Jeffrey Toobin: Gerald Ford’s Affirmative Action

Roundup: Talking About History

[Jeffrey Toobin, a staff writer at The New Yorker and legal analyst for CNN, is the author of the forthcoming “The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court.”]

GERALD R. FORD kept his distance from political controversy after leaving office, but he retained a special interest in the workings of his alma mater. In 1999, the 86-year-old former varsity football star decided to make a public stand in support of affirmative action at the University of Michigan.

He wrote an Op-Ed article on this page titled “Inclusive America, Under Attack.” A pair of pending lawsuits, Mr. Ford wrote, would prohibit Michigan and other universities “from even considering race as one of many factors weighed by admission counselors.” Such a move would condemn “future college students to suffer the cultural and social impoverishment that afflicted my generation.”

As it happened, on Sept. 15, 1999, a month after the article ran, Mr. Ford had dinner with James M. Cannon, one of his former White House aides, in Grand Rapids, Mich. The men were in town to hear a speech at Mr. Ford’s presidential museum by his only nominee to the Supreme Court, John Paul Stevens.

By that point, Justice Stevens had long since proved a great disappointment to conservatives. But his nomination remained one of Mr. Ford’s proudest achievements as president, for Justice Stevens’ moderate-to-liberal record reflected Mr. Ford’s own later views, as his stand on affirmative action illustrated. At the dinner, Mr. Ford encouraged Mr. Cannon to do what he could to help the university in the lawsuit, which was heading for the Supreme Court.

Mr. Cannon had served on the Board of Visitors of the Naval Academy, and both he and Mr. Ford knew how important affirmative action was to the military, especially its officer corps. Mr. Cannon had been told many times by the Navy’s top brass that they did not want ships full of enlisted men, who tended to be heavily minority, to be commanded exclusively by white officers. Affirmative action wasn’t social engineering, it was military necessity; and Mr. Cannon and Mr. Ford wanted to make sure the justices heard that message.

Active-duty officers could not take a stand on such a controversial issue, but Mr. Cannon, prompted by Mr. Ford, sought out the next best thing: retired military officers. In time, the University of Michigan defense team recruited Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, Gen. Hugh Shelton, Adm. William J. Crowe Jr. and two dozen others eminences to sign a friend-of-the-court brief in support of affirmative action written by a Washington lawyer, Carter G. Phillips....

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