NEW YORK — FORMER President Gerald R. Ford, in a conversation in his Waldorf Towers suite here the other day, was talking about the smashing success of President Bush in bringing off the swift liberation of Kuwait. Ford said, not surprisingly, that he stood 100 percent behind the current president in his "brilliant" handling of the whole matter, but then he said something else.
Ford expressed particular pride in the outcome because, he said, the chief architects of the operation, including the construction of the United Nations coalition that backed Bush, were "my people."
Starting with Bush himself, the former president recalled that he had appointed him as his representative to China in 1974, and then as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He noted that the man who directed the Persian Gulf military deployment, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, was his own White House chief of staff. He pointed out that the point man on building the U.N. coalition, Secretary of State James A. Baker, was his No. 2 at the Commerce Department and his 1976 presidential campaign manager.
To complete the Ford team, he recounted how, when he succeeded Richard Nixon in 1974, he decided it was wrong to have Secretary of State Henry Kissinger continue to function as the White House national security adviser at the same time. So he elevated Kissinger's deputy, Brent Scowcroft, to the job he now holds again, and from which he played a key planning role in the gulf war.
Ford did not say all this in any sense of taking anything away from President Bush, for whom he expressed glowing admiration for the military/diplomatic achievement. But his observations were part of a phenomenon that the country is seeing now, as other politicians and their friends who have more to gain than the contentedly retired Ford reach for vicarious credit for the war's success.
The first outward manifestations came when Bush addressed a joint session of Congress and was greeted by a sea of Republicans sporting buttons proclaiming that they had voted their support of use of force in the historic debate that preceded that use. It was seen again in a negative sense when some of these same Republicans began to remind voters that most of the opposition to attacking Iraq came from Democrats.
Since then, everyone from the manufacturers of the Patriot anti-missile system to proponents of the Star Wars space-defense concept has been taking credit for the victory in the Middle East skies and sands. One Reagan administration official turned columnist, former disarmament negotiator Kenneth Adelman, has written that Vice President Dan Quayle was influential in keeping Patriot missile development on track and hence deserved a share of the credit for the defense of Israeli cities against Scud missile attacks.
On a grand scale, it's akin to the way Reagan's White House chief of staff, Donald Regan, seemed always to be in historic photos at President Reagan's side, and how the current occupant of the same job, John Sununu, has been credited, or criticized, as a worthy keeper of that self-promoting tradition.
All this brings to mind something President John F. Kennedy said 30 years ago immediately after his Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba, in the first months of his presidency. At a news conference, Kennedy observed: "There's an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan." It was his way of acknowledging that he alone as president was responsible for the failed invasion of U.S.-trained Cuban exiles against Fidel Castro, and that nobody was rushing forward to share the blame with him.
The saying had the ring of antiquity about it, although Kennedy when asked by an aide where he got it wryly confessed that he had made it up himself. But whatever the origin, the comment captured well the fact that human nature being what it is, seldom is there a stampede -- especially in government and politics -- to ++ accept responsibility for failure, particularly major failure of the Bay of Pigs variety.
Kennedy certainly was an orphan on that occasion. He confided later to his sidekick, Ted Sorensen, that there were "other fathers of this defeat who had let him down," but he had to take the fall. Bush on the other hand is finding that there is a host of people more than willing to accept a share of paternity for the victory in the gulf. That, too, is human nature -- not to mention good politics.