Let Gerald Ford show the way.
Thirty-three years ago today, President Richard M. Nixon announced that he would resign the presidency. The next day, on Aug. 9, 1974, Gerald Ford took office with one of the finest, and still most underrated, speeches in modern American history. Amidst all the vitriol of Watergate, Ford’s speech reminded Americans of the great things that unite us. American politicians today would do well to recapture both Ford’s tone and the timeless parts of Ford’s substance. I sense that the American people deeply hunger for similar, unifying themes in public life again, and that they would reward politicians who believably offer such themes.
After just a couple of basic introductory sentences, Ford quickly began achieving real eloquence with these words: “I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your President by your ballots, and so I ask you to confirm me as your President with your prayers.”
He then turned his lack of national election into a strength: “If you have not chosen me by secret ballot, neither have I gained office by any secret promises. I have not campaigned either for the Presidency or the Vice Presidency. I have not subscribed to any partisan platform. I am indebted to no man, and only to one woman — my dear wife — as I begin this very difficult job.”
He followed with some concise and effective encomiums to peace and to candor in government, citing (without overly showy emphasis) Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln as he did so. Then came the most famous line of the speech, followed by four more sentences of appropriate grace:
My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule. But there is a higher Power, by whatever name we honor Him, who ordains not only righteousness but love, not only justice but mercy. As we bind up the internal wounds of Watergate, more painful and more poisonous than those of foreign wars, let us restore the golden rule to our political process, and let brotherly love purge our hearts of suspicion and of hate.
Ford proceeded to ask for prayers for Nixon and Nixon’s family. And then came a wonderful, simple, heartfelt closing:
With all the strength and all the good sense I have gained from life, with all the confidence my family, my friends, and my dedicated staff impart to me, and with the good will of countless Americans I have encountered in recent visits to 40 States, I now solemnly reaffirm my promise I made to you last December 6: to uphold the Constitution, to do what is right as God gives me to see the right, and to do the very best I can f or America. God helping me, I will not let you down.
Note several things about this short speech. First, note the appeals to common purpose and common political heritage. Quite correctly, he took it for granted that we as a people do indeed share the same cultural touchstones: Jefferson, Lincoln, the Constitution, ballots, the “republic,” a “government of laws and not of men.”
Second, note the repeated, natural-sounding, utterly unself-conscious and unashamed references to God and to prayers. The references were appropriate, and they did not cause the slightest stir. They were accepted as being exactly what they were: Not as politicized “wedge” words, but as a normal and natural reaction by a good and decent man to the imposition of a large responsibility in trying times. From the very first days of our republic, humble appeals to The Almighty — our “Creator,” “under God,” “so help me, God,” the “Supreme Judge of the World,” “divine Providence,” “fervently do we pray” — have been part and parcel of our communal language as a nation.
Such language is not “Bible thumping.” It should not be seen as an affront to anybody. It is part of our culture and our everyday tongue, part of the warp and woof of our lives. It is unifying. And there was a time when even those who do not believe in God understood that it did no harm for others to ask for God’s blessing upon us all.
There are all sorts of explanations, but no good reasons, for our culture today to seem fractured, Balkanized. If done correctly, and with sincerity, appeals to our commonality should be able to work as well as they always have before. When and if we are reminded of it, Americans still will recognize that we are uniquely united by a set of ideas — that our nationality is a matter of conscious choice, conscious subscription to the notion that governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” And that the governed enjoy God-given and unalienable rights.
Any leaders who appeal to these overarching themes of our heritage in an unforced, humble, duty-filled conversation with the American people will be leaders to whom Americans respond well. Gerald Ford, not commonly remembered as the most eloquent of men, provided eloquent testimony to those truths.
We all should strive to find ways in our own lives to do the same.
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