- The Washington Times - Monday, January 1, 2007

It’s not every politician who gets to write the headline for his own obituary. Usually, the sense of self required for the pursuit and attainment of high public office leads to an irresistible tendency to overstate, even if this occasionally expresses itself as transparently phony humility. Yet Gerald R. Ford was someone whom history has judged to have got himself exactly right with the title of his autobiography, “A Time to Heal.”

The two and a half years of his presidency were not, in the end, his own. He had never sought — let alone been elected to — national office. The genuine legitimacy he possessed as president was not a product of the electorate’s judgment of him but of its faith in the constitutional process that brought him to power after first Spiro Agnew and then Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace.

True, he sought a term of his own in 1976. And had he won, which he almost did, we would likely be having a fuller and richer discussion of the man and his times than we currently are. But he didn’t win, and this is, in its way, the reason we are able at such an early juncture close the book on Mr. Ford.

His term in office was the continuation of Mr. Nixon’s second term not only in the technical sense, but also in that the single most consequential decision he made in office, the one on which judgment of him rests, was the legal fate of his predecessor.

To pardon Richard Nixon or not? On one hand, it was abundantly clear to anyone at the time that the forces most fervent in driving Mr. Nixon from office would not be satisfied with anything short of hauling him before the bar of justice, trying him and sending him to prison for his Watergate crimes. One could interpose oneself between this sentiment and the further degradation and humiliation of Richard Nixon only at a cost, and it is clear that Mr. Ford understood this perfectly clearly.

Would it be a good thing for the United States, already riven by the Watergate experience and the drama of an unprecedented presidential resignation, to dwell for years on the question of whether Mr. Nixon should be in jail? What would the consequences be, not only in the sense of the inevitable national soap opera but for the position of the United States in the world and the ability to make policy at home?

On the other hand, there was the fact of serious wrongdoing by the president of the United States, and not of the sort that could be dismissed as merely an excessive assertion of the power of the office or conduct typical of the man holding it. Was the resignation of the presidency and the retreat into a self-imposed California exile an adequate punishment for the crime? Was it even “punishment” at all? Or would Mr. Nixon’s escape from legal comeuppance only hasten the effort of self-rehabilitation by the most dangerously ambitious man modern American democracy has ever produced?

Mr. Ford knew what they would say about him if he pardoned Mr. Nixon: that the fix was in, that a secret deal had elevated Mr. Ford to the vice presidency only on the condition of his pledge to pardon Mr. Nixon if the time came. Those who saw in the Nixon White House only a slough of crime and illegitimacy would not hesitate to extend it forward to Mr. Nixon’s self-designated successor, however baselessly. Mr. Ford clearly knew that by pardoning Mr. Nixon, he would do the cause of his own political ambition no good.

And indeed, as is often said, his decision to grant Mr. Nixon a full pardon may have cost Mr. Ford the election. But it’s not for that reason that we should admire Mr. Ford. It’s because he made the right decision. The “long, national nightmare” to which Mr. Ford referred upon taking office really did need to come to an end. And he took the most decisive and effectual measure possible to end it. Moreover, his decision has stood the test of time, as almost everyone but the hardest-core of Nixon-haters has come to acknowledge the correctness of his decision.

If it’s true that the pardon cost Mr. Ford the election in 1976, it’s also true that it clarified the historical issue of his presidency in a way that casts him in a permanently favorable light. I, for one, don’t think that if Mr. Ford had won that year, he would have been especially well suited to the challenges facing the nation, although whether anyone could have been quite as bad as Jimmy Carter is a reasonable question.

It was a time to heal. In order to get the patient truly back on his feet, though, it would take something Mr. Ford (let alone Mr. Carter) never had: a vision of a robust and successful America at home and abroad, as well as the political will to take the tough policy decisions necessary to make that possible.

Let us not judge Mr. Ford for failing a test he didn’t really face, however, but for passing the one he did.

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