Thursday, December 28, 2006


The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reached into its past today to change its collective mind (Journal’s or Sentinel’s?) on one of the most important issues of American history – should Gerald Ford have pardoned Richard Nixon? The answer was and is clearly “NO”, but the J-S blazes the Ford-friendly, phony-respect-for-the-dead revisionist trail to praise the Accidental President for the “Midwestern pragmatism” of the horrible action that prevented a clear historical record on Nixon.

Even in his own death, Nixon and his apologists continue to use the non-clarity allowed by the pardon to characterize his forced resignation as a simple loss of political support. Thus has history been muddled, and Nixon is off the hook in too many history textbooks. Not only should he have been prosecuted for his crimes, Congress should have gone ahead, impeached and convicted his ass even after he was gone, driving the wooden spike into his cold political heart. Instead, just like the famous vampire, he rose to life, rewriting history and creating a legacy that should have remained permanently stained by, oh, let’s say, five years in Club Fed.

Ford is the only president of which I have saved the Time Magazine cover from his inauguration, not because of who he was but of who he replaced. Nixon’s resignation, after he was forced by the Supreme Court to cough up the proof of his own psychotic criminality – the White House tapes – was the most dramatic and important presidential transition in this or any other time. For all the puffed-up blather all over the media this week, Ford was a mere transitory figure, a caretaker controlled by his (mostly Nixon’s) staff, easily in over his head. The point wasn’t his wisecrack that he was a “Ford, not a Lincoln”; it was that he was Ford, and, happily, not Nixon. One day, Richard Nixon was calling up cronies, putting fixes in, getting drunk and talking to the pictures on the walls of the White House. The next day, he was gone. This is nothing if not a good thing.

Ford was in that position only because Spiro Agnew, a more traditional money-in-envelopes political criminal, was cooked and had to beat a path out of town one step ahead of the law (they caught him anyway – no pardon or cover-up help for him from the disloyal Nixon). A VP resignation and conviction would have been enough for any other administration, scandal-wise, but Nixon, by actually using the mechanism of the CIA, the FBI and the Justice Department to hide facts about his illegal acts from his own government, was in a different league. Ford replaced Agnew because he was the only Republican who could have possibly been approved by an anxious Democratic congress. Just by his very friendly, non-controversial existence, Ford became the last hope for normalcy by a desperate soon-to-be loser.

The cable networks have played the clip many times this week, but the contrast between Nixon and Ford on August 9, 1974 is still stunning. On the day he left office, after (literally) cracking up in front of his staff in the early morning – blubbering incoherently about his mother and “T.R.”, the video of which is (or should be) a national treasure – Nixon strode out to his ride out of town without a care in the world, waving wildly close to the chopper blades, like he was just headed out on a campaign trip. Ford, at the other end of the dirty red carpet, looked like he had been hit by a truck. You’d think he would have seen this coming, what with Nixon’s speech the night before and all, but Ford looked like someone had just woken him up to give him the news. And horrible news, it seemed to be.

For the first month, Ford was a breath of fresh air in a White House that seemed to have its windows blackened and its atmosphere fouled by smoke, bad liquor and bad people for decades. Just buttering an English muffin was cause for the celebration of normalcy. Betty wasn’t Pat, Susan wasn’t Tricia (much less Julie) and Jerry wasn’t, er, Dick. In those days, relief was easy to come by.

But the trivial personal details only distracted from the fact that Ford was our first puppet president. Sure, he bounced some tainted Nixon hacks and then brought in other pre-approved hacks, two of them ominously named Rumsfeld and Cheney. He is being given credit this week for being engaged; for making his staff argue in front of him before deciding what they were going to decide for him anyway. As such, he comes full circle: once praised for not being Nixon, he now looks good for not being Junior Bush (who, by the way, was nothing if not a drunk party-boy throughout the whole Ford administration). But with Ford, the Silent Republican Government stumbled on the template they would perfect with Reagan and disastrously overplay with Junior. Ford, like Reagan and Junior, was simply a pretty face on ugly policies, a distraction that allowed the rich and the military-industrial to reach into the pockets of the rest of us for spare change and diamonds.

But that doesn’t take Ford off the hook for the only personal decision of his presidency, the one only he could make. When he followed through on the deal he made with Al Haig – Nixon’s resignation in exchange for Nixon’s pardon – Ford sealed his fate, and ours. He was rightly punished for his sin, stumbling from crisis-to-crisis for the rest of his presidency and eventually losing to the true post-Watergate healer, Jimmy Carter.

I used to appreciate these dead-President, half-mast, almost-royal events. The sad JFK weekend was one of the seminal events of my life (in 3rd grade). That was until the ridiculous Reagan love-fest unduly lionized the right-wing icon for what seemed like a month several years ago. Overall, I think these national transition points are interesting historically and Ford should be given his due as an important transition figure.

But to pretend the pardon of Nixon was anything but a historical atrocity does nothing for Ford’s legacy or for the nation. In the end, Gerald Ford was yet another victim of Richard Nixon, a man who poisoned every life he touched.

1 comment:

vyborg said...

I enjoyed your post but, 'Ford was a mere transitory figure, a caretaker controlled by his (mostly Nixon’s) staff, easily in over his head." appears to me to be highly inaccurate.

In a short time period he had more vetoes than any modern president. More vetoes than Kennedy and Johnson combined, more than Nixon, Carter, Reagan, and Clinton.

In these vetoes are the angry liberalism of Nixon, but the cold blooded imperial presidency of Alito, Cheney, and Bush.

In explaining his veto of the amendment to the Freedom of Information Act he said it unconstitutionally limits the power of the presidency.

Ford's conservatism should not be seen solely through today's Neo Conservatism. He was a strong believer in the imperial presidency, fought the New Deal and Great Society his entire career, and was an uncompassionate budget cutter. Even his recent from the grave references to the Iraq War were done on strong conservative grounds of our national interest.