December 27, 2006

"Our long national nightmare is over."

I woke up to the long-familiar words in the familar voice of our long-lived former President, Gerald Ford. NPR was reporting what I already knew -- someone knocked on my door to tell me in the middle of the night -- Ford had died. He was 93.

I liked him. I voted for him, even though I'd voted for George McGovern four years earlier. He had the distinction of being President without ever having been elected President or Vice President, which was one of the things I liked about him. Lacking a national vote had to mean he didn't deserve to be President, especially since the constitutional process by which he became President involved appointment by a man -- Richard Nixon -- who was disgraced into resignation (soon after the Vice President slot opened because Spiro Agnew was disgraced into resignation). What I liked was the fact that he hadn't presumed to seek the presidency. I have always instinctively resented anyone who thinks he should be President, and that has the overwhelming tendency to include everