How Gerald Ford held the road

They made a lot of fuss over Gerald Ford when he died last week, and if you are younger than deep middle age, you may have wondered why people cared so much. After all, he was just one more boring long-ago politician, neither sexy nor a great speaker, who never uttered an original thought.

He was never elected to anything outside Grand Rapids. His presidency ended so long ago most people can't even remember his brief time at the top. If you knew anything about him, it probably was that he pardoned that crook Richard Nixon, and as a result was thrown out the first chance the voters got, three decades ago. Since then, he's played a lot of golf, and smiled and waved.

But here's why he mattered, and here's what you ought to know about him. Gerald Ford was as different from the out-of-control chucklehead now in the White House as night from day. He was a decent man who thought common sense was important, who liked people, who was honest, had a normal family and really did care about his country.

I knew him, by the way. Not well personally, but I followed his career intently, and met him a number of times. I spent two hours interviewing him in his home, primarily about Watergate, back in 1995.

He was in many ways a plodding conservative, one of the boys, who supported any president's foreign policy and any president's wars. Two years after our last troops left Vietnam, the North Vietnamese launched a full invasion of the South, and our brave allies collapsed like a house of cards. Even then, Ford wanted to send our former puppets more money, and start bombing again.

Congress told him no, no way, you aren't getting a penny for that, much as the Iraq study group told Dubya last month that his policy was a failure.

But here's the difference. George W. Bush, our narrow little bad joke of a leader, ignored the facts and the evidence and the experts last month, as he has done all along. Ford had a buddy named Robert Hartman, who wasn't afraid to yell at him when he thought Ford was doing something stupid.

Ford valued that. Bush surrounds himself with yes-men and -women and sycophants who tell him what he wants to hear. After the Iraq study group report, the Shrub, to the horror of everyone with a brain, began talking about a troop "surge" to throw even more men into Baghdad to be killed.

Gerald Ford was capable of rational thought. When he saw the game in Vietnam was up, he swallowed hard and then made a speech. He told his audience that the war was over, "as far as America was concerned."

Then he successfully lobbied a mostly hostile, heavily Democratic Congress to provide the money to evacuate our remaining diplomatic personnel, along with as many as possible of the Vietnamese who had made the mistake of casting their lot with us in their nation's long civil war.

And President Ford proclaimed an amnesty for draft evaders, trying to heal that wound too. Did he do it perfectly? Of course not.

But he tried. Ford came from Grand Rapids, for Babbitt's sake, back when that was a far stuffier and provincial stale white-bread town than it is today.

Yet as president he actually kept growing. Hard to remember now, but this funny old Ward Cleaver conservative firmly defended a woman's right to choose — and supported the Equal Rights Amendment for women.

Comedians made fun of Ford as a former football player who sometimes got his words jumbled up. But he in fact got into Yale Law School without family connections and graduated in the top third of his class. Dubya, who now sends boys to die, avoided combat in Vietnam. Gerald Ford was a World War II hero who saved the lives of many of his fellow soldiers when his ship caught fire in a typhoon. On virtually every level, Bush Minor barely qualifies to be Ford's caddy.

By the way — I was no fan of Ford's when he was president, especially not after he pardoned Richard Nixon a month after taking office. My wife and I were dating throughout the presidential campaign, rooted vigorously for Jimmy Carter, and still remember how happy we were on election night when Gerald Ford lost.

Yet history now suggests we were wrong. On all counts. Twenty years after the pardon, I flew to Rancho Mirage and talked to former President Ford. To my surprise, I learned that he absolutely loathed Richard Nixon.

Why? Nixon lied to him, as he did to everybody. Gerald Ford was a Boy Scout who had spent months and months attacking Nixon's critics and defending him. When he found out he'd been a patsy, that was it, forever.

Why then did he pardon him? Gerald Ford did something that I'll never forget as long as I live. He took a little piece of paper out of his wallet and handed it to me. It was a quotation from a 1915 Supreme Court decision, Burdick v. United States. It said something like "the acceptance of a pardon signifies admission of guilt." See? Ford told me with a smile.

Nixon may have deserved to go to jail, but Ford thought dragging him through a trial would have probably killed him, and made him a martyr in some circles. Plus, the nation had real troubles — inflation was soaring – and he felt we needed to get beyond Watergate and the corrupt, self-pitying Nixon.

But that wasn't the real reason Ford pardoned him. "I was spending 25 percent of my time dealing with Richard Nixon and his problems. America needed a full-time president," he explained. He told me he knew he would pay for it, knew it would probably cost him the election, as indeed it did.

He did it, however, because he thought it was the right thing for the country and all concerned, which is what presidents are supposed to do.

Before he died, pretty much everyone came to agree about the pardon. You can still argue that if the two-party system has any meaning, the Republicans needed to be tossed out after Watergate. But what haunts me is this: Had Ford won that election, we would have been spared Ronald Reagan.

Almost certainly, some liberal-to-moderate Democrat would have been elected in 1980, and not on a platform of making rich greedheads richer.

This might be a different nation today. Gerald Ford, whatever his faults, left this nation in better shape when he left the White House than when he arrived. And of how many presidents since then can we say the same?


Worst and the Stupidest update: Unfortunately, David Halberstam, author of The Best and the Brightest, the classic study of how we blundered into Vietnam, is not known to be writing a book about Iraq.

But wouldn't The Worst and the Stupidest be the perfect title? Speaking of martyrs, by the time you read this Our Iraqi Puppets may have already hanged our former client Saddam Hussein. He was, you may remember, a murderous, not-very-bright thug who made the mistake in 1990 of crossing the Cosa Nostra on the Potomac.

Four years ago, we went after him with all the delicacy of a jackhammer in an operating room, and helped create the present mess. Now we are going to make things even worse by turning Saddam into a martyr. Is common sense an automatic disqualification for service in President Chucklehead's regime?

Never mind. We know the answer.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]
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