It's time for another assessment. Over Christmas weekend former president Gerald Ford passed away, at his home out here in Rancho Mirage, the wealthy golf course enclave next to Palm Springs. He was ninety-three and he did like golf. Those of us old enough to remember the day-to-day of his tenure in the White House recall the only appointed president - he replaced the crook Spiro Agnew, the man who pled no contest on some bribery matters and faded way to his place on the hill in Saint Croix in the Virgin Island overlooking Cane Bay. Ford became president when Nixon resigned, and lost the office to Jimmy Carter in the next election. So he was the only president in our history who was never elected at all. The obituaries are all over the media, many of them showing him puffing on his pipe - he had fine collection of more than fifty of them. Those of us who smoke pipes note such things. And there was his outspoken feminist wife, Betty, who was a real kick - and he obviously both liked and respected her tremendously. He had been an All-American football star at University of Michigan, a center (those of us who have played that position in high school know that's a solid no-glory spot), and decided not to sign with the Detroit Lions but go to law school instead. And the rest is history.
So the man is remembered for cleaning up after Richard Nixon, pardoning him of all possible crimes so, as he seemed to hope, the nation could move on and attend to more immediate matters at hand. On his watch the Vietnam War ended, with the images of the last helicopters lifting off from our embassy in Saigon and a few locals being kicked off the skids. The economy was a mess and some of us remember the lame little WIN buttons - Whip Inflation Now. The runaway inflation eased eventually in his tenure, but it probably wasn't the buttons that did it. But all in all, he seemed both earnest and possessed of a good sense of humor, and a bit dull - and that may have been what the country needed.
Of course seeds were sown - his chief-of staff at the White House was, initially, the young Donald Rumsfeld, an interesting choice at the time. Then he moved Rumsfeld over to become Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld's first try at the job. The new chief-of staff replacing Rumsfeld was a young congressman from Wyoming - Dick Cheney. He kept Henry Kissinger on as his foreign policy advisor. In his last years Ford may have wondered what he had started with all that. None of them retired to play golf in the desert.
But people are generally ignoring those three. Most obituaries treat his pardon of Richard Nixon as the defining moment of Ford's presidency, and most have been overwhelmingly kind about that.
Over at the ultra right site Hot Air "Allah Pundit" calls Ford the "best president of the 1970's" - and adds this - "By all accounts he was a decent and genuine man. He survived two assassination attempts and relentless mocking by Chevy Chase, who portrayed him as hopelessly clumsy (even though he was quite athletic and a college football star). … His was a thankless job, cleaning up after Nixon and then inevitably turning over the country to the tender mercies of Carter. He did it well, and we thank him for it. RIP."
Jonathan Singer on the left grudgingly agrees - "In hindsight, his decision to pardon his predecessor, Richard Nixon, appears to have been the right one, even if at the time it cost him politically. And although he was thoroughly a conservative, he seems to have been someone who treated his political adversaries with respect and genuinely fought to better America."
On the other hand, conservative Ed Morrissey at Captain's Quarters believes the Nixon pardon was a terrible mistake - "Ford had good and understandable reasons for his decision, but it did short-circuit the one quality about America that had always made us different from other nations: our leaders were not above the law. … [W]e lost that sense of ourselves as a nation bound by its dedication to the Constitution and the rule of law. At that time, we needed a way to bind ourselves back to that to restore a national identity in which all could share."
Yeah, but the "Trial of Nixon" might have torn apart the nation. It hardly matters now - Ford issued a blanket pardon and that was that.
Peter Howard, a professor at American University, remembers what might not be a minor thing - the Ford presidency notably "began the era of intelligence oversight by issuing Executive Order 11905. The order is perhaps most famous for its ban on assassination by US government agencies. Since their founding in the early years of the Cold War, the US intelligence agencies, notably the CIA and NSA, gave themselves a wide mandated to fight the Cold War." Ford put an end to that - the business in Chile on another September 11, in the seventies, was an embarrassment.
The standard obituary in the Washington Post is here, and the schlock gossip guy, Matt Drudge, made a big deal about the byline - the piece was written by J. Y. Smith, who died almost a year before Gerald Ford. How did Joe Smith do that? That's spooky.
