Thursday, December 28, 2006

Gerald R Ford 1913-2006

When Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan died, I felt nothing. No sadness, no nostalgic recollection, no sense of loss. If anything, I thought the televised mourning of Reagan was well and truly over-the-top. I couldn’t stand his presidency, so there was no way I was going to pretend that I was saddened by his death, though I felt sympathy for Nancy in particular. As for Nixon, I only thought about how completely he’d screwed up without ever acknowledging it.

With the death of former president Gerald Ford, it’s different for me this time.

Gerald Ford provided
America with “a time to heal,” as he called it in his autobiography. It was what America needed after the height of corruption by the Nixon White House during the Watergate scandal. Ford, while far from perfect, was what America needed at the time.

It’s almost impossible to remember now what things felt like in August, 1974, but at the time it seemed there was no way Americans could ever respect the president again. Ford went a long way toward changing that. It was enough to make me support him in 1976, despite pardoning Nixon.

Henry Kissinger, himself no saint, summed it up when he said in his 1999 book
Years of Renewal:

“With Ford, what one saw was what one got. Providence smiled on Americans when—seemingly by happenstance—it brought forward a president who embodied our nation's deepest and simplest values.”

Ford could never be president these days. For one thing, he wasn’t conservative enough for the far right that now controls the Republican Party (which is ironic for me because I would now find him too conservative to support).

But the main trouble is that this is an age in which focus groups and media handlers determine everything. It’s difficult to imagine Ford putting up with all that nonsense, much less succeeding. For all his faults, Ford was too “real” to succeed today.

It’s been said many times about many different people, but it’s nevertheless true: We’ll not see his kind again. Perhaps that’s the real loss.


Anonymous said...

Over the years I’ve been ridiculed many times for telling people that Gerald Ford was the best President of my lifetime (I was born a few weeks after the inauguration of President/General Eisenhower). With Ford’s death, at least temporarily, people seem to understand why I believe that.

The measure of a President should not be just how many bills he passed (LBJ) or hearts he inspired (JFK) or foreign policy breakthroughs he made (Nixon) or highways he built (Ike) or even how many landslides he won (Reagan). The historians should ask if a President was the right person for the job, at that particular time. Beyond argument, Gerald Ford was.

As the memorials begin to flow, many are proclaiming “the pardon” as the focal point of a presidency known as “a time to heal.” Yet, while that is the most visible example, it in my opinion is not the only one, nor even the most important one.

We need to also remember that Ford was sworn in as the Vietnam War was turning into the political and social equivalent of a war at home – not only Republicans versus Democrats, veterans versus civilians, it was also ripping families to pieces. In my own family we ran the spectrum – Larry enlisting, Roy being drafted, Randy being relieved that he was stationed in Korea, Jay fleeing to Canada, Gayle demonstrating in Chicago where she went as a McGovern delegate. As for me, the day my lottery number of 320 was pulled, indicating that I’d never be drafted, was cause for celebration, and the first time in my life I ever got drunk.

Gerald Ford not only “cut our losses” by accepting the reality of the situation in Saigon, he also began to address the divisions at home – one week into his presidency he flew to a VFW convention in Chicago to announce an earned-amnesty plan.

People like to sneer at the concept of the “small town Midwest” that Gerald Ford personified, yet what those who did not grow up in places like Grand Rapids, Michigan (Ford) or Portage, Indiana (me) don’t understand is that it engrains in one a different life view, a willingness to accept fact, and move on, that is more important than who was right and who was wrong. Tomorrow is going to occur whether a decision was right or wrong.

No analysis of Gerald Ford however can be complete without mention of the entire Ford family which was so important a part of the healing process. They were us, and because of that, this will seem like family funeral. -- Tim Drake, Chicago, December 28, 2006.

Arthur Schenck said...

Welcome to my blog, Tim!

I agree with much of what you say about Ford, though I’m not quite sure I’m ready to call him the best president of my lifetime, although I suspect we could agree on who’s the worst!

You made an interesting observation about Ford “accepting the reality of the situation in Saigon” because that kind of practicality was seen again and again in his short presidency, including the infamous pardoning of Nixon. We all know that Nixon was a crook, and crooks should face justice. But was that the best outcome in a country torn apart by Watergate, Vietnam (as you mentioned) and the civil rights movement? Ford didn’t think so and, it seems, a majority of Americans—me included—now agree with him.

Similarly, I was also intrigued to read that in an interview he gave to Bob Woodward at the Washington Post two years ago (but embargoed until now) Ford said “I don't think I would have ordered the Iraq war. I would have maximized our effort through sanctions, through restrictions, whatever, to find another answer.” That’s probably the sort of Midwestern practicality you were talking about. If only there had been a little of that common sense among the current occupiers of the White House.

Ford was a different politician from a different time. I guess I still need to wait awhile to determine his place on the “best presidents of my lifetime” list, but for me he’d certainly be vying for the top of the list.

And good on you for mentioning his family. I completely agree with you about them. Maybe it's why his death seems like a death in the family to many of us.