Physically, the contrast is startling. President Gerald Ford is a broad-shouldered powerhouse of a man. His White House counsel, Philip W. Buchen, crippled by polio at the age of 16, is cerebral and visibly frail. Yet ever since the two men met—during a University of Michigan summer session in 1938—their friendship has been constant and close. It was Buchen who, without being explicitly asked, took on the ticklish task of planning an orderly White House transition long before President Nixon considered resigning. And it was the scholarly Buchen, moving quietly behind the scenes, who helped engineer the controversial pardon of the former President (Buchen argues that Nixon’s statement of his Watergate failures constitutes an admission of guilt. “Failure to act forthrightly when legal proceedings are in progress,” Buchen says, “is a pretty strong admission of obstruction of justice”).
Yet if the gentle, white-haired lawyer from Grand Rapids seems securely installed at the center of power, he brooks no comparison with departed White House majordomo H.R. Haldeman. “I provide only legal service,” he emphasizes with a wry smile. “And I’m not the John Dean of the Ford administration either.”
In fact, the calm, philosophical Buchen, 58, seems very much an original in the White House. The son of a She-boygan, Wis. attorney and his wife, he was stricken with what was then called infantile paralysis while a junior in high school. Though he was eventually able to walk again, with difficulty and the aid of a cane, he turned his energies to serious scholarship. Graduating Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Michigan, he went on to become editor of the law review, and in 1941 set up a law office with Ford. The partnership was temporarily dissolved by World War II, but Buchen’s career was already launched. “Phil came to Grand Rapids as a stranger,” says the President’s younger brother Tom. “But a short time after Jerry joined the navy, Phil was asked to join the city’s most prestigious law firm. By the time Jerry got back from the war, it was Amberg, Law and Buchen.”
A compulsive worker, who until recently shuttled back and forth between Grand Rapids and Washington with no visible sign of fatigue, he sometimes seems more robust than he is. Unable to walk long distances without assistance, he occasionally resorts to a wheelchair and often needs help to climb stairs. “One of the most remarkable things is the way he never lets it turn him sour,” observes a fellow Ford aide. “It’s very difficult for him to move up stairs, but he doesn’t make a problem for you. He takes your arm matter of factly, making it a natural kind of thing.” Sometimes, to negotiate an especially strenuous staircase, he flops down unceremoniously on the seat of his pants and shinnies up a step at a time.
But as cautious as he has learned to be, there are times when his legs simply betray him. Over the years, he has broken his knee three times in falls, and a Grand Rapids friend, the Rev. Duncan Littlefair, recalls an incident in which he barely escaped serious injury. Vacationing in Mexico, Buchen was hauling himself out of a cab when the driver pulled away without warning, throwing him to the ground. “Phil didn’t get angry,” remembers Dr. Littlefair. “He didn’t cry or bitch. It was just one of those mistakes, and he got up and carried on with no fuss. That is the characteristic quality of the man.”
Though polio has compromised Buchen’s physical independence, he otherwise displays a serene self-reliance. A voracious reader whose Grand Rapids home is lined with shelf upon shelf of books, he exercises his mind in ways denied to his body. Explains his brother-in-law George Loomis: “If we go to play golf or tennis, he’ll take his briefcase to the club and read or go swimming. Maybe because of the charm he has, he always manages to convince us that he has a dozen things he enjoys as much as we enjoy golf. He never makes you feel uncomfortable that you’re doing something he can’t.”
An unapologetic intellectual, with a consuming interest in philosophy and religion, Buchen cultivates the simple pleasures as well. He smokes a pipe regularly, and Grand Rapids friends say his favorite before-dinner drink is a martini. He is not, all agree, a fussy eater. He is an ardent Detroit Tigers fan and also has a weakness for automobiles. One of his favorites was a tiny German-made Isetta, which he outfitted with a special hand-operated clutch. A keen bridge and Scrabble player, he is less acute when it comes to music. A standing joke in the family is that Buchen can recognize only two melodies, Tiptoe Through the Tulips With Me and Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life. On a good day, claims his son Rod, a 26-year-old Michigan State graduate student, he might also identify Tea for Two. Otherwise, says Rod, “my dad thinks that all music is just a derivation of those two basic tunes.”
A high school athlete in football and baseball before his illness, Buchen until recently swam a half-mile each day. Now, whenever he can, he swims in the nude at Washington’s University Club, three blocks from the executive mansion and across the street from the hotel where he and his wife are living.
Buchen was divorced and his bride, Beatrice (“Bunny”) was widowed when the two were married in 1947, after writing their own personal vows. “We felt the traditional ceremony dated back to the days when parents arranged marriages,” says Bunny. “We believed love and understanding were the greatest values.” A former high school language teacher, she supervises the Buchens’ modest capital social life and looks after her husband in ways he neglects. “He likes to be comfortable,” says son Rod, “but he spends zero time on himself. My mother buys everything for him, and even tells him when to get a haircut.”
“Phil is not competitive,” maintains Dr. Littlefair, pastor of Grand Rapids’ Fountain Street Church. “He doesn’t have to win. But this is not to say he isn’t a strong person. There is no meanness in him. He is not vindictive. He is tender, thoughtful, considerate, a gentleman.”
Despite his confidence in Buchen’s character, however, Dr. Littlefair is concerned for his health. “Phil needs to be very careful of his resources.” The minister explains, “He’s not innocent or naive, but because of his openness he is subject to being maneuvered. I am concerned that the pressures of his new job will jeopardize his health. But I’m working with him to see that it doesn’t.” Buchen, who thus far has handled his 14-hour days and frequent working weekends with apparent ease, seems disposed to agree. “I find the volume of paperwork disturbing,” he says with characteristic mildness. “I personally would prefer a more leisurely pace.”