Most obituarists portrayed President Gerald Ford as a humble man with few ambitions, a great conciliator, a political moderate, an all around nice guy. They may have the “nice guy” part right but the rest is pure hokum.
Ford’s genius was in knowing that Americans will take people at their own self-description. In his vice presidential confirmation hearings, the Michigan congressman promised to be “a ready conciliator between the White House and Capitol Hill.” He described himself alternately as a moderate, a fiscal conservative, and an internationalist to anybody who would listen. He was also for ice cream and against needless human suffering.
But beneath the soft talk, goofy grin, and crazy tie beat the heart of a relentless partisan with ambition to burn. That many of his decisions have been used to argue for a Picasso-like portrait of the man simply goes to prove that the past is a different country — the Seventies doubly so.
Ford is said to have been humble and lacking in ambition because he had the presidency thrust on him. His wife has let it be known that she didn’t want him to accept it. She wanted him to run for one more term in his district, his thirteenth, then retire. Ford’s self-effacing humor is thrown in as the clincher: Didn’t he claim to be “a Ford, not a Lincoln” in his acceptance speech?
So what? Self-effacing humor is the least risky kind as long as it’s used in moderation. Speechwriters routinely put a few light barbs into politicians’ mouths in order to take the sting out of more serious criticisms. If Ford was humble, he was humble like a fox.
As for ambition, it’s possible that Mrs. Ford would have prevailed on her husband to retire, but (a) that’s not what happened, and (b) one does not rise to the post of Minority Leader through self-renunciation. Moreover, here is one huge problem with portrayals of Ford as reluctant president: He ran for reelection in 1976.
Movement conservatives tend to view that campaign through the lens of Ronald Reagan’s primary challenge and Ford’s disastrous foreign policy answers during the presidential debates. They see Ford as the last gasp of the old Republican establishment — a man so clueless that he picked Nelson Rockefeller as vice president, so inarticulate that he lost a debate to Jimmy Carter, so stubborn that he wouldn’t bow out of the race in favor of a superior candidate.
There is another way to look at it that doesn’t read nearly so much of the present into the past. During his legislative career, Ford was a dealmaker but he was also a partisan. He led the doomed fight against LBJ’s Great Society programs and he was involved in the effort to impeach Supreme Court Justice William Douglas. He may have been a nice guy but he was also a fighter.
Ford accepted the vice presidency after Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace and then gave speech after speech in defense of President Nixon. His rationale for the blanket pardon of Nixon was dressed up in the language of national healing — and I’ve no reason to doubt that Ford believed this — but it was also meant to stop the slow bleed of support for the Republican Party.
It didn’t work. In the ’74 midterm elections, Republicans lost 49 seats in the House — one for each state Nixon had carried two years earlier — and several in the Senate. It ushered in arguably the most radical Congress since the Republican Congresses of the Civil War period.
Ford did what he could to limit the damage, starting with a vigorous use of the veto power. In eight years, President Reagan would rack up 78 vetoes; Ford managed to send 66 bills back to Congress in just two-and-a-half years, and cobbled together a large enough coalition to uphold most of those vetoes. His initial refusal to bail New York City out of its financial mess led to the famous New York Times headline “Ford, Castigating City, Asserts He’d Veto Fund Guarantee; Offers Bankruptcy Bill.”
Then Ford won a hard fight for his party’s nomination and ran a bruising laryngitis-wracked campaign for the presidency. He closed a huge gap to put him within a few thousand votes of being returned to the White House. It was the only election he ever lost.
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