditures, which, of course, was not the right policy, and I pointed out his lack o experience in foreign policy military decision making. So when I finished the debate, I felt very comfortable. But the press focused in on that one exchange, and I happen to think that most of the press distorted the facts, and overly emphasized something that was not the most substantive issue in the whole debate.
JIM LEHRER: Do you happen to remember that just as the debate was over, when you first talked to your aides, your family, or whatever, did anybody say to you, Mr. President you made a mistake, you did bad on this one statement.
PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: The first comments by my staff were that we had done very, very well overall. But then when the press, in their own analysis --
JIM LEHRER: Immediately, you mean right after the debate.
PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: The press that were making the post debate analysis focused in on that, and made very adverse comments about my comment. Well, when that press reaction became the dominant one, of course, the whole feeling that I had won this debate overall changed quite dramatically.
JIM LEHRER: How important do you think that was to the outcome of the election?
PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: It was a factor. As you also know, we ended up losing by only a point and a half, or maybe two points. So any one of a number of problem in the campaign could have made the difference. The second debate might have made a difference. The pardon of President Nixon might have made a difference. The timing of certain economic news that came out in October that indicated we were not doing as well in coming out of the recession if the news we got in because through mid-November on the economy had come in mid-October, I think we would have won, because through November, economic news was good. The October news just before the election was not very good. So any one of a number of three or four problems, difficulties could have made a difference. We only had to change 6,500 votes in Ohio out of 4 million, and about 20,000, as I recall, in Hawaii and we would have won the election.
JIM LEHRER: When you lost the election, did you ever fly back some night by yourself thinking if I just had not said that in that debate about Poland and Eastern Europe, it might have come out differently? Did it haunt you?
PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: Not at all, Jim. I have always had the attitude, what's gone past you have to forget, and you have to look down the road and build for the future. Of course, Betty and I hated to lose. We did our best. But once the verdict was there by the voters we had no remorse. We didn't sit around and moan and groan. We had a new life to lead, and we started planning whatever our future would be.