Thursday, December 28, 2006

Ford, lately

“His life was filled with love of God, his family and his country,” read the statement from the family of Gerald Rudolph Ford, the 38th President of the United States, who died Tuesday evening at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., at the age of 93.

He was our first and only accidental president, assuming the position after Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace after Watergate, and for just under nine hundred days he took the reins of power, probably expected by many to be not much more than a caretaker, someone to watch the house until the rightful tenants moved back in, whoever they might have been.

Ford – Eagle Scout, former Michigan football standout, stalwart of the House of Representatives, member of the Warren Commission, Vice President – rose to the unexpected occasion, asserting himself as a leader with a clarity of purpose and sense of duty that are truly clear only now, in retrospect, seen in the rear-view mirror as we drive – hurtle – toward our current uncertain future.

But for all his methodical and decisive aspects as president, Ford governed pursuant to the law of unintended consequences. He doomed his chances to be president in his own right, ironically enough, by suggesting to the American people that he could not be relied on act in his own right. With one Sunday morning statement uttered a month into the accidental presidency, Gerald Ford ended his political career; the wounds wouldn’t show for another eight hundred sixty days.

“Our long national nightmare is over,” Ford said after being sworn in in August 1974. “Our government is one of laws, and not of men,” the new president said, not realizing that a month later he would be accused of acting precisely the same way.

On Sept. 8, 1974, Ford extended to Richard Nixon a “full, free and absolute pardon” for any “crimes he committed or may have committed” during his tenure as President of the United States. This get-out-of-jail card from the gods was meant, Ford said for years afterward, to close the books on the Watergate debacle once and for all.

But by circumventing the procedure of congressional oversight and review, by unilaterally deciding that Nixon would not face charges for high crimes and misdemeanors, Ford effectively assumed the role of the government of a man abrogating unto itself the role of a government of laws. For all its noble intent, his pardon seems especially confusing given Ford’s reverence for the deliberative powers of Congress – the constitutionally-guaranteed process of analysis and judgment that would have played itself out, however painfully, in an impeachment trial.

It was a decision that Ford would pay for, in the 1976 election, when the elephant’s memory of the American people asserted itself to deny Ford the presidency in his own right.

Ford’s pardon of Nixon tarnished his role as conciliator in one respect; less widely reported in the recent postmortems is the fact that, later that month in 1974, Ford issued a clemency plan for those who evaded the draft during the Vietnam War – an act that, while just as potentially divisive as the Nixon pardon, sent the signal that Ford was serious about doing what he could to heal the country.

In many recollections of President Ford that have already surfaced on the cable shows, there’s a tendency to use the word “decent” to describe Gerald Ford. “Good” and “honorable” are also used as ways to describe the president who sought to “humanize” the presidency.

And this is the source of George Bush’s problem. Such generous posthumous assessments of President Ford and his presidency will be, inevitably, contrasted with less generous views for President Bush and his administration. No one will actually mention George Bush’s name in apposition to Gerald Ford’s in a comparison of personalities. But that’s the unspoken takeaway: Gerald Ford was a good and decent man as a leader (unlike – ahem! – at least one of his successors). The comparison of the two leaders is nakedly implicit.

Bush doesn’t need this, doesn’t need anything to take the public eye off the ball of the aggressive, bellicose, largely defensive style of Republicanism that he and his administration have perfected for the last half dozen years.

Something else Bush didn’t need is an expression of opinion Ford left behind – a statement not exactly from the grave but one embargoed until he got there.

In July 2004 Gerald Ford had an interview with Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, an interview that, we now know, burnished Ford’s reputation as a man who spoke his mind without spin and nuances. By agreement, Woodward withheld publication of the interview until after Ford’s death.

When Woodward asked Ford about his feelings about the Iraq war, Ford expressed what could be, uh, conservatively called strong doubts. Some excerpts:

"I don’t think if I had been president, on the basis of the facts as I saw them publicly, I don’t think I would have ordered the Iraqi war. I would have maximized our effort through sanctions, through restrictions, whatever, to find another answer.

"I’ve never publicly said I thought they made a mistake, but I felt very strongly it was an error in how they should justify what they were going to do.

“And I just don’t think we should go hellfire and damnation around the globe freeing people unless it’s directly related to our own national security.”

The spinmeisters in the Bush White House will of course try to twist that last statement, saying that, yes, this is one of those missions that is related to our national security. But the overall context of Ford’s comments will be clear and unmistakable and untweakable. The words “big mistake” speak eloquently for themselves.

And when the ceremonies for President Ford get underway this weekend – ceremonies that President Bush is obligated to lead – they’ll take place against a backdrop of anti-war sentiments that get more and more bipartisan all the time. Ford’s assessment of the Iraq war is no less acute and insightful because he’s dead than it would have been if he’d made the comments available for publication when he was alive.

We can thank Gerald Ford for such honesty, and for other humanizing aspects of his brief time in the White House. Yeah, he fumbled, he stumbled, he was prone to goofs and gaffes and contradictions, one of which cost him an election. But Gerry Ford was president in, well, a kinder, gentler American time. He’ll be remembered for closing the chapter on Watergate, biting the bullet on the Vietnam War, dismantling the imperial dimensions of the American presidency, and at least trying to engage in a relatively clear-eyed, pragmatic approach to governing, one that’s sorely lacking today.

And after ending one long national nightmare, Ford was candid enough to offer a later generation some needed perspective on another one: the enduring bad dream that persists – three thousand American lives lost (and counting), twenty-two thousand American lives wounded and damaged (and counting), four hundred billion dollars evaporated (and counting) – to this day.

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years, not much of it that serious, of adding the visage of Ronald Reagan to the faces on Mount Rushmore. Reagan, the thinking goes, ushered American out of a grim era of self-doubt and division, restoring the nation’s confidence in itself.

So did Gerry Ford, and Ford did it first, and Ford did it without the residual stardust of Hollywood on his shoulders, unlike Reagan. Gerald Ford was more like us than we knew, or would admit in public, when he was alive. Maybe Ford’s image would be better for Mount Rushmore – an everyman face to represent our humbler, more anonymous American aspect.

Image credits: Top: David Hume Kennerly, White House (public domain); Bottom: White House (public domain)

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