Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Centennial of a 'Humble Healer'

"I am a Ford, not a Lincoln. My addresses will never be as eloquent as Mr. Lincoln's. But I will do my very best to equal his brevity and his plain speaking."

Gerald Ford

Today would have been Gerald Ford's 100th birthday. He didn't miss being here for it by much, either. He was 93 when he died in December of 2006.

He lived longer than any other president. So far.

As nearly as I can tell, not much of a fuss is being made about the centennial — except maybe in Ford's hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich., where the Grand Rapids Symphony planned a Ford tribute in its Independence Day "Picnic Pops" performance — with the focus being on a special composition written in Ford's honor titled "One of Us, Portrait of A Humble Healer."

This weekend, there have been all sorts of activities in Grand Rapids, and the Vail Daily News in Vail, Colo., where Ford took his ski vacations, says "[t]he valley will stop for a few moments" in Ford's honor.

Other than that, though, there doesn't seem to be much of a fuss, as I said earlier.

In Omaha, Neb., the town where Ford was born, the Omaha World–Herald reports that, while the occasion "will be marked with no pomp and circumstance ... America's 38th president won't be forgotten."

A recent Pew Research Center article observed that, in a Gallup poll last year, a majority of respondents said Ford was an average president, neither above nor below average.

Those who remember the Ford presidency are bound to have differing opinions of him — and that is true of all presidents, even those who have been judged by history to be among the greats. Most folks probably would say Ford was humble. Fewer probably would call him a healer, but I think nearly everyone would agree that Ford was a decent guy.

He was what people of my parents' generation called a "stand–up" guy.

Rarely is there that kind of agreement on any president. But, when compared to the dark, dour and paranoid presidency of Ford's predecessor, Richard Nixon, I guess just about anyone would look like a decent guy.

Ford really was. But he is primarily judged for what was perceived at the time to be a decidedly indecent act — his pardon of Nixon on Sept. 8, 1974, about a month after he took office. Regardless of the general decency of the man, he continues to be judged by many on the basis of that single act.

And that was/is understandable. Nixon's popularity had dropped into the 20s by the time of his resignation. Most of Nixon's fellow Republicans in Congress — on whom Nixon had been counting to keep him from being convicted in an impeachment trial in the Senate — turned on him when the Supreme Court ordered him to turn over the tapes he had been refusing to surrender for months, and the "smoking gun" that proved his early involvement in the Watergate coverup was revealed.

There was a lot of bitterness in the country over the fact that Nixon had dragged the nation through a two–year investigation, protesting his innocence all the while, only to be indisputably shown to be a liar, and, even though there were those who believed an ex–president should not be sent to prison, many more Americans wanted Nixon to stand trial in a court, where he would have to tell the truth or face additional criminal charges.

When Ford pardoned Nixon, it removed any possibility that Nixon would have to face the legal music. That made many Americans angry — enough, some political analysts would say, that it cost Ford election to the presidency in his own right two years later.

Until the end of his life, Ford would say — and not without some justification — that pardoning Nixon was the only way for the country to put Watergate behind it and focus on the sputtering economy.

It was the kind of remark a decent, stand–up kind of guy would make — as were Ford's remarks in his first State of the Union speech in January 1975.

"I must say to you," Ford said, "that the state of the Union is not good: Millions of Americans are out of work. Recession and inflation are eroding the money of millions more. Prices are too high, and sales are too slow. This year’s federal deficit will be about $30 billion; next year's probably $45 billion. The national debt will rise to over $500 billion. Our plant capacity and productivity are not increasing fast enough. We depend on others for essential energy. Some people question their government's ability to make hard decisions and stick with them; they expect Washington politics as usual."

Tell the truth. Can you imagine any other president in your lifetime being quite that blunt with the American people?