But it's not - obituaries are on file in the media on every public figure, particularly on anyone older than fifty. It pays to be prepared. Some papers have writers who specialize in summing up a famous life in the format required - some newspaper guys start their career doing those, and some, the unlucky or offensive, end their careers doing those. But basically, you just keep a file, a directory of pre-written obituaries, and assign some otherwise useless copy editor to update them now and then. For somebody like Ronald Reagan, who didn't do anything at all for the last fifteen years of his life, for obvious reasons, newspapers had the luxury of producing elaborate ready-to-print "Special Section" tributes - with some digging you could find the inserts on public websites long before he died, if you were sufficiently morbid. Drudge is a pain. This was no big deal.
A friend, an attorney up in the Finger Lakes of New York, did notice what was really odd - "..but didn't Ronald Reagan die at the same time as Ray Charles. Now Jerry Ford and James Brown. What next George Bush (41) and Little Richard? Jimmy Carter and BB King? Hilary Clinton and Aretha Franklin? Barak Obama and Jerry Lee Lewis? When will it stop?"
Yep, the coincidences are odd, as noted in the hyper-sarcastic site Wonkette -
The Godfather of Soul and the Temp President did have a warm friendship that spanned generations, but there's no clear evidence that Brown's coke-crazed soul burst free from the ether for long enough to strangle Ford.
But there is circumstantial evidence that suggests the Sinister Aryan Cabal that actually runs the government had Ford "taken out" to cut short America's mourning for James Brown, who was best known for being a psychotic dope fiend and starring as "Apollo Creed" in one of the "Rocky" movies about 25 years ago.
The proof? The same thing sort of happened way back in June of 2004, when Ray Charles tragically died. America came to a standstill. Truly, we were a Nation Challenged.
But within 24 hours, an elaborate "state funeral" for Ronald Reagan was launched, and there was nothing else on the teevee for the week. By the time it was over, Americans had tragically forgotten all about soul/R&B/country legend Ray Charles.
Skeptics say this theory makes no sense, because Reagan actually expired on June 4 and Charles died six days later, on June 10. And we say, Duh, time machine!
Whatever. But on a more serious note, see the widely-read and highly-regarded Digby at Hullabaloo with this -
The first vote I ever cast was for Jerry Brown for governor. The first vote I ever cast for president was for Gerald Ford. (That was the last time I ever voted for a Republican, by the way.) I have become a little bit more coherent since then.
I was not, at the time, a fan of Jimmy Carter; I thought he was sanctimonious. I was twenty. (Little could I have imagined what was to come.) And I thought Ford had done the right thing by pardoning Nixon. Yes I really did.
I did not understand the zombie nature of Republicanism and had no way of knowing that unless you drive a metaphorical stake through the heart of GOP crooks and liars, they will be back, refreshed and ready to screw up the country in almost exactly the same way, within just a few years. In those days, I couldn't imagine that the Republicans would ever elect someone worse than Nixon. I thought we had gone back to "normal" where nice moderate guys like Jerry and Ike would keep the seat warm until the real leaders would return. Live and learn.
The thing I remember most about Ford, though, was his family. They were great - a bunch of handsome baby boomers frolicking on the lawn, rumored to have smoked pot in the white house, fresh and cool and so much less uptight than Nixon and the girls. As a young person of the same age, it was a powerful image that meant something to me.
And Betty remains my favorite first lady of all time. She was funny and human and normal. I'll never forget watching her hosting a Bolshoi ballet on television when she was obviously under the influence of something or other. I thought to myself, this is a real woman of her time. And of course, she went on to be one of the first famous women to announce that she was fighting breast cancer and founded the Betty Ford clinic not long after. She has done a world of good for the recovery movement.
Ford was an old school GOP moderate, the kind that isn't around anymore. But he bears some responsibility for what came after. After all, his administration spawned the two most twisted leaders of the Bush administration - Cheney and Rumsfeld. From what I know of Jerry Ford, he wouldn't have been proud of that particular accomplishment. He was not given to megalomania and grandiose schemes.
He bound the nation's wounds for a moment, but in doing so he created an infection that has festered for the last thirty years. His heart was in the right place, I think. But it was a mistake I hope this nation never makes again.
He was a decent man who had a good sense of humor. RIP.
