Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

A Progressive Democrat Pays Tribute to Gerald Ford.

I was only 12 years old in 1974 when Gerald R. Ford (1913-2006) became the 38th President of the United States. Although I followed national and international politics even then, I knew nothing about his career as a U. S. Representative. Only one thing mattered to the young man I was: Ford wasn’t Richard M. Nixon. He had to be an improvement. But then, he pardoned Nixon. whom I, with all the self-righteousness of an adolescent, desperately wanted to spend the rest of his life in jail. So, I had little appreciation for Ford at the time.

With hindsight and the maturity that supposedly comes with middle age, I am prepared to be kinder to Ford on this first day of his funeral proceedings. In my view, he was the last decent Republican president of the 20th C. I now think that his pardon of Nixon, at least for the Watergate crimes, did allow the nation to heal. I am grateful to that and have been for some years. Until the George W. Bush administration (reign of terror), I even credited the U.S. public with having learned from that era that no one is above the law. We worked, after all, to stop similar abuses of power during the Iran-Contra crimes of Ronald Reagan –though he himself escaped. But lately, I wonder if all many people learned was “don’t get caught,” and always have someone prepared to pardon you. But that isn’t Ford’s fault. At great personal cost, he did what he needed to do to heal the nation.

Even more important, Ford ended the Vietnam war in 1975. When he took office, he announced “our long national nightmare is over,” referring to Watergate. But Vietnam was a much longer nightmare, beginning in 1945 when the British and the U.S. toppled the new (and, at the time, non-Communist–Ho first wanted to model Vietnam’s proposed constitution after the U.S. one and his initial declaration of independence drew on French and U.S. precedents) independent government of Ho Chi Minh to return Vietnam to France as a colony. (Lt. Col. A. Peter Dewey, head of the OSS mission in Vietnam, was the first U.S. casualty of the Vietnam War, dying in 1945.) Ford had neither started this debacle (Truman was president when it began), nor increased it as had Eisenhower, Johnson, and Nixon–a bi-partisan policy of imperialist tragedy. Three decades later, Gerald R. Ford had the courage to end this horrible war.
In general, neither Republicans nor Democrats have been appreciative enough of Ford’s role in ending the Vietnam War. Democrats have been divided into hawks who thought LBJ was right in his war policies and doves who emphasized that JFK had been seriously thinking of getting the U.S. out when he was shot and that Bobby Kennedy would have ended the war in ’68 had he not been shot and then gone on to defeat Nixon. Peace activists have, rightly, emphasized the role of citizens in forcing the government to end the war. Republicans, including those members of Ford’s cabinet (Cheney, & Rumsfeld, especially) who have continuously been recycled into various GOP administrations ever since, have ridiculed Ford as the “only U.S. president to lose a war.” (Is that claim even true? George Washington was involved in losing wars with the Native American nations prior to becoming head of the Continental Army in the U.S. Revolution. And in the War of 1812, Thomas Jefferson fought to a draw and the Canadians pushed invading U.S. troops back across the border.)[Update: As John of the Locusts and Honey blog reminded me, Jefferson sought to stop the British impression of U.S. citizens to work on British ships by means of an embargo. War didn’t break out until after James Madison became president.]
It seems to me that the GOP should have been far more grateful to Ford. Okay, he lost a presidency that he received without ever being elected to Jimmy Carter in 1976. He probably saved the Republican Party. Without Ford’s efforts in healing the nation from Watergate, removing most of Nixon’s appointees from the cabinet, and, especially, ending the Vietnam war, it is unlikely that the GOP could have elected anyone to high office for decades. Now, that might not have been a bad thing, from my perspective, but Republicans ought to be far more grateful.
Ford addressed the Southern Baptist Convention in 1975 and this lifelong Episcopalian celebrated the Baptist dedication to church-state separation. Who could have known that both the Republican Party and the Southern Baptists would abandon that commitment within a few years.
His was the last Republican presidency that was dedicated to decency, didn’t play to religious fanaticism, worked for bi-partisan solutions to problems, and was dedicated to supporting the United Nations. Although considered more conservative than his VP Nelson Rockefeller, Ford really exemplified many of the traits that we associate with the term “Rockefeller Republicans.” (He regretted to his dying day caving to conservative pressures to drop Rockefeller from the ticket when he ran for election in ’76. His VP running mate, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, would later run for president himself, with no more success.)
After losing to Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ford and Carter became friends. And the two ex-presidents have done much good together, with Ford playing a major role on the board of the Carter Center in helping it to be truly bi-partisan as Ford raised funds from GOP donors.
In all, I think that most of us underappreciated Ford at the time and many do so still. He may have been one of the last humble public servants: he made his own breakfast, cleaned up the carpet after his dog made a mess, laughed along with Chevy Chase at the Ford clumsiness which launched Chase’s career. He stood by his wife, Betty, in her struggles with breast cancer (she was one of the earliest “public women” to admit to having had a mastectomy–in our very breast-obsessed culture) and with addiction to alcohol and pain pills. The Betty Ford Clinic has since saved many from similar addictions.
Ford will never be one of my heroes. I think if he had won the presidency in his own right, he would have continued the Republican favoritism of business interests over common people–but probably not the ultra-harsh economic policies that began in Reagan’s era. Ford will never be on any list of my 100 most admired politicians. But maybe he was the right person for the Oval Office for the time–and certainly he brought more honor to that office than either his predecessor or any of the GOP presidents since. GOP partisans who wish to rebuild their party after the November “thumpin’,” (which, if the Dems don’t totally screw up, will continue in ’08–especially if we are still in Iraq) would do well to look to Ford as one of their models for a new kind of GOP politician–but I doubt they will.

December 29, 2006 Posted by | politics | 1 Comment