Term in Office: 38th president, 1974-1977
Political Party: Republican
Home State: Michigan
Three ex-presidents have passed away in my lifetime: Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Gerald Ford. Each respective death prompted a mostly-inaccurate assessment of their presidency that became an epitaph, a mantra, or received wisdom, over the years: Ronald Reagan ended the Cold War (he didn’t), Nixon wasn’t that bad (he was), and my favorite, Gerald Ford made a courageous choice by pardoning Nixon.
Ultimately, how you feel about Gerald Ford probably comes down to how you feel about the Nixon pardon because it set the tone for nearly every subsequent decision that President Ford made. It established early on that Ford would try to make his presidency a less imperial one, but at the same time would continue the same policies, and in many cases the same personnel, as the Nixon administration had before him.
Now, I hasten to add, a case for the Nixon pardon can be made; it isn’t a case I agree with, but it has its own internal logic. Watergate had dominated headlines for 18 months by the time Nixon resigned, and it was nearly impossible to discuss politics or current events without touching upon the scandal in some way. It is certainly possible that Ford believed in sincerity that a clean, final break from the matter was necessary for the United States to move on and address the pressing matters of inflation, high gas prices, and plummeting manufacturing. It was also later revealed that Nixon was gravely ill soon after his resignation, and Ford’s pardon kept a very sick man out of a very unrelenting spotlight at a time when his health was in serious jeopardy.
Here’s why I disagree. Consider for a moment the case of a Vietnam-era draft evader. Take, for example, someone who disagreed with the war so vehemently as a matter of conscience, that he refused to fight, whether serving time in jail or fleeing to Canada. Ford pardoned these draft evaders, too, but with conditions attached: a two-year public service requirement. That is fairly generous, and not out of character with clemencies doled out after nearly every American war; no war can end without a degree of forgiveness. But the settling of justice was conspicuously uneven. Someone who followed their conscience at great cost over the war received a more severe punishment than a world leader who knowingly and maliciously broke the law and subverted the criminal justice system for personal political gain. Even worse, the Vietnam draft evaders would have to stand trial. Nixon was pardoned without any trial or sentence whatsoever; it wasn’t just that he got pardoned, he never had to answer for his crimes in the first place! Timothy Noah over at Slate nailed it when he wrote seven years ago that “it’s never a good idea to pardon somebody without at least finding out what you are pardoning him for.” Watching Nixon go free added a layer of cynicism to an already cynical people: leaders played by a very different set of rules than ordinary people. This is a ruinous attitude for a democracy.
When everybody I have ever met over the age of 55 feels scarred in some way by Watergate, and still feels a sense of anger and betrayal over the event, it may be safe to say that Ford did not fully “heal the nation”, and the “long national nightmare” as he put it, was far from over. America needed, frankly, something of a Truth and Reconciliation Committee to learn the extent of the crimes of Nixon (and some of his predecessors), and in failing to get it, America lost its trust in many public institutions during the 1970s. Along with many other factors, it contributed to an introverted Me-Decade 1970s, and a selfish and privatized 1980s, ending the spirit of high-minded public service that accompanied Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961.
Ford helmed an administration that just couldn’t get its mojo working. Before he became president, he never had to campaign outside of his small, heavily Republican congressional district centered around Grand Rapids, and it showed. His public speaking ability was dreadful, and he could not generate enthusiasm or support for his ideas among the wider public. He inherited a bad economy from Nixon, falling to shambles from a rise in foreign manufacturing competition, tremors from the disassociation from the gold standard, and oil price shocks in the Middle East. Although friendly with the press, and keen to communicate with the American people through frequent Rose Garden press conferences, Ford was unable to project much confidence. Perhaps the most remembered attempt to do so was an ill-starred campaign to “Whip Inflation Now”, with little to show for it beyond some buttons with “WIN” emblazoned on them. He also had the bad fortune to serve as president during the inaugural season of Saturday Night Live, and was on the receiving end of a caricturized and unflattering portrayal that would never have been shown on television even a few years earlier.
My big problem with many presidents who served in the last 40 years is their unfamiliarity with Congress. Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush 43 never served in the body before becoming president, and it showed. In contrast, Ford knew Congress intimately, and served longer in our national legislature than any other 20th century president. His relationship with Congress was cordial and often bore good fruit born of compromise, but with the Democrats sweeping the 1974 election (sometimes called the Watergate Election), Ford often butted heads with the legislature. What many people forget about Ford is his proficiency with the veto pen. His 66 vetoes is the highest number among one-term presidents in American history. A number of environmental bills and pro-labor bills were struck down; Ford was, you will recall, an emissary of the “pro-business wing” of his party. His attempts to rehabilitate the economy through tax credits by and large did not work, and succeeded only at increasing the deficit. And, of course, he was reluctant to help New York City stave off a potentially disastrous bankruptcy, resulting in the famous headline, “Ford to NYC: Drop Dead” that cost him any real chance of winning New York in the ’76 election. Reagan became such an icon to the conservative movement that we have forgotten in hindsight that Ford was more conservative for his era than fellow Republicans Eisenhower, Nixon, and even to an extent Herbert Hoover.
And yet, there was a reasonableness to Ford that is very admirable in hindsight- one reason why nondescript “Empty Carriages” are generally in the third quartile of presidents in this ranking, rather than the lowest. He supported the ERA, no doubt with some pushing from his ebullient wife Betty, one of the great First Ladies. Ford also wins points in my book for Operation Babylift, and other attempts to allow more than 130,000 refugees from South Vietnam to resettle in the United States. He never punished his enemies, and rarely behaved in a vindictive manner. Bonus points for a fantastic selection with his one lone Supreme Court nomination, John Paul Stevens (who was maybe a step right of center when nominated in the 70s, but those very same views were considered liberal when he stepped down in 2010.) Ford also had an overtly religious streak (his son was in seminary for most of his presidency), and deserves credit for never playing it up for political purposes, as other presidents, most conspicuously Carter, have done. Fundamentally, Gerald Ford was a diligent worker who wanted his country to recover from the sundry crises of the 1970s, and tried his best to help his countrymen over that hump. One of America’s least imaginative presidents, he was also one of its least ideological, his conservatism being more of a temperament than a philosophy.
One place where Ford loses a little more luster is my “value over replacement player” theory. When I ranked Jimmy Carter, I talked about how so many Democrats of the time could have done a better job. The same is true, to a lesser extent, with Ford. Consider that ’74-77 could have had President Nelson Rockefeller, or President Charles Percy, President Daniel Evans, or my favorite of these, President Mark Hatfield. All three would have complemented Ford’s experience with a sense of leadership and vision, and could have established a cleaner break with the Nixon administration. We ought to be thankful, however: a President Spiro Agnew could very well have been the consensus choice for worst president in American history if he hadn’t been compelled to resign the vice-presidency. Given the choice, we are very lucky that Ford was in the driver’s seat.
So, I miss Ford, and just because I think he is a below average president doesn’t mean that I think he was a bad guy or anything. He liked to joke that he was “a Ford, not a Lincoln,” and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I was genuinely saddened when he died in 2006. Virtually everyone who worked with the man agreed that he was a “plodder”, never brilliant, but persistent and consistent. He favored the powerful over the marginalized just a little too much for my tastes, as seen in his use of the veto and, to bring things full circle, his pardon of Nixon. Uninspiring but significantly more honest than his predecessor, Ford winds up in the nondescript “empty carriage” category and sits at #27 in this ranking.