A GERALD FORD TRIBUTE

 

By H. Scott Prosterman

 

 

 

            The passing of President Gerald R. Ford calls to mind the

evolution of American politics since he served.  When America’s only

“Accidental President” succeeded Richard Nixon, many Americans thought,

“What are the odds?”  Nixon selected Ford to replace the disgraced Spiro

Agnew as Vice-President, in part, because he offered a refreshing candor and

honesty, in contrast to Agnew and Nixon himself.

 

            For some, Ford’s most memorable act was the pardon of Nixon. But

that memory must be balanced by the fact that he also pardoned ALL the draft

resisters and evaders from the Vietnam era.  That single act of conscience

may have cost him re-election in 1980.

 

            The rise of Ronald Reagan and the Far Right-wing politics was a

reaction against Ford’s thoughtfulness and elements of liberalism.  During

Reagan’s preliminary run for President in 1976, he trotted out the Panama

Canal jingoism and a promise of Gunboat Diplomacy.  Ford’s sober-minded

presidency presented a stark contrast, and made Reagan look scary to most

Americans.

 

            While Ford worked with the Soviets to finalize Détente, and with

China to open trade and ease tension, Reagan ran against all that.  Reagan’s

Presidency was a gross over-reaction to liberalism of the 1970’s, and the

moderate politics of Ford.  Because Ford did not serve enough raw meat to

Republicans, Reagan became their guy in 1980.  One commentator noted,

“Reagan ran against Détente.”

 

            This represented the transition from bi-partisanship in American

politics, to the politics of alienation that Reagan perfected, and which

Bush Jr. has carried even further.  Regrettably, the current President Bush

has taken ONLY from the playbooks of Nixon and Reagan, engendering an even

greater sense of alienation for many Americans.  When Bush Jr. marketed his

compassionate conservatism” during his first campaign, many American were

duped into believing that Ford was to have been the role model.  Other

Republicans seemed to know they were getting recycled Nixon advisors,

ideology and secrecy.  Once again, the political pendulum is swinging the

other way, as Americans have seen the destruction and unprecedented mistrust

of government that Bush Jr. has wrought.

 

            Ford was also known for a few boneheaded comments in his day,

but 1000’s fewer than Bush Jr. has uttered.  During the 1980 Presidential

Debate, he made the comment that the Poles didn’t mind being occupied by the

Soviet Union.  Some say THAT cost him the election.

 

            Tip O’Neil once said that Ford had “played too much football

without a helmet.”  While this was delivered in a sense of bi-partisan,

collegial jest, it wrongly morphed into a condemnation of Ford’s

intelligence.  But Ford was not above self-deprecation over this.  In 1973,

I served as an intern in the House.  One day, all pages and interns were

assembled to hear a welcoming speech from Ford, who was House Minority

Leader.  At one point in his talk, he mentioned O’Neil’s remark about too

much football without a helmet.  For the next sentence, he pretended to lose

his train of thought, and most of us stood up and applauded with laughter.

 

            To his credit, Ford initiated a badly needed healing process in

the wake of Watergate and Vietnam.  Pardoning Nixon and the draft resisters

facilitated that.  While many people would have preferred to have Nixon

subjected to the Justice System, historical hindsight indicates the pardon

may have been the right move.

 

            Ford’s passing also reminds us that there actually used to be a

liberal branch of the Republican Party called the Ripon Society.  That has

become such an anachronism that the Ripon Society’s website now sheepishly

states that it “seeks to be the conscience of the Republican Party.”  Is it

too cynical to ask, “How can you be the conscience of a party that has

none?”

 

            If there ever IS to be a moderate wing of the Republican Party

again, it might be called the Gerald R. Ford Society.