These days, when people speak abstractly about the kind of President the country needs, they usually say that it should be someone with legislative experience, who can reach across the aisle to compromise with the other party, who can make difficult decisions, and who enjoys the respect, even friendship of other world leaders, thus improving the international standing of the United States.
In my lifetime, we had just such a President, and no one appreciated him much. He still receives only occasional credit from history and policy geeks, and makes little impression on the public memory, never showing up on anyone’s list of the greatest Presidents. And yet, the closer you look at the actual record, the more of a gem he appears to have been.
I am talking of course about Gerald R. Ford.
I can hear the gasps now. Wait, you say, you mean the guy who fell down the stairs of Air Force One and helped launch the career of Chevy Chase and “Saturday Night Live?” The guy whose name graces the title of one of John Updike’s lamer late novels? The guy who pardoned Richard Nixon? That Gerald Ford?
Yes, Gerald Ford.
President Ford came into office literally as a white knight, chosen for his stolid probity to replace disgraced Vice President Spiro Agnew, and eventually to succeed the even more disgraced Nixon upon the latter’s resignation. He inherited a country in political and economic free fall, and a Presidency so tarnished that it had lost all contact with the public. In his two years in office, he worked hard to reestablish the nation’s political equilibrium, and left the nation better off than when he took over.
Ford is famous for two quotations, which I believe sum up his virtues. The first was his statement upon being sworn as President, “Our long national nightmare is over.” The second was at when he accepted the Vice Presidency and proclaimed, “I’m a Ford, not a Lincoln.”
That second quotation reflects Ford’s basic humility before the responsibilities of his office. Humility means a lot, especially after the incredible, even criminal arrogance of the Nixon team. Ford set about re-establishing humble government. When his controversial decision to pardon Nixon—a decision motivated in large part by a genuine if perhaps misguided desire to heal the country’s wounds and return to the business of governing—led to public outcry, he agreed to testify about it to Congress. Such respect for the authority of the Legislative has been rare among Presidents before or since.
Ford was in many ways the last gasp of a branch of the Republic party that has been in retreat ever since—northern, small-c conservatives driven more by a sense of national duty than ideological enthusiasm. Ford would never be mistaken for a particularly eloquent speaker, or a crusader, but he was known and respected for his honesty and his commitment to hard work. As he admitted himself to the Republican National Convention in 1976, “To me, the Presidency and the Vice-Presidency were not prizes to be won, but a duty to be done.”
As a former House Minority Leader, Ford had plenty of experience working with the other party, and his political outlook was built around compromise. As he described his attitudes when he received the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999:
“Some people equate civility with weakness and compromise with surrender. I strongly disagree. I come by my political pragmatism the hard way, for my generation paid a very heavy price in resistance to the century we had of some extremists—to the dictators, the utopians, the social engineers who are forever condemning the human race for being all too human.”
That is a spirit we could use more of today.
Ford also repaired America’s standing abroad by rebuilding ties to allies alienated by the unilateralism of Nixon’s last years. He forged close and respectful relationships with leaders such as West Germany’s famously prickly Helmut Schmidt (whose frosty relationship with Jimmy Carter poisoned alliance politics in the late 1970s) and France’s Valery Giscard d’Estaing, establishing the transatlantic economic cooperation that has blossomed into the G-20. Ford embraced pragmatic détente, leading the United States to the Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and pushing forward arms control negotiations with the Soviets.
For his trouble, he faced a conservative uprising within the Republican Party in 1976. He had to fight off Ronald Reagan for the nomination in a bruising primary season that led to one of the last national convention whose outcome was not known before it opened. Ford prevailed at the convention, making him the first and last person ever to defeat Ronald Reagan head to head.
Conservatives never could warm to him after that, and have never known quite what to think about Ford, especially after Reagan’s rousing success after 1980. Liberals, of course, could never forgive the Nixon pardon. Even with such strong critics on Right and Left, however, at a time when Republicans were hammered nationwide by an electorate still disgusted by Watergate, Ford lost the 1976 election in a squeaker to Jimmy Carter. The election result captures well the public’s paradoxical appreciation of Ford. That a Republican lost the first post-Watergate presidential election was certainly no great surprise; that the result was so close is a sign of how much genuine respect people had for Ford’s accomplishments. Carter’s greatest virtue was his utter lack of national experience, which appealed to those who wanted an outsider to come in and clean up Washington, and was enough to tip the balance against Ford’s Washington insider credentials. Of course, that lack of Washington experience helped Carter go on to become one of the most famous failed actual presidents and popular ex-presidents of all time, opening the door to Reagan’s landslide in 1980.
That 1976 election offers much food for counterfactual thought. If Ford had won the full term he deserved in 1976, it is unlikely that Reagan would have won in 1980. Indeed, it is probably more likely that Vice President Bob Dole (Ford’s 1976 running mate) would have been the Republican nominee if Ford himself did not run, probably against Ted Kennedy for the Democrats. Think about that one for a moment. If Ford wins in 1976, there is no Carter Catastrophe, and probably no Reagan Revolution either. The entire American political landscape would look much different today. My conservative friends are of course happy about how things turned out, but I hope liberal readers are shuddering as they contemplate what might have been. Hope electing Jimmy Carter was worth it, libs…
Ultimately, it is not surprising that Ford lost in 1976, and that he has been underappreciated ever since. As much as analysts claim to respect centrist pragmatism and the ability to work the Washington system, political observers no less than the electorate as a whole often disregard the solid steady glow of dutiful managers in favor of flashy characters with big slogans and hollow cores. Just ask that other one-term wonder whose solid record of accomplishment did not save him from defeat at the hands of a megalomaniacal rival and a putative outsider. George H. W. Bush looks a lot better these days, too.
That, however, is the subject of a different essay.