- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 30, 2006

Unlike many other former presidents, including Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford’s presidency will probably not go through a period of re-evaluation and revisionism. Since he came into office with no mandate from the voters, there was no grand program from which to build a legacy. He recognized the role of “national healer” that history had thrust upon him. In the Watergate era, Mr. Ford, despite not being a great president, succeeded in re-establishing Americans’ faith in government. This was no small deed.

Certainly Mr. Ford’s motivation for pardoning the disgraced Richard Nixon was in part his desire to put the Watergate mess behind the nation, along with his yearning to stop dealing with the ongoing investigation as president. He also was deeply worried about Nixon’s health and was warned that Nixon was in seclusion, drinking heavily, deeply depressed, and might not live to see the 1974 elections if a trial went forward.

All presidents at one time or another face trouble at home and challenges from abroad and Mr. Ford was no exception. The “Me Decade” of the 1970s, as these go, was a pretty lousy 10 years. Americans had to confront the unprecedented resignations of a president, a vice president and watch as their country lost a war for the first time in its history. This, along with gas lines, disco music, polyester leisure suits, inflation, unemployment and pet rocks made it one of the most uninspiring times in American history.

Indeed, polls of this era showed, for the first time, that Americans no longer believed the future would be better for their children. This was also unprecedented as America, from the time of the Founders, had always been the “country of tomorrow” as Alexis de Tocqueville called it. Even more dangerous for the future, America was losing the Cold War to the Soviets. In the 1970s, seven countries around the world fell to communism and in Italy, the Communist Party nearly won in the national elections in 1976.

Mr. Ford’s greatest failing was in backing Henry Kissinger’s foreign policy. Astonishingly, Mr. Kissinger had told people he viewed America as the pacifistic Athens and the Soviets as the militaristic Sparta and that it was his job to negotiate America into an acceptable second place, even if it meant surrendering America’s national defense, allies and dignity.

At Mr. Kissinger’s urging, Mr. Ford signed yet another arms agreement with the Soviets (that they of course violated) at Vladivostok, he signed the disgraceful Helsinki Accords, which codified Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and the Baltic States, he snubbed famed Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, he was preparing to normalize relations with Fidel Castro’s Cuba and was negotiating the “giveaway” of the Panama Canal.

Mr. Ford was not a movement conservative and was uncomfortable with his party’s conservative elements. As he pursued continuation of Nixon’s policies, they were yelling for his scalp. Mr. Ford not only misunderstood the move to the right inside the GOP, but he simply could not get away with what Nixon got away with among conservatives.

Nixon had more than 20 years of building up “chops” with the Right, mostly from bashing communists in the 1940s and 1950s. Mr. Ford had no such credentials. And into this void stepped former California Gov. Ronald Reagan, to make an extraordinary challenge to Mr. Ford for the 1976 Republican nomination. After a long and brutal struggle, Mr. Ford prevailed, albeit narrowly, winning the nomination by just 57 votes more than the 1,130 he needed from the 2,259 delegates attending the convention in Kansas City.

There was great animosity between these two genial but competitive men. During the heat of the campaign, Mr. Ford told reporters: “Ronald Reagan and I both played football. I played for Michigan and he played for Warner Brothers.” When reporters queried Reagan about Mr. Ford’s comments, he replied, “Well, at least I played football with a helmet.”

Gerald Ford also misunderstood Watergate. The American people did not dislike the “pomp and circumstance” of the Chief Executive. Yet Mr. Ford’s image makers insisted he shuck “Ruffles and Flourishes” and just have the band play the Michigan fight song when he entered the room. The door to the Oval Office was left open, and anyone could wander in to talk about whatever was on the mind with the Leader of the Free World. Staffers brought their complaints about mess privileges and parking privileges and who got what office to the president for him to sort out. All this just further denigrated the office.

That Mr. Ford was unprepared to be president is understandable. He had never aspired to the office in the first place. He was a man of the U.S. House of Representatives and wanted to one day become Speaker. But when the GOP failed to make significant gains in Congress in 1972, despite the Nixon landslide over George McGovern, he planned to retire and so told his wife Betty, who was waging a tough battle with alcohol and drug dependency.

Unlike most other men who had occupied the office, Mr. Ford had little time to prepare. His presidency would be on-the-job training, under the watchful glare of the national media. But he understood his most important job was to heal the nation after 10 miserable years that started with John Kennedy’s assassination and culminated with Watergate.

Mr. Ford’s legacy will not be so much for what his brief administration did as for what he did. At the time of Nixon’s resignation, many thinking people believed America might not survive. Mr. Ford’s calming presence and reassuring candor did much to restore America’s belief in its system of government.

The true measure of any man is if he is courageously there when he is needed by his family, his friends, his faith and his country. Gerald Ford earned the gratitude of his countrymen because he was there when we needed him most.

Craig Shirley of Shirley and Banister Public Affairs is the author of “Reagan’s Revolution,” a critically acclaimed book on the 1976 campaign. He is now writing “Rendezvous with Destiny,” detailing the 1980 Reagan campaign.

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