By Fred Frommer
Just two months after becoming president and one month after pardoning Richard Nixon in the wake of the Watergate scandal, President Gerald Ford turned to another challenge facing the country: high inflation.
The Republican president’s solution, unveiled in an October 8, 1974 speech to Congress, was Whip Inflation Now, or WIN—an enthusiastic can-do White House effort.
The program called for businesses to maintain or reduce prices and for citizens to do their part by spending less and conserving energy. It also included a host of proposed policy changes aimed at getting inflation under control, such as a temporary 5 percent tax surcharge on corporations and high-income individuals, and a goal of reducing oil imports by 1 million barrels a day in response to high “cartel prices.”
It didn’t wind up going to plan. Even officials in Ford’s administration told the New York Times privately that his plan would be “neutral”—meaning it wouldn’t make an impact on inflation one way or another.
Members of the president’s Citizens Action Committee to Fight Inflation later conceded that WIN was seen as too focused on publicity, and many Americans soon mocked the program.
WATCH VIDEO: President Ford’s Inaugural Address, August 9, 1974
Ford Cites FDR’s Response to Great Depression
Ford introduced his plan in an October 8, 1974 speech by quoting a prominent Democratic president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, during the Great Depression: “The people of the United States have not failed. They want direct, vigorous action, and they have asked for discipline and direction under our leadership.”
“Today,” Ford said, “though our economic difficulties do not approach the emergency of 1933, the message from the American people is exactly the same.”
The new president inherited a problem that had festered since the 1960s, which his predecessors tried to contain too. President Lyndon B. Johnson, in a practice called “jawboning,” pressured companies to avoid raising prices and labor unions to limit their demands for higher wages. His successor, Nixon, attempted to tame inflation with wage and price controls in the early 1970s, but by 1974 it would soar to 12 percent.
Near the end of his speech, Ford looked down at a red and white button on his suit that said “WIN,” and called it a “symbol of this new mobilization which I am wearing on my lapel. It bears the single word, ‘WIN.’ I think that tells it all.”
Ford’s plan included a personal plea to Americans to combat inflation. He and his wife Betty Ford then signed a pledge to do their part to personally fight inflation. The pledge said they would “buy, when possible, only those products and services priced at or below present levels.”
“Our inflation,” he added, “our Public Enemy No. 1, will, unless whipped, destroy our country, our homes, our liberty, our property and finally our national pride as surely as any well‐armed wartime enemy.”
Pitfalls of the Plan
Key policymakers in the Ford administration had doubts from the start. Alan Greenspan, who went on to become Fed chair, was chairman of Ford’s Council of Economic Advisers, and he was aghast at the program. In his book, The Age of Turbulence, Greenspan recalled attending a White House meeting about it:
“The speechwriters had ordered up millions of Whip Inflation Now buttons, samples of which they handed out to us in the room. It was surreal. I was the only economist present, and I said to myself, ‘This is unbelievable stupidity. What am I doing here?’”
Scroll to Continue
He said he told them, “You can’t ask small business owners to voluntarily forgo price increases. These people operate on thin margins, and they can’t prevent their suppliers from raising prices.” Greenspan said he got them to water down some of the program’s provisions, but WIN went forward, which he called “a low point of economic policymaking.”
According to the Ford Presidential Library, early enthusiasm led to “massive quantities of handmade and mass-produced material, including buttons, signs, clothing, stickers, ephemera, and much more. The ‘WIN’ button became the best-selling button since 1971. Unfortunately, enthusiasm waned by the new year as the program failed to generate the results people had hoped for and the program quickly died out.”
Some Americans mocked WIN by wearing the buttons upside down, which made them read “NIM”—for “No Immediate Miracles.” The New York Times reported that the program “soon became the butt of many jokes despite Ford’s appearance on television with a red‐and-white WIN button.”
In December 1974, George Harrison visited the White House at the invitation of Ford’s 22-year-old son, Jack Ford. A reporter remarked to Harrison, “You’re wearing a lot of buttons but none of them is a ‘WIN’ button,” as Jack Ford laughed.
“None of them is a what button?” Harrison replied.
“Do you know what a WIN button is—President Ford’s Whip Inflation Now campaign?” the reporter asked. Harrison shook his head and said, “Oh well they haven’t given me one of those yet.”
The younger Ford interjected: “We’ve got one inside for him.”
“I’ll have it on the way out,” Harrison said with a laugh. Once inside the White House, President Ford tried to give the ex-Beatle a WIN button, but couldn’t find one.
Inflation Persists, ‘WIN’ Is Scrapped
Ford wasn’t able to find a way to curtail inflation either, which averaged 9 percent during his 2.5 years as president. And in March 1975, the committee appointed to run WIN scrapped the program.
“We just got too much publicity at the beginning, and we just weren’t ready to function,” said Sylvia Porter, an economics columnist who headed the committee.
Committee member Hobart Taylor, a Washington lawyer, called the much-mocked WIN button a “gimmick.”
“That wasn’t our gimmick!” Porter said. “You all know what happened—we were left with the job of building the airplane in the air.”
According to the Ford Presidential Library, “the program suffered from persistent issues with funding and staffing, and by early 1975 concerns about the economic recession replaced worries over inflation.”