Jerry Ford’s Polish moment

Thinking about President Ford today, the strongest memory I have is of his premature liberation of Poland in the second debate with Jimmy Carter in 1976. Recall what he said in response to the question posed by New York Times editor Max Frankel in that debate:

“There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.”

As the CNN summary of the debate notes, Frankel gave Ford a chance to rehabilitate himself: “I’m sorry…did I understand you to say, sir, that the Soviets are not using Eastern Europe as their own sphere of influence in occupying most of the countries there?” Ford responded:

“I don’t believe…that the Yugoslavians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don’t believe that the Romanians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don’t believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. Each of these countries is independent, autonomous, it has its own territorial integrity, and the United States does not concede that those countries are under the domination of the Soviet Union.”

Carter of course seized the opportunity to get to Ford’s right on the status of Eastern Europe, inviting Ford to “convince the Polish-Americans and the Czech-Americans and the Hungarian-Americans in this country that those countries don’t live under the domination and supervision of the Soviet Union behind the Iron Curtain.” In an election decided by so few votes, Ford’s loss can fairly be attributed to many causes. Of all the causes contributing to his loss, however, no cause other than his Polish moment was so hard to understand or so difficult to excuse.
UPDATE: At NRO’s Corner Stanley Kurtz adds valuable perspective.