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gerald r ford

9 september 2008

Of those who have served in my lifetime, Gerald Ford is perhaps my favorite President. Lyndon Johnson is unquestionably the greatest, and Ronald Reagan was probably the strongest. But I only remember the last two Vietnam-mired years of LBJ's presidency. And Reagan, with his tax-cutting, deficit-amassing, deregulating, saber-rattling, regressive policies, has to figure as a disaster in my book. Nixon and Bush 43 were even worse, adding a touch of tyrannical paranoia to Reaganesque conservatism. Carter and Clinton, for my money, were conservative Democrats without much real energy to move the country off a course increasingly set by Reaganauts. Bush 41 had the admirable resolve not to get bogged down in a land war in Asia, but that's hardly a Lincolnesque achievement. I don't remember JFK or Ike at all. By default, the creator of the WIN button is the President that I remember with the most admiration.

With Gerald Ford, you knew what you were getting. Douglas Brinkley, in his Times Books American Presidents volume on GRF, stresses this admirable stability. Ford was not elected to any federal office, becoming Vice President by appointment and President by Nixon's resignation. But he was precisely the kind of politician who becomes Prime Minister in the parliamentary democracies. A very-long-time legislative front bencher (mostly in the opposition), Ford was supremely well-prepared to take over as President.

Ford, when appointed Vice President in 1973, had spent almost a quarter-century in Congress, shoring up the Republican caucus during a long power drought for the GOP. He was patient, affable, and though intensely partisan, was respected by Democrats as a clean fighter. He was the kind of deficit hawk that has pretty much disappeared from the Republican party, a pay-as-you-go conservative with a libertarian streak on social issues. Or rather, not much interest in social issues at all. Ford won his stature in Congress by getting appointed to the powerful Appropriations Committee, and his philosophy on appropriations was just not to appropriate much of any money for anything. During the years of the Great Society, his was a marginal voice in Washington.

Brinkley portrays Ford, especially after leaving office, almost as a liberal, perpetually at war with the Republican right wing. I think that's overstating the case. Ford was intensely loyal to Richard Nixon, after all. Brinkley notes that Ford supported a Campus Disorders Act in the 1960s that would withhold aid from college students who marched against the Vietnam War (37). Where the American empire was concerned, Ford was actively hostile to civil liberties. And though personally pro-choice on abortion rights, unprejudiced against gays, and amenable to affirmative action, he was hardly a crusader on those issues. He came to seem a liberal party elder only after the GOP had moved several tiers to the right of Barry Goldwater.

Perhaps the most peculiar turn in Ford's long leadership of the Republican Party was the fierce, and ultimately costly, challenge that Reagan made for the 1976 Presidential nomination. Ford had chosen Reagan's enemy, the moderate Nelson Rockefeller, as Vice President. With that other anathema to the Republican right, Henry Kissinger, installed as Secretary of State, Reagan felt that Ford had tipped dangerously over to liberalism. Ford must have thought that Reagan was nuts. Ford himself was so reliably conservative that tapping Rockefeller seemed to him merely a tactical balancing of the White House to align it with the rest of the GOP. But the trend of history was with Reagan. Just a few years later, there was no one left in the Republican Party even remotely as center-left as Nelson Rockefeller. The old consensus coalition of Republicans who worked within the New Deal and Great Society frameworks as a loyal, cost-conscious opposition had been swept away, and Ford, willing to work cordially across the aisle, was swept away with it.

Brinkley reinterprets Ford's least popular act, the pardoning of Nixon, as a largely positive move. It's hard to argue with him. Nixon deserved punishment, but that punishment would have meant the most distracting, divisive trial in American history. Though thousands of secretly-bombed Cambodian citizens might still object, Nixon's exile and disgrace were probably the most fitting punishment he was ever going to get.

More perplexing, to Brinkley, are Ford's rare but extremely costly gaffes. His strange entÍtement with regard to Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, which led to Ford's failed attempt to impeach the Justice (probably at the behest of Nixon's crony John Erlichman), still baffles historians. And despite the courage it took to go to Helsinki and participate in security accords that the Republican right saw as no less than traitorous, Ford followed up by insisting, during a debate with Jimmy Carter, that Eastern Europe was not under Soviet domination. The insistence made less than no sense at all, and was surely a factor in Carter's narrow election victory. Compared to moments like these, the occasional fall down runway stairs at an airport seemed adroit.

If I still like Ford, it's largely because he wasn't Nixon. In the big picture of American political history, we often judge past leaders by the huge mistakes they avoided, rather than the smaller successes or missteps they actually achieved. Ford was no Lincoln, as he was fond of saying. He was a stock car that won no races but rarely hit anything and never ran out of gas. We have done much, much worse.

Brinkley, Douglas. Gerald R. Ford. New York: Times Books, 2007.