- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2007

After his swearing-in as vice president, Gerald Ford addressed the nation. “I am a Ford, not a Lincoln,” he said. As only one of “two hundred million Americans,” the nation’s new No. 2 promised he would uphold the Constitution, always try to do right and give the United States his very best effort.

The speech is usually cited to demonstrate Mr. Ford’s humility and forthrightness. That’s certainly the image he wanted to impress, and it worked — perhaps too well. “Gerald R. Ford,” historian Douglas Brinkley’s new, short biography, contains an interesting fact that paints a different side to our 38th president.

He was born Leslie Lynch King Jr. to Leslie King and the former Dorothy Gardner. Mr. King beat his wife and threatened worse, so she left him soon after Leslie Jr.’s birth. Dorothy moved to Grand Rapids, Mich., to raise the boy with her parents. There she met and married Gerald Ford, and her son eventually changed his name to mirror his stepfather’s.

Mr. Ford met his biological father only once. Mr. King introduced himself at the hamburger joint where young Gerald worked part-time during high school, and invited him to lunch: “Although Jerry accepted King’s invitation… the encounter left him bitter at his birth father’s long absence and resentful of his apparent wealth.”

Why was Mr. King in Michigan? He had come to Detroit “to pick up a new Lincoln.”

Coincidence? Maybe. But it’s the sort of coincidence that tends to bash one over the head repeatedly during any survey of Mr. Ford’s life and career. Mr. Brinkley, for his part, has perfectly rinsed and telegenic hair to serve as a helmet — “Gerald R. Ford” is almost as adulatory as the writer’s widely panned panegyric to Sen. John Kerry’s Vietnam service, “Tour of Duty.”

In Mr. Brinkley’s judgment, Mr. Ford possessed “a rock-hard moral core.” He was “the steadiest of public men, certain of his course, and confident in his ability to keep it.” He was even “intellectually as well as emotionally prepared” for the White House.

As a result, Mr. Ford left the office in “far better shape than he had found it — perhaps even healthier than it had been in decades.” Mr. Brinkley takes the fact that the New York Times gushed for three pages after Mr. Ford’s recent death to mean that “The long healing process” — begun with Mr. Ford’s controversial pardon of former President Richard Nixon — “was finally complete.”

The chief problem with Mr. Brinkley’s picture of Mr. Ford is that it is cartoonish. His Ford is almost devoid of ego; the real Ford beat out a sitting congressman for his Grand Rapids seat, in part because the local political boss had slighted the young wannabe volunteer.

Mr. Ford rose to minority leader in the House of Representatives because he backed a successful coup against Republican leadership. He might not have sought the presidency, but he decided to campaign for (re)election in 1976. And Mr. Ford never really forgave Ronald Reagan for launching a primary challenge.

Mr. Brinkley’s Ford is a sort of Mighty Mouse, come to save the nation from the “ultraconservative” threat. The real Ford was a partisan Republican who campaigned for the impeachment of a sitting Supreme Court justice, gave hundreds of speeches defending an embattled president, vetoed 66 bills from a Democrat-controlled Congress, ditched his liberal Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and accepted a nominee (Robert Dole) and a platform (pro-life) to cater to conservatives.

Most of these facts are in “Gerald R. Ford,” but they are downplayed. Every time readers start to learn something interesting, Mr. Brinkley brings them back to Ford the Moderate, Centrist, Nonpartisan, Nondivisive Healer of the Country’s Deepest Wounds.

Often, he uses sports metaphors. Just when we’re puzzling how the president could simultaneously praise Mr. Rockefeller and show him the door, we are told that “Ford scored a touchdown by nominating Judge John Paul Stevens of the Seventh Circuit Court to replace William O. Douglas on the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Jeremy Lott, the Warren T. Brookes Journalism Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, is writing a book about the vice presidents.

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