And so he was, as Timothy Noah explains in The very discreet charms (and substantial drawbacks) of Richard Nixon's successor -
During the 25 years that I've lived in Washington, I have never once heard a negative word spoken here about former President Gerald Ford, who died at 93 on Dec. 26. Within the narrow confines of Permanent Washington - the journalists, lobbyists, and congressional lifers who are the city's avatars of centrism and continuity - Ford is considered the beau ideal of American leadership. "By the time he finished his short tenure, he had put together one of the most talented administrations, at least of those that I've covered in fifty years here," the Washington Post's David Broder recalled after Ford's death. "People who served in the Ford administration will tell you even now, the survivors of that administration, that it was the best experience they ever had in government."
Washington's Gerald Ford cult differs from, say, its John F. Kennedy cult or its Ronald Reagan cult in that no branches can be found outside the nation's capital. It is possible to say, "America loves JFK," or "America loves Reagan," but no one in his right mind would ever say, "America loves Ford." (If attempted, the statement would surely be mistaken for an advertising slogan touting the Dearborn, Mich.-based auto manufacturer.) America has not given Gerald Ford a lot of thought. To the extent it has, it's pegged Ford as a dimwitted klutz who, though certainly decent enough, extended unwarranted favoritism to his fellow Republican Richard Nixon by granting the former president a blanket pardon. The latter gesture probably cost Ford the 1976 election.
The American electorate got Ford more right than the Washington mandarins. Permanent Washington believes the Nixon pardon was an act of martyrdom, a necessary gesture allowing the country to move on - even Bob Woodward thinks so - but, in fact, the American system of government was sturdy enough to withstand any prosecution of Richard Nixon. (I have my doubts there would have been any.) Ford would have done far better, both politically and in serving justice, to leave well enough alone. The mandarins are right to say that Gerald Ford was certainly smarter than the caricature invented by Lyndon Johnson ("can't fart and chew at the same time," with "fart" subsequently softened to "chew") and later refined by Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live, but he was no genius, particularly in the realm of foreign policy. Because of Ford's weakness in this area, the White House became a free-fire zone between the pro-détente Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the anti-détente tag team of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, Ford's successive chiefs of staff. (Maybe veterans of the Ford administration think it "the best experience they ever had in government" because they experienced little supervision from the boss.) Rumsfeld/Cheney ultimately prevailed (as later they would under President George W. Bush), but the experience left Ford sufficiently addled that when, in a 1976 presidential debate with Jimmy Carter, he got asked about the 1975 Helsinki accords - which contained vague mollifying language recognizing Soviet domination of Eastern Europe - Ford babbled, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration." Carter responded incredulously ("Did I understand you to say, sir … "), prompting a second nonsensical gusher from Ford: "I don't believe … the Yugoslavians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Rumanians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. Each of those countries is independent, autonomous: it has its own territorial integrity …"
Oops. But he meant well. Ford "meant to deny not the fact of Soviet domination in Eastern Europe, but merely United States acquiescence in that domination." It just didn't come out that way. Noah says - "These comments about Eastern Europe remain, I believe, the single dumbest thing ever said by a sitting president during my lifetime, heavy competition from the present incumbent notwithstanding."
But Ford did some good - inflation dropped from double digits to below five percent. And Gerald Ford appointed John Paul Stevens to the Supreme Court, who has since become a moderating influence on the madmen there.
The conclusion -
Ford was not an ideologue, and during his presidency the country was not ideological. We remember those years as tumultuous, and they were - it was the Watergate scandal that made Ford president in the first place, and it was during Ford's presidency that the Vietnam War came to its ignominious end. But Bill Bishop of the Austin American-Statesman did some number-crunching a couple of years ago, and concluded that geographic self-segregation at the county level by party affiliation reached its nadir in 1975, when Gerald Ford was president. Conservatives and liberals lived in closer proximity than before or since, and that minimized partisan enmity in both the country and in Washington. As I wrote at the time: "The 1970s, which most of us remember as an era of high inflation, long gas lines, and malaise, were, in short, the Golden Age of Bipartisanship. Gerald Ford, the most boring man in modern memory to occupy the Oval Office, was its high priest."
That is why Washington loves Gerald Ford. Comity and bipartisanship are easy to overrate, and Permanent Washington can always be counted on to overrate them. At the moment, though, it does seem we could use a bit more.
Yeah, we could. But dull and pleasant leaders don't come along every day. And too, the man was appointed. You cannot win any office by claiming you're agreeable and mostly harmless. What kind of platform is that? And no one would vote for a smoker theses days, particularly a pipe smoker. The man was a wonder, without being wonderful, for which the nation is now grateful.