|Noted in Passing|
It's time for another assessment. Over Christmas weekend former president Gerald Ford passed away, at his home out here in Rancho Mirage, the wealthy golf course enclave next to Palm Springs. He was ninety-three and he did like golf. Those of us old enough to remember the day-to-day of his tenure in the White House recall the only appointed president - he replaced the crook Spiro Agnew, the man who pled no contest on some bribery matters and faded way to his place on the hill in Saint Croix in the Virgin Island overlooking Cane Bay. Ford became president when Nixon resigned, and lost the office to Jimmy Carter in the next election. So he was the only president in our history who was never elected at all. The obituaries are all over the media, many of them showing him puffing on his pipe - he had fine collection of more than fifty of them. Those of us who smoke pipes note such things. And there was his outspoken feminist wife, Betty, who was a real kick - and he obviously both liked and respected her tremendously. He had been an All-American football star at University of Michigan, a center (those of us who have played that position in high school know that's a solid no-glory spot), and decided not to sign with the Detroit Lions but go to law school instead. And the rest is history.
So the man is remembered for cleaning up after Richard Nixon, pardoning him of all possible crimes so, as he seemed to hope, the nation could move on and attend to more immediate matters at hand. On his watch the Vietnam War ended, with the images of the last helicopters lifting off from our embassy in Saigon and a few locals being kicked off the skids. The economy was a mess and some of us remember the lame little WIN buttons - Whip Inflation Now. The runaway inflation eased eventually in his tenure, but it probably wasn't the buttons that did it. But all in all, he seemed both earnest and possessed of a good sense of humor, and a bit dull - and that may have been what the country needed.
Of course seeds were sown - his chief-of staff at the White House was, initially, the young Donald Rumsfeld, an interesting choice at the time. Then he moved Rumsfeld over to become Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld's first try at the job. The new chief-of staff replacing Rumsfeld was a young congressman from Wyoming - Dick Cheney. He kept Henry Kissinger on as his foreign policy advisor. In his last years Ford may have wondered what he had started with all that. None of them retired to play golf in the desert.
But people are generally ignoring those three. Most obituaries treat his pardon of Richard Nixon as the defining moment of Ford's presidency, and most have been overwhelmingly kind about that.
Over at the ultra right site Hot Air "Allah Pundit" calls Ford the "best president of the 1970's" - and adds this - "By all accounts he was a decent and genuine man. He survived two assassination attempts and relentless mocking by Chevy Chase, who portrayed him as hopelessly clumsy (even though he was quite athletic and a college football star). … His was a thankless job, cleaning up after Nixon and then inevitably turning over the country to the tender mercies of Carter. He did it well, and we thank him for it. RIP."
Jonathan Singer on the left grudgingly agrees - "In hindsight, his decision to pardon his predecessor, Richard Nixon, appears to have been the right one, even if at the time it cost him politically. And although he was thoroughly a conservative, he seems to have been someone who treated his political adversaries with respect and genuinely fought to better America."
On the other hand, conservative Ed Morrissey at Captain's Quarters believes the Nixon pardon was a terrible mistake - "Ford had good and understandable reasons for his decision, but it did short-circuit the one quality about America that had always made us different from other nations: our leaders were not above the law. … [W]e lost that sense of ourselves as a nation bound by its dedication to the Constitution and the rule of law. At that time, we needed a way to bind ourselves back to that to restore a national identity in which all could share."
Yeah, but the "Trial of Nixon" might have torn apart the nation. It hardly matters now - Ford issued a blanket pardon and that was that.
Peter Howard, a professor at American University, remembers what might not be a minor thing - the Ford presidency notably "began the era of intelligence oversight by issuing Executive Order 11905. The order is perhaps most famous for its ban on assassination by US government agencies. Since their founding in the early years of the Cold War, the US intelligence agencies, notably the CIA and NSA, gave themselves a wide mandated to fight the Cold War." Ford put an end to that - the business in Chile on another September 11, in the seventies, was an embarrassment.
The standard obituary in the Washington Post is here, and the schlock gossip guy, Matt Drudge, made a big deal about the byline - the piece was written by J. Y. Smith, who died almost a year before Gerald Ford. How did Joe Smith do that? That's spooky.
But it's not - obituaries are on file in the media on every public figure, particularly on anyone older than fifty. It pays to be prepared. Some papers have writers who specialize in summing up a famous life in the format required - some newspaper guys start their career doing those, and some, the unlucky or offensive, end their careers doing those. But basically, you just keep a file, a directory of pre-written obituaries, and assign some otherwise useless copy editor to update them now and then. For somebody like Ronald Reagan, who didn't do anything at all for the last fifteen years of his life, for obvious reasons, newspapers had the luxury of producing elaborate ready-to-print "Special Section" tributes - with some digging you could find the inserts on public websites long before he died, if you were sufficiently morbid. Drudge is a pain. This was no big deal.
A friend, an attorney up in the Finger Lakes of New York, did notice what was really odd - "..but didn't Ronald Reagan die at the same time as Ray Charles. Now Jerry Ford and James Brown. What next George Bush (41) and Little Richard? Jimmy Carter and BB King? Hilary Clinton and Aretha Franklin? Barak Obama and Jerry Lee Lewis? When will it stop?"
Yep, the coincidences are odd, as noted in the hyper-sarcastic site Wonkette -
Whatever. But on a more serious note, see the widely-read and highly-regarded Digby at Hullabaloo with this -
And so he was, as Timothy Noah explains in The very discreet charms (and substantial drawbacks) of Richard Nixon's successor -
Oops. But he meant well. Ford "meant to deny not the fact of Soviet domination in Eastern Europe, but merely United States acquiescence in that domination." It just didn't come out that way. Noah says - "These comments about Eastern Europe remain, I believe, the single dumbest thing ever said by a sitting president during my lifetime, heavy competition from the present incumbent notwithstanding."
But Ford did some good - inflation dropped from double digits to below five percent. And Gerald Ford appointed John Paul Stevens to the Supreme Court, who has since become a moderating influence on the madmen there.
The conclusion -
Yeah, we could. But dull and pleasant leaders don't come along every day. And too, the man was appointed. You cannot win any office by claiming you're agreeable and mostly harmless. What kind of platform is that? And no one would vote for a smoker theses days, particularly a pipe smoker. The man was a wonder, without being wonderful, for which the nation is now grateful.