Newsweek published this story under the headline of “Ford's Unquiet Oasis” on April 14, 1975. In light of recent events involving President Donald Trump and his 17-day working vacation at his golf club, Newsweek is republishing the story.
Some of the president’s men had advised Gerald Ford to stay home this year. A spring vacation in affluent Palm Springs, California, they warned, would sit badly with a country in the grip of hard times. But Ford, who had spent eight previous Easters at the sparkling oasis, retorted that he had worked hard and deserved a break, and so he headed west. He was still airborne when word came that Da Nang had fallen to the Communists, and he was on the links almost every day of South Vietnam’s swift and bloody collapse. What was to have been a working golfing vacation for Ford turned rapidly into a public-relations embarrassment.
In better times, Ford’s week in Palm Springs would have raised few eyebrows; the last four presidents have all vacationed there. But viewed against a background of domestic recession and foreign war, the luxurious spa worried the president’s aides, Ford stayed, in a posh neighborhood called Thunderbird Heights, a development that adjoins a country club, is patrolled by private police and lists its residents by name beneath the street signs. Neighbors include industrialist Leonard K. Firestone, entertainers Alice Faye, Phil Harris, Hoagy Carmichael and Ginger Rogers.
Jerry and Betty Ford rented the $355,000 ranch home of insurance millionaire Fred C. Wilson for nine days, paying $100 a day out of their own pocket. Offering panoramic views of the craggy Santa Rosa Mountains and the Coachella Valley, the house is built around an enormous, glass-walled living room with a 20-foot bar and fireplaces at each end. A parqueted game room leads to a 50-foot, turquoise-tiled, S-shaped swimming pool where the president swam twice a day; at one of the curves is a double-jet fountain, inlaid with mosaics and adorned by a bronze nude. A lighted tennis court with an automatic serving machine and a five-hole putting green with sand trap offered other diversions.
Ford’s staff lived almost as comfortably. White House chief of staff Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Richard Cheney, rented the nearby home of retired industrialist John Mulcahy for $100 a day; topsider Robert Hartmann paid the same rent for Ginger Rogers’s home down the street. Lesser aides were put in another house for $450 a week, while economic adviser Alan Greenspan and speechwriters Milton Friedman and Robert Orben holed up in hotels or country clubs. At least 150 more press officials, stewards, military and logistics staff and middle-level aides rounded out the entourage. A handful of White House kitchen stewards was flown out to cook for the president, and white-topped VIP helicopters were ferried in from Fort Belvoir, Virginia, to carry Ford around California. His Easter sermon at a Palm Desert church was preached by the Episcopal bishop of San Diego, jetted in courtesy of Ford millionaire friend Leon Parma.
Newsmen were kept at a discreet distance while Ford played golf with the likes of Parma, Bob Hope, retired Army football coach Earl (Red) Blaik and movie director Frank Capra. The president suffered through a few mediocre rounds, whose scores weren’t disclosed, but when he shot a respectable 86, that fact was quickly made known.
Despite the fun and luxury, the president’s staff had scheduled a number of official “events”; Ford himself called the trip “three-quarters work.” There was an inspection of the naval petroleum reserve at Elk Hills, California, and a televised news conference in San Diego. Ford also visited a naval training center there, lunching in the mess hall with enlisted men. The commander in chief got a cheer from the recruits by issuing a pardon to men for minor infractions. Ford also announced his expected choice of new interior secretary, former Wyoming Governor Stanley K. Hathaway, and heard a report from the Army chief of staff, General Frederick Weyand, just back from Vietnam. Other duties included a speech in which he urged the extension of unemployment benefits, lunch with Western governors, a visit to a geothermal project and a planned appearance at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas en route back to Washington early this week.
Even so, Ford’s aides were rattled by apparent image problems. When James Deakin of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote a story referring to the three pools at the Wilson house, Press Secretary Ron Nessen responded that there was only one swimming pool, plus a goldfish pond and “a decorative basin.” And when a reporter asked about the “public perception of a president playing golf while a client state seems to be going down the drain,” Nessen replied heatedly, “Would it prevent anything from happening in Vietnam if he did not play golf?”
Ford got one piece of good news at the end of the week. The latest Gallup poll, taken in early March, showed Ford holding a narrow lead over his currently strongest challenger, Democratic Senator Henry Jackson of Washington, in a nationwide trial heat for next year’s presidential election. Ford got 43 percent of the hypothetical votes, 2 percentage points more than Jackson, and did a bit better against Maine’s Sen. Edmund Muskie (47-41) and Governor George Wallace of Alabama (49-39). The survey also showed that homespun Jerry Ford goes over better with women than men. Among men, Jackson had a “substantia” but unspecified lead, while Wallace and Muskie were neck-and-neck with the president.