Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Gerald Ford

If it were not for a few inconvenient run-ins with history, Gerald Ford would have had a nice little career as a hail fellow well met and a career congressmen. He might have eked out another decade or two in the Republican leadership, then retired to do what he pretty-much did as a retired president.

But as a reliable Republican from Michigan, he was named to sit on the Warren Commission and investigated John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

And ten years later, Richard Nixon appointed him to the Vice Presidency.

And eight months after that, he became President. And a month after that, he pardoned Nixon for any crimes Nixon may have committed as President.

Then South Vietnam fell. Then he pardoned the draft evaders. Then Ronald Reagan almost won the nomination in 1976 and Jimmy Carter sent Gerald Ford off gently into that good night, where he played a lot of golf with Bob Hope, but nobody ever called to ask him any serious policy questions ever again.

For many of us who lived through those times, there is a great temptation to stereotype Ford as a bumbling, possibly corrupt and complicit party hack.

The Report of the Warren Commission is suspect at best. And, like the Warren Report, Nixon’s pardon left so much unresolved. It taught a generation of politicians – including Ronald Reagan, Caspar Weinberger, Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, George H. W. Bush, and others, that it was virtually impossible to be run out of the White House by scandal. Iran Contragate is rooted in Nixon’s pardon.

In retrospect, though – in fairness to Ford – he was dealt an all-but-unplayable hand, and played it with a political competence the current resident at 1600 Pennsylvania does not seem to have.

When Ford took office, the fate of South Vietnam was unresolved. The Arab oil embargo had driven gas prices up. Inflation was gathering steam. Ugliest of all, Watergate colored everything early in Ford’s tenure. Far from alleviating the crisis, Nixon’s resignation threatened to keep Watergate center stage – and congress and the White House – paralyzed for years to come.

So Ford did what he had to do. He pardoned Nixon.

He must have known it was political suicide, but he bit the bullet, and signed the pardon. His popularity dropped 20 points overnight. The Republicans lost more than 40 seats in the 1974 midterm elections.

But the country could now begin to deal with the aftermath of Vietnam, the energy crisis, inflation, and societal issues such as equal rights, as well as the post-hippie Baby Boom finally coming of age.

Gerald Ford wasn’t the brightest bulb on the string (although he was a Yale Law School graduate). He was, to use a phrase Nixon used in describing George H.W. Bush (for whom Nixon is said to have had little regard), “the kind of man you appoint to a committee…”

But in the wake of Watergate, with Constitutional checks and balances stretched to the breaking point – and congress and the White House reeling and vulnerable – Ford managed to consign the scandal to history – and to get the country focused on the people’s business again.

He leaves us a passel of enigmas as he leaves the stage.

Who knows what he knew about the Kennedy assassination? Who knows what direction a protracted criminal investigation of Richard Nixon might have taken the country?

Who knows whether he did us a great service or set the stage for everything that has happened since?


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