Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Gerald R. Ford, 1913-2006 

President Gerald R. Ford, born on July 14, 1913 as Leslie King, has died. He lived one month longer than Ronald Reagan did, and became the longest-lived former President of the United States.

Ford was the first president whose innauguration I remember as a current event. Indeed, my political awareness (at age 12) really began with Nixon's resignation, which I watched from a barber's chair in Tupper Lake, New York, less than five miles from where I write this today. After that, I began reading the newspaper, watching the evening news, and arguing about politics with my friends. A blogger was born with Gerald Ford's move to the Oval Office, we just didn't know it at the time.

Ford was a remarkable man, as the wire service obituary reminds us. Even as the country mocked him for his clumsiness -- the press conveniently forgetting that he was perhaps the most accomplished athlete ever to occupy the White House -- and derided him for his pardon of Richard Nixon, he led with a decency and competence that I think most Americans of the left and right wish we could conjure up today. He did this at a time when the country was extraordinarily difficult to govern, and he almost paid for it with his life. In September 1975, two separate Californians tried to assassinate him only 17 days apart.

The country threw Ford overboard for Jimmy Carter in 1976, and historians will long debate whether the electorate did the right thing. Right now, Jimmy Carter is in favor among professional historians, but that is because most of them were voters in 1976 and remember the choice they made. If, as I have argued elsewhere, it takes 50 years for the interpretation of an American presidency to settle into consensus, we should not expect the first good history of the Ford and Carter years to be written until the 2020s. At a minimum, Jimmy Carter will also have to die.

There is much to compare in the two men, who as ex-Presidents had a cordial and even productive relationship. For instance, they both tried to rescue Americans held hostage. Measured by the disgraceful cost-benefit calculations recently favored by the press, the Mayaguez rescue was a failure -- 40 American servicemen died rescuing 39 sailors. Geopolitically and morally, though, Mayaguez was a manifest victory at a great cost, and it sustained America's commitment to defend its own when that guarantee was looking extremely tattered. If only subsequent presidents had handled hostage crises so well. History should not forget that Jimmy Carter attacked Ford for the Mayaguez rescue during his 1980 campaign, presumably to distract voters from the disaster at Desert One, in which eight Americans died rescuing exactly nobody in a defeat for the United States that still reverberates today.

With only the possible exception of Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford was and remains the most honorable man to serve as President since Eisenhower. The appointment of Ford was one of Richard Nixon's wisest acts, even if it was borne of political desperation. The Democrats were also wise, because they confirmed his nomination knowing that he was by the standards of the day quite conservative. They did not hold out for Nixon to appoint a Democrat, or even a liberal Republican. The Democratic leadership confirmed Ford because they knew he was a good man. Looking back more than thirty years, both Richard Nixon and the Democrats acted more wisely than we would expect their counterparts to behave today. Who knows, though? Perhaps in a time of genuine national crisis -- as opposed to the manufactured and, frankly, trivial divisions that concern us today -- George W. Bush and Nancy Pelosi would rise to the occasion.

It was, however, a different time. We were more concerned with propriety than we are today, and Jerry Ford reflected that. I was struck by this bit from the A.P.'s obituary:

In office, Ford's living tastes were modest. When he became vice president, he chose to remain in the same Alexandria, Va., home — unpretentious except for a swimming pool — that he shared with his family as a congressman.

After leaving the White House, however, he took up residence in the desert resort of Rancho Mirage, picked up $1 million for his memoir and another $1 million in a five-year NBC television contract, and served on a number of corporate boards. By 1987, he was on eight such boards, at fees up to $30,000 a year, and was consulting for others, at fees up to $100,000. After criticism, he cut back on such activity.

Even adjusting for inflation, Ford's post-office income was a tiny fraction of Bill Clinton's, yet there has been almost no criticism of Clinton and he certainly has not "cut back" in response to such criticism that there has been.

It is almost enough to make one nostalgic for the 1970s.


By Blogger Patrick, at Wed Dec 27, 09:51:00 AM:

I was twelve in 1974. Mind you, I was also the son of an American ex-patriate living in Europe. Europeans have an avid interest politics - being that they often manufacture more history than they can consume locally - so I was well-aware of Watergate, Agnew, Nixon, and Ford.

The European take on Ford was very much the Saturday Night Live take: a bumbling non-entity.

As I grew older and studied the man, I well-appreciated his accomplishments and modesty, but there was one thing that always held me back from giving all my respect. That one thing was his lack of a will to win. He'd rather lose an election than raise his voice. It wasn't until Newt Gingrich came along that Republicans began to stop looking at politics as a gentleman's game, and as more of a blood sport. At that point they began winning. My impression is that Ford never liked Gingrich, simply because Gingrich wanted to win.

So, I think him for keeping the country together through Watergate and the end of the Vietnam war. De mortuis, etc. Nonetheless, I don't miss his gentlemen's club approach to politics.  

By Blogger Bill Peschel, at Wed Dec 27, 09:52:00 AM:

By pardoning Nixon when he did, Ford proved that the powerful protects its own and that not all are equal before the law.

He was a decent man, but he perfomed an evil act.  

By Blogger D.E. Cloutier, at Wed Dec 27, 09:52:00 AM:

I encountered both Ford and Carter in men's rooms--Ford on Capitol Hill and Carter in L.A. The men washed their hands after using a urinal. Carter was unable to find a paper towel and dried his hands with toilet paper. To me, that scene summed up Carter's presidency.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Wed Dec 27, 10:17:00 AM:

Bill, I'm not sure even leading Democrats are with you today. As the linked obituary points out, even Teddy Kennedy now believes that the pardon was the right thing to do.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Dec 27, 10:23:00 AM:

"Perhaps in a time of genuine national crisis -- as opposed to the manufactured and, frankly, trivial divisions that concern us today -- George W. Bush and Nancy Pelosi would rise to the occasion."

WTF? I don't hang here a lot, so I am not really familiar with your perspective or political leanings, but are you kidding?

1) If you don't think we are in a time of national crisis (GWOT, Iraq, brutally divisive partisanship and MSM corruption) ... then you and I occupy different planets, my friend

2) Jury is out on Pelosi-Bush, but given recent years as evidence (Daschle, Kennedy, Leahy, etc), I have no hope for the two major parties coming together to accomplish much of anything (should such a crisis arise as would satisfy your definition). When a dirty bomb is exploded in Manhattan (or a series of individual suicide 'conventional' blasts at malls, churches, and other public gatherings) ... we will see resolute togetherness for a period of, say, one month while we figure out who to blame. Once the 'punishment/deterrence' phase starts, the divisiveness will soon return.  

By Blogger tom_d_perkins, at Wed Dec 27, 10:37:00 AM:

Perhaps in a time of genuine national crisis -- as opposed to the manufactured and, frankly, trivial divisions that concern us today -- George W. Bush and Nancy Pelosi would rise to the occasion.

I believe you have lost either your mind or all perspective to have written this.

The islamist challenge is one that has existed for around 1300 years, and one which has been more active and present than quiescent in that time. If not successfully countered, American cities will be incinerated, possibly a handful of them. They are less likely to be dissuaded by MAD, and the having of nuclear weapons--and others--is the more eased by increases in technology every day.

I cannot fathom that a mind that wrote that was in a reasonable state of mind at the time.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Dec 27, 10:41:00 AM:

I concur with the 50 years test. So far, he as not a our best, but he certainly was not our worst and his presidency was probably one of the more complex given the unconstitional "duties" to the american family he had to face... But I will certainly judge him provisionally on four items that are totally irrelevant to his policies but tell volumes of his character.

1) He was Homer Simpson's new neighbor. Homer gets all the breaks.

2) Every adopted son in america could look to him as a role model. (He as adopted via divorce as well, and for those of us who had the guilt of the parents breakup seemingly over us not to mention the need to break in a new but very supportive stepfather, that meant a lot!)

3) He didn't become the perfect model of the embittered retiree like Carter.

And most importantly:

4) When he fell down down those stairs, He seamlessly got up and shook his hosts hand. He didn't blame his secret service detail, he simply picked himself up. That the world hung on the fall and not the pickup, shows volumes of *their* character.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Wed Dec 27, 11:02:00 AM:

I'm catching some grief for this line:

Perhaps in a time of genuine national crisis -- as opposed to the manufactured and, frankly, trivial divisions that concern us today -- George W. Bush and Nancy Pelosi would rise to the occasion.

I stand by it. Regular readers know that I am hardly casual about the threat of Islamic extremism. However, 1974-1975 was much tougher. An American president had been driven from office because of obvious "high crimes." The United States had been driven from Indochina because of internal political pressure more than anything else. The Soviet Union, which had the capacity to start a war that would annihilate the world, was pushing on us all over the globe, and showed no sign of the weakness that would emerge a decade later under pressure from Ronald Reagan. The Russians or their proxies were on the march not only in Asia, but in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. There was the very real prospect that the Soviets might come crashing through the Fulda Gap in central Germany. The American economy was in the toilet, and nobody knew what to do about it. Both inflation and unemployment were at very high levels, and GDP was shrinking. The DJIA had fallen almost 50% from its peak. In September 1975, two different crazy women tried to assassinate the President. The Democratic Congress was at procedural war with the Republican president, pushing Ford to 66 vetoes in two years, 12 of which were overridden.

Yes, today there is national division over Iraq, and unremitting rhetoric aimed at George W. Bush. So what? The economy is strong by any measure, and astonishingly so compared to the mid-1970s. Sure, there are "culture war" divisions, but they are trivial compared to the 1970s. I remember what college towns were like in May 1975 -- bombs, tear gas, shattered shop windows, death threats aimed at professors who stood up to the radicals. Now, they are quiescent.

No, the divisions today, the emotionalism today, are far more artificial and less fundamentally wide than in 1975. What has changed? In the last thirty years we have decided as a society that we do not respect propriety, do not respect civility, and will do anything necessary to win in politics, even if not in war.  

By Blogger William, at Wed Dec 27, 12:09:00 PM:

Well said TH.

I would like to add that it is unwise to confuse the weapon with the enemy, and therefore our current war is not so much with Islam as it is with the petro-dictators who manipulate Islam to perpetuate their power. Yet, regardless, such a war still pales in comparison to what we faced in the 70s.

I do have a question, TH, how does the fact that
"we do not respect propriety, do not respect civility, and will do anything necessary to win in politics"
have to do with anything more (such as the strong economy, peaceful colleges) in our current state than the triviality of the issues debated?  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Dec 27, 12:10:00 PM:

An admirable defense, and I'll grant that you may be correct that today's critical areas don't compare to those of the mid '70s. However, I don't think that justifies your use of 'manufactured' and 'trivial' as the description for today's concerns.

Unlike today, at least then we knew who our nuclear (/biological/chemical) enemies were, and could make a play at deterrence through MAD, as alluded to by tom_d_perkins. Today we stand on the precipice of a time when those possibilities are out the window, and with our current gutlessness on immigration, interdiction through intelligence, and non-proliferation we have a small and ever-dwindling chance of preventing these weapons from being eventually brought to our doorsteps - or rained down on our allies. Imagine how that situation will deteriorate further under President Clinton II, or Obama (shudder).

Your last sentence is spot-on, but doesn't it counter the statement you make in the third to last sentence? ("No, the divisions ..."). It is precisely the reason that our divisions today are WIDER ... because now, even more so than in the '70s, we stand little chance of our government coming together and acting in unity to protect our country over a long haul, if the threat is big enough to threaten our existence.

And as a last wistful repartee, I offer this - who doesn't long for a time when the chief executive had the GUTS to veto bad legislation?

(yes, the same Anonymous)  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Dec 27, 12:15:00 PM:

should have said "... acting in unity to protect our country over a long haul, even if the threat is big enough to threaten our existence."

Hate it when I'm grandstanding and I leave out a word ...  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Wed Dec 27, 01:10:00 PM:

Every generation thinks they have it toughest, that their problems are the most important ones. However, I've got to side with TH here; the civil strife in America today occasionally rises to the terrible level of raised voices and ignorant rhetoric, but I've not seen much in the way of murder and rioting.

Ineptitude and weakness in the face of the enemy isn't indicative of social rifts, it's indicative of ineptitude and weakness.  

By Blogger Georg Felis, at Wed Dec 27, 01:42:00 PM:

I’ll back TH on this one too. At the beginning of the Ford presidency, the Dems had worked themselves up into such a frothing frenzy that today’s Dems are but bare shadows. They had just evicted a Vice President (Spiro Agnew) on corruption charges, come within a whisker of getting Nixon impeached, and forced a withdrawal from Viet Nam. Ford sucked all the wind out of their sails by pardoning Nixon and ruining their chance to see him in prison after a long well-covered trial, and proceeded to veto the heck out of various left-wing legislation (with certain exceptions), all the while keeping the rhetoric under control.

Nixon chose his successor well. His other choices can be debated.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Dec 27, 02:06:00 PM:

We're all making valid points here, I think, but we're not focused on the same thing. I am not suggesting that my generation faces more difficult problems, but nevertheless serious. I am suggesting that my generation may be more poorly suited to deal with them than previous generations, yes even perhaps those of the divided '60s and '70s. This is precisely related to the point that TH made. We have grown progressively less interested in preserving the society than we are in preserving our own section of it (economically, politically, racially, philosophically, etc). We are becoming less able to see that preservation of the society must come first, or those other things will not matter in the end. We are becoming less willing to examine history with a critical eye, when doing so will tell us that

1) There ARE right answers and wrong answers to the problems that we face - though not black and white, the distinctions are clear enough to show us the way
2) The "right" answers, those that we should pursue to best preserve our society, are not necessarily the ones that will guarantee our own position is preserved

I am suggesting that we may have passed the point where we can unite around 1) to the extent necessary, when the result may point to 2). If our social strife is that strong, then it will indeed be the cause of our societal ineptitude and weakness, as it has been to a degree already. I must disagree with you there. We are weaker as a society not only when our individual elements are weaker (Bush vs Reagan), but also when we can't agree on what should be done, and we decide that doing nothing is preferable to letting the other party "win".  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Wed Dec 27, 02:56:00 PM:

You remind me of a term I was taught in college in an American politics class. (long term readers may recall that I hate domestic politics) Two terms, actually, that I heard inerchangably. Post-Modern and Value-Based politics.

At one point in our history, indeed through most of it, the political parties represented what were essentially economic interests. The Almighty Dollar dictated where a man voted because that's where his interests lay. Aside from some hiccups along the way (like the abolitionist Republicans, and the Anti-Masonic Party) this is how things tended to happen. New York City almost seceded from the Union during the Civil War not because of regionalism or southern solidarity (like Virginia) but because of economic dependence.

Anyway, the idea of Post-Modern or Value politics is that people vote according to their hearts rather than their brains nowadays, a trend which I think started in the late 70's with the defection of the Solid South. They vote with the party that they feel is morally correct, not the one who represents their economic interest. (look no further than limousine liberals for an example; 'yes, tax me more! And give my money to others who haven't earned it!' is not a rational, interest-based calculation. It's morality-based)

A Corollary of this is that the OTHER party that one does not vote for is inherently morally inferior, or even evil. This encourages confrontation above compromise and rewards ideological partisan firebrands.

This sounds a bit like what Anonymous means.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Dec 27, 03:05:00 PM:

Even adjusting for inflation, Ford's post-office income was a tiny fraction of Bill Clinton's, yet there has been almost no criticism of Clinton and he certainly has not "cut back" in response to such criticism that there has been.

Clinton made more money for his memoirs -- so what? Is Clinton's take for his own income out of step with that of G.H.W. Bush? And if the idea is that Clinton should obey all of his critics, nothing short of blowing his brains out will satisfy that notion (and even then, no doubt there will be a full roundtable of critics, some to assail his marksmanship, others to link said bad marksmanship to his stand on the assault weapons ban, more to call it still more grandstanding from an egotist, and others to analyze how Hillary really killed him). He's a deeply flawed guy, but the money he's made post-office seems the least of his sins.

Moreover, I understand that it's almost impossible for conservatives to talk about the presidency without ripping on Bill Clinton, but it takes a certain amount of moxie to both wax nostalgic about Ford's class and ability to rise above the partisan fray and then end with a gratuitous dig at Clinton.  

By Blogger Don M, at Wed Dec 27, 04:25:00 PM:

Why does Ford's pardon of Nixon look better as time goes on?

It may be important to note that we now know that the Watergate burgulary was ordered by John Dean, to obtain a "black book" of prostitutes/escorts used by the Democratic Party.

In that list of prostitutes/escorts was the name of John Dean's wife. I have no knowledge of the work she performed to get on that list.

Dean had ordered the burgulary in the president's name. When he "confessed" he continued his false accusations that the burgulary was performed at the order of the President, for political purposes. That accusation was false. Many honorable people took a fall to protect necessary ability for the nation to conduct intelligence operations.

I think they will invent a new circle of Hell for Mr. Dean. Gerald Ford was an honorable man at the start, and at the end.  

By Blogger Carl, at Wed Dec 27, 05:02:00 PM:

drbfg said... Clinton made more money for his memoirs -- so what?

Clinton sold nights in the Lincoln bedroom for campaign contributions, there were rumours about Clinton accepting bribes, er campaign contributions from foreign (Chinese) sources. What Clinton did after he left the Oval Office was a continuation of how he acted while he was in office.

IMO, it's unseemly for Presidents to make a lot of money off of their time in national service.

After all, don't they run in hopes of doing something for the common good? Then why make big dollars after you've left office, which by definition is doing something for your personal good?

but it takes a certain amount of moxie to both wax nostalgic about Ford's class and ability to rise above the partisan fray and then end with a gratuitous dig at Clinton.

