- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 27, 2006

On the morning Gerald R. Ford was sworn in as the nation’s 38th president of the United States, I received a call from a close friend, Katherine Neuberger, the then-Republican National Committeewoman for New Jersey. Of the new president, Mrs. Neuberger, said, “Well this proves once again the truth of that old adage that ‘the Good Lord watches over drunks, orphans and the United States of America.’ ” Mrs. Neuberger knew her presidents. She certainly knew Gerald Ford.

Her one-liner said all about Mr. Ford that anyone needed to know. It conveyed a sense of those wholesome, middle-American Western values that also characterized and guided two presidents who Mr. Ford greatly admired, whose pictures he would place in the Cabinet Room, Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

As the nation pauses to mark the passing of a former president who is revered more for who he was than for what he was able to achieve in office (he was president for too short a time to have enacted much of a program, assuming he could have gotten it through the heavily lop-sided Congress the voters sent him in 1974), public affairs shows are certain to show footage of Mr. Ford’s hasty swearing-in. They are bound to replay again and again the most famous line he delivered as president, “My fellow Americans, our great national nightmare is over.”

Hopefully, they will also show Mr. Ford, in a State of the Union address, repeating a favorite quote of his own; one he lifted from Ike. Of the nation he now headed, Mr. Ford proclaimed that “America is not good because she is great. She is great because she is good.” This Ford believed with every fiber in him. The “hipsters” of the era dismissed both this sentiment and the new president as “corny.” They saw both as remnants of the bygone era of “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best.” Mr. Ford seemed not to mind. He also seemed not to mind when they mocked his tailoring (especially the shortness of his trousers), his clumsiness in descending airplanes, his supposed awkwardness on the slopes, his penchant for toasting his own English muffins or television’s insistence on showing movers placing a large double bed into the bedroom Mr. and Mrs. Ford were to occupy in the White House.

What his tormentors saw as “uncool,” Mr. Ford regarded as a “golden age” when neighbors helped neighbors, crime was low, jobs were plentiful, and, oh yes, when the president said something, he was believed. Coming from the “heart” of his country (as his hero Ike once said of his own Kansan roots) Mr. Ford embodied a kind of conservatism that, if it has not fallen entirely out of fashion, at least has been eclipsed by a different kind. Mr. Ford believed in balanced budgets, a strong national defense, and, cognizant of his party and its Lincolnian roots, civil rights. One area in which he challenged the once-prevailing political culture of his native region was on foreign policy. A World War II naval veteran and political acolyte of Michigan Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, the man who guided Truman’s containment policies through the supposedly “do nothing” Republican Congress, Mr. Ford drew the line at isolationism. (He catapulted himself into Congress by besting, with Mr. Vandenberg’s help, an old-line isolationist dinosaur.)

On most other measures, save for civil rights and voting rights, Mr. Ford’s votes in Congress placed him in opposition to virtually all of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs. For his troubles, Johnson dubbed upon Mr. Ford two insults liberals would furl upon him for the rest of his career: 1) that Mr. Ford could not chew gum and walk at the same time; and 2) that Mr. Ford had played football too long with out the benefit of a helmet. (History records both that Mr. Ford, unlike Johnson, left the nation in better shape than he found it and that, as Ike, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush can attest, dismissing Republican and conservative presidents as dumb had become the liberal elite’s most favored mechanism. Perhaps it all started with Calvin Coolidge.)

Through a combination of the circumstances of Mr. Ford’s elevation to the presidency, his status as the first vice president becoming the first non-elected president, his stated preference for competence over ideology in his selection, of Nelson Rockefeller as vice president, double-digit inflation, soaring unemployment, energy shortages and his steadfast pursuit of his predecessor’s detente polities toward the Soviet Union, conservatives of the era misjudged Mr. Ford as much as had the liberals. As they rallied behind the rising star of Mr. Reagan, who personified bold color conservatism as opposed to one shaped in pastels, they overlooked the 50 vetoes Mr. Ford unfurled against spending bills the Democrats sent him, his resistance to the Humphrey-Hawking full employment act, his refusal to provide a federal bail out to New York City without guarantees of accountability (second to the Nixon pardon, nothing cost Mr. Ford more votes than the famous “Ford to City: Drop Dead” headline the Daily News put on its front page) and the portions of the Helsinki accords that would help the West prevail in the Cold War.

That Mr. Reagan had a case to make, which proved essential to his own ascendancy, and conservatism’s future triumphs have long been clear. That Mr. Ford provided service to his country in ways that went beyond his cleaning up for his predecessor is becoming increasingly apparent with the passage of time.

Alvin S. Felzenberg, former spokesman to the September 11 Commission, is Visiting Lecturer in Politics at Princeton University and author of “Governor Tom Kean: From the NJ Statehouse to the 9-11 Commission.”

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