I have often reflected on Ford's decision in late 1973 to accept Nixon's nomination of him to fill the vice presidential vacancy left by the resignation of Spiro Agnew. I have wondered what it was like. In hindsight, it seems somewhat inevitable that Ford would become first vice president and then president. But there must have been a time — however brief it may have been — when Ford's decision had not been made, and it still was possible that he might turn Nixon down.

I always wonder to whom Nixon might then have offered the vice presidency — and how that might have changed America and the world.

Some 16 months earlier, Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern had to do something similar when his running mate was dropped and a new one had to be selected. He offered the spot to just about every prominent Democrat, and they all turned him down — until he got to Sargent Shriver.

McGovern never made his offer in public so there are no recordings of those Democrats turning him down — but they always wound up in the news. The details were only made public — if at all — in books or interviews long after the fact.

I have no memory of anyone other than Ford being offered the vice presidency in 1973, but I can imagine a few of the thoughts that must have gone through his mind when the offer was made. And, based on what I know of Ford, I'm sure he consulted his wife, Betty, before giving Nixon an answer.

He always claimed he expected to be something of a place filler for the rest of Nixon's term, and then he would retire to Michigan when it was over. He apparently accepted the vice presidency with no expectation that he would be president. He figured Nixon would ride out the storm.

Well, that was his story. And maybe that really was what he believed. But my memory is that Nixon's approval ratings took a serious hit when it was revealed in the Watergate hearings (coincidentally, a couple of days after Ford's 60th birthday) that there had been a secret taping system in the White House.

That meant that there was a witness that could verify what Nixon and his associates had said in their meetings after the Watergate break–in. The only real question at the time was whether the witness' account would be heard. Would Nixon be able to run out the clock on his term before that account was heard?

Although Nixon and his lawyers tried every legal trick in the book, the Supreme Court ultimately ruled in the summer of 1974 — several months after Ford's confirmation as vice president and more than two years before Nixon's term was due to end — that Nixon had to relinquish the tapes to the investigators.

In those tapes was the "smoking gun" that ended Nixon's presidency.

At that point, most people seemed to realize that it was just a matter of time — and not much of that — before Nixon would be leaving office. By then, Ford must have been anticipating the massive changes that were about to take place in his life.

Ford certainly didn't give the country politics as usual, even though one of his earliest acts was dismissed as such by many Americans. He was like a breath of fresh air when he became president, which is no doubt why so many Americans felt betrayed when he pardoned Nixon.

To continue with the breath of fresh air analogy, it was like breathing fresh oxygen for four weeks after a steady diet carbon dioxide — only to suddenly inhale carbon dioxide again without warning. There was a national coughing spasm.

There was a lot of raw emotion in the Watergate era, and I have often wondered if Ford might not have encountered such a hostile reaction had he waited longer to issue the pardon.

Some economists of the time felt it was urgent to put Nixon and Watergate behind the country so full attention could be given to the economy. But if their counsel prompted Ford to issue the pardon when he did, those economists did both the nation and the new president a disservice.

Although I disagreed, I always felt Ford truly believed it was essential for the country to move forward, and pardoning Nixon was the only way to do that — while he never managed to completely regain the trust he lost when he pardoned Nixon, Ford was an upfront kind of guy, determined to press on no matter how great the adversity.

And the adversity for Ford in the 1976 presidential campaign only got worse when John Dean, the man who first exposed the Watergate coverup, wrote in his book about the scandal that he had heard from another source that Ford had been involved in efforts to postpone a congressional investigation into Watergate until after the 1972 election, which would have made him an accessory.

I came from a family of Nixon haters, but I was willing to give Ford the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he was sincere when he said his motivation was to move the country forward. Perhaps it was that quality that made him an All–America center/linebacker and the acknowledged team leader at Michigan in the 1930s. (It was said Ford "would stay and fight in a losing cause.")

Perhaps that trait was honed even earlier, in his days as a Boy Scout.

Whatever the origin may have been, it forced even Ford's political adversaries to admit to a certain amount of admiration for the way he carried himself before, after and during his presidency.

1 comment:

Mike said...

He was a damn good man!