AN ACCIDENTAL LEGEND: Gerald Ford and his outspoken wife, Betty, shook up and cleaned out the White House, before getting the boot.
It is the great irony of Gerald Ford’s public life that he is remembered so fondly in death because he lost an election. In losing the presidency to Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ford’s political persona was indelibly stamped: he was the accidental president who did the right thing for his country, even though it cost him the White House.
That Ford did the right thing now seems clear. With the national mood so thoroughly poisoned by Watergate, his decision to pardon Richard Nixon prompted a firestorm of protest; Ford’s approval ratings dropped 40 points amid accusations of a “secret deal,” and he was excoriated by many of us who now praise him. But, though some continue to disagree, the verdict of history has come down squarely on Ford’s side: the pardon really did help the nation bind up the wounds of Watergate and put the long national nightmare of Nixon’s presidency behind us.
Ford’s subsequent loss to Carter cemented his reputation as the ultimate stand-up guy — but had he won, the pardon would not have seemed nearly so courageous, and Ford’s legacy would likely have been defined by the same intractable problems that plagued Carter.
Everyman, know thyself
Many of the eulogists who praised Ford over the past week cast him as a sort of likeable Everyman — an accurate portrayal, if Everyman had been a college football star, men’s-fashion model, Yale-educated lawyer, 13-term congressman, and a member of the Warren Commission. Ford was, in fact, a highly accomplished man, but his public image was much less than the sum of its parts.
Blame it on Ford’s Midwestern stodginess, or on his habit of genial self-deprecation, or on the inevitable comparisons with the brilliant, but twisted Nixon. Perhaps most accurately, blame it on Chevy Chase, who got rich making Ford look like a pratfalling buffoon. But Ford was smart enough to know what he didn’t know, secure enough to surround himself with aides more brilliant than he, and strong enough to make hard decisions and take full responsibility for them. It’s been a long time since any resident of the White House fit that description.
Not that Ford had the makings of a great president; far from it. He was too much the hidebound conservative on economic policy: at a time when stagflation and the energy crisis were making a mess of our economy, his only response, it seemed, was to veto any social-spending bill that crossed his desk. Nor was he a visionary: his administration’s fundamental approach was limited to building on Nixon’s successes (the opening to China and détente with the Soviets) and cleaning up Nixon’s messes (Watergate, Vietnam, and national economic policy).
Still, Ford was a good president because he did what the nation needed him to do. He swept up after the elephant of Watergate, restored confidence in the institutions of national government, and humanized a presidency that under Nixon had bordered on the imperial, if not the sociopathic. Ford could do all that because he really was what he seemed to be — an immensely decent, honest, and unassuming man who usually tried to do the right thing and often succeeded.