So, literally minutes after I posted my c-span presidental rankings last week (see Jan. 18, below), two friends shot back the question: Why Gerald Ford? How on earth did he deserve such a high rank?
“How did Gerald Ford break into the top 10?” wrote my legal colleague David Durkin. “You’re not a ‘great President’ simply for not repeating the abuse of power that led to your immediate predecessor’s eventual ouster.”
“How did Gerry Ford crack the top ten?” echoed Jim Hershberg, author of the terrific biography of Harvard nuclear bomb-meister James B. Conant, who added “(Love it that you rated him higher than RR.)”
What’s the story with Gerry Ford? Wasn’t he just a dupe, a dope, a boob, a joke on Saturday Night Live, that creep who pardoned Richard Nixon? Wasn’t he the bumbling guy portrayed by SNL’s Chevy Chase? The mediocrity chosen as VP by a cynical Richard Nixon at the height of Watergate as a stop-gap against impeachment, that the country would consider Ford not up to the job?
Yes, it’s true, most historians rate him lower than I do. The c-span 1999 poll rated him #23, and other recent polls rate him #27 or #28. Obviousy, I see it differenlty.
I have always admired Gerald Ford. Its no mystery to me why Gerald Ford’s friends and neighbors in Michigan elected him to Congress thirteen times before Nixon tapped him in 1973 to replace bribe-taking VP Spiro Agnew, who had recently been forced to resign. Nixon knew the Democratic-majority Congress would confirm Ford, even on being nominated by a widely-hated scoudrel like himself. (The Senate cofirmation vote was 92-3; the House 387-35.) Everyone liked Gerry Ford, even if they hated Nixon.
Why? There are times in our history when something simple and basic like being a normal, level-headed, tolerant, self-effacing, non-paranoid human being counts for plenty. By 1974, after almost ten years of LBJ and Nixon, Vietnam and Watergate, the Credibility Gap, the flood of arrogance, lies, and deceit from Washington, the simple disarming honesty of Gerald Ford suddenly in the White House was a profound statement, a remarkable breath of fresh air.
Gerald Ford was nobody’s fool. He could take a ribbing from Chevy Chase and laugh at himself, but that was no sign of weakness. Ford was a Yale-trained lawyer, a World War II Navy combat veteran, and a college football standout at Michigan.
Ford had a deliberate goal as President of re-unifying the country after Vietnam and Watergate. Yes, he pardoned Nixon, but he also offered amnesty to Vietnam draft resisters. He twice avoided re-engaging the country in Southeast Asian wars, both in 1975, first when Cambodian forces seized the US merchant ship Mayaguez, then again when North Vietnam launched its final assault on Saigon.
Today we appreciate the danger of deficits and wasteful Federal spending; Gerald Ford issued 66 presidential vetoes, mostly of Appropriations Bills, and made all but twelve stick. Today we lament a Republican Party cow-towing to the Ideological Right; Gerald Ford stood squarely with moderates, nominating as his own VP not Ronald Reagan, but rather Reagan’s nemesis, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Today we cringe at how Presidents and candidates too-often treat their families as stage props; Ford gave us his wife Betty, a dancer, free thinker, and outspoken feminist, not shy talking about her human foibles.
All in all, a pretty good legacy. “I’m not a Lincoln, I’m just a Ford,” Ford himself quipped at one point. There are times when a Ford is exactly the right thing. That’s why I rated him #10.