I don't think it takes any moxie at all. Ford was a class act, Clinton was a sleazebag. Why can't you illustrate how classy Ford was by comparing him to how sleazy Clinton was? After all, how can you know virtue unless you also have knowledge of vice?  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Dec 27, 08:26:00 PM:

By pardoning Nixon when he did, Ford proved that the powerful protects its own and that not all are equal before the law.

You might as well say it "proved" that they had an illicit gay relationship.

He was a decent man, but he perfomed an evil act.

It's a frightening orthodoxy that considers giving a pardon to be "evil," especially for such a petty criminal as Nixon. This is the same kind of absolutist ideology that has the Senate balanced on the whim of spurned Joe Lieberman.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Wed Dec 27, 08:28:00 PM:

According to a quick follow up, John Dean sued the authors of said allegation (the book "Silent Coup") for defamation, which was settled out of court 'to the Deans' satisfaction.'


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Dec 27, 09:13:00 PM:

it was a time of national crisis. nixon had torn the nation apart, and ford took the knife people wanted to put into nixon's belly.  

By Blogger Teri, at Wed Dec 27, 09:54:00 PM:

I voted for Carter over Ford and damned if I can remember why I did that now. Part of it may well be that we had Chevy Chase so ingrained in our minds as Ford that we had a hard time recognizing the real man. Or it may just be that we were stupider about things back then and still bought the Democratic party line. In any case, if I had it to do over again, things would have been much different back in the 70s. We missed a chance to elect this good man.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Dec 27, 10:44:00 PM:

Tonight, I re-read Alexis Gilliland's 1992 Alternate History short story Demarche to Iran. This story supposes that Ford was re-elected in 1976, and that the Ayatollah Khomeini seizes power in Iran just as he did under the Carter administration.

"Although the hostages were returned four days after they were seized, President Ford was severely criticized for his ham-handed handling of Iranian hostage crisis." So ends Gilliland's story (with his tongue firmly in cheek, I assure you).

I mourn the passage of a great and good man as well as a fellow Michigander.  

By Blogger Lanky_Bastard, at Wed Dec 27, 11:03:00 PM:

I'll vote any Cold War president as having bigger things to worry about than GWOT. Terrorists are chump-change compared to full-scale nuclear war.

I don't have any opinions on Ford, but as for Pelosi/Bush coming together to protect America from scandal...I remember when the entire Senate saw the Abu Ghraib photos. They all agreed the phots were ugly and should be kept from the public (though Salon ended up with them years later). They also to blessed the scapegoating on 7 bad apples (all enlisted), and studiously ignored any command oversight. I think when the "need for healing" arises, both parties are willing to sweep the dirt under the rug.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Dec 27, 11:20:00 PM:

Ford’s best biographer, James Cannon in Time and Chance, relates a fascinating vignette of the political landscape shortly after Ford was first nominated as VP.

“Speaker Carl Albert had assured President Nixon that Ford would be promptly confirmed. But Albert had spoken too soon. On the first day of House business after the Ford nomination was received, Albert faced a new problem. A faction of House Democrats saw in Nixon’s weakness and Agnew’s resignation a chance to seize the Presidency.

‘Get off your goddammed ass, and we can take this Presidency.’ In the language of the NYC hard-hats and shopkeepers she represented in the House, Bella Abzug confronted Albert in his office just off the House floor. Abzug, a talented lawyer who entered any room with the subtlety of a subway train, towered over the five-foot-two-inch Speaker and outweighed him by 35 pounds. Punching Albert in the chest to emphasize her points, Abzug said, ‘Why in the hell are you going to let those bastards keep this? We can get control and keep control.’

Abzug and a score or more other Democrats of the aggressive left, were plotting a coup: The House would refuse to confirm Ford and impeach Nixon. Then Speaker Albert, as next in line of Presidential succession, would become President Albert – and Democrats would get control of the White House and all the power of the Federal government.” [end quote]

In 1973, both Carl Albert and Judiciary Chair Peter Rodino resisted the extreme Left’s temptation to use Watergate as a pretext to seize the American government for their own party. Fast forward 33 years, and we find that the Abzug faction now the undisputed voice of the Democratic Party’s majority – a party that now believes, in the words of a popular fictitious villain, “There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it....”  

By Blogger rosignol, at Thu Dec 28, 04:34:00 AM:

Two points-

1) While what Azbug was planning was sleazy, it was according to procedure and it is not appropriate to call it a 'coup'.

2) the only truly 'gratuitous' dig one can make WRT Clinton is one related to his taste in women.  

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