Thursday, December 28, 2006

President Ford
December 28, 2006

The abiding cliché about Gerald Ford -- who died Tuesday at age 93 -- is that he was a decent man who steadied the country but held the White House too briefly to leave a major imprint. We've always thought that view of his Presidency is too diminishing, not least because he led the nation at a dangerous time and resisted political furies that could have done the U.S. far more harm.

"America's Suicide Attempt" is how the historian Paul Johnson describes the 1970s. And it is important to recall the bad temper of the times that Ford inherited in becoming the 38th President. He succeeded Richard Nixon, who had resigned over the Watergate coverup and amid an unpopular war in Vietnam. He faced large liberal majorities in Congress that were emboldened by their ouster of Nixon and set to revive the Great Society. And he had to clean up the financial problems caused by a burst of inflation and wage and price controls. Ford navigated all of these traumas better than he gets credit for.

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It is true that Ford was something of an accidental President, the only one in U.S. history never elected as either President or Vice President. Before Nixon picked him to replace the disgraced Spiro Agnew as his Vice President, Ford had been contemplating retirement from his Grand Rapids, Michigan, House seat. But like another unlikely President from the Midwest, Harry Truman, he had reserves of honesty and fortitude that served him well.

He made a particular contribution in pardoning Nixon, though he knew Nixon's enemies would accuse him of a quid pro quo. The decision cost him dearly in the polls and may have cost him the election in 1976, but it also spared the country from years of division over a criminal trial that special prosecutor Leon Jaworski seemed determined to pursue.

Congress had trampled over a weakened Nixon, and another Ford contribution was restoring some measure of executive authority. Far more than Nixon, he used his veto pen (66 times in 895 days), blunting liberal excesses after Democrats picked up 46 House seats in 1974. He also deserves credit for resisting the isolationism that was rampant as the Vietnam War wound down. It was a rare period in postwar U.S. history when the public favored spending less on defense.

Democrats exploited the mood in early 1975 to block Ford's funding request for our allies in South Vietnam, as the North began its offensive. Ford pleaded with Congress that "American unwillingness to provide adequate assistance to allies fighting for their lives could seriously affect our credibility throughout the world as an ally," but to no avail. Saigon fell by April, and the boat people and massacres in Southeast Asia soon followed. Thus one irony of this week's praise for Ford as a unifying President: At the time, he was mocked as clumsy and dull, and he was vilified for blocking Congressional priorities. Any of this sound familiar?

Vietnam was a scarring American defeat, but it could have been worse had Ford capitulated to the Congressional stampede. Instead, he fortified U.S. relations with the rest of free Asia, and he sent in the Marines despite liberal howls when the U.S. ship the Mayaguez was taken hostage by Cambodia's Khmer Rouge.

Given the weak hand he inherited, it is perhaps understandable that Ford continued the Nixon policy of pursuing détente and arms control with the Soviet Union. But that strategy was already beginning to fail due to growing Soviet adventurism abroad and conservative skepticism at home. Ford also joined Leonid Brezhnev in signing the Helsinki Accords guaranteeing civil liberties in the Soviet bloc; while criticized by conservatives, the Helsinki pact probably helped to undermine Soviet moral authority over the years.

The Ford Administration's economic record is also better than its reputation, sandwiched as it was between two of the three worst economic Presidencies of the 20th century. Hoover's was the worst, then Nixon's followed by Jimmy Carter's.

Ford is famous for having initially rebuffed New York City's bid for a financial bailout, but New York's trouble was merely one symptom of the financial woes caused by Federal Reserve Chairman Arthur Burns's monetary blunder. Burns opened the easy-money spigots in Nixon's first term, leading to 12% inflation, a spike in interest rates and wage and price controls, and setting the stage for financial crises from Mexico to Britain, among other places. Despite such early follies as the WIN program -- "whip inflation now" -- and a failed proposal to raise taxes, Ford ran a strong Treasury under Secretary William Simon, adopted sounder policies and left the economy better than he found it.

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In historical political terms, Ford was something of a transition figure -- from the traditional Republicanism of Eisenhower, with which Ford identified, to the more energetic reform conservatism that would triumph with Reagan. Arguably Ford's biggest political mistake was choosing Nelson Rockefeller as his vice president over Reagan. The New York Governor was deeply unpopular with the GOP base, and the selection left Ford vulnerable to Reagan's primary challenge in 1976.

The Gipper came within a handful of delegates of taking the nomination, a challenge that weakened Ford for the autumn race against Democrat Jimmy Carter. In the event, Ford ran one of the better Presidential campaigns of the modern era and came close to beating the former Georgia governor who had run as a conservative himself.

Perhaps President Ford's greatest achievement was in demonstrating to a nation angry and dispirited over Watergate and Vietnam that its political system was resilient and the Office of the Presidency still worthy of respect. In that sense his Presidency was a triumph of Ford's personal character -- not the first, or last, time America has been fortunate in the leaders our democracy has produced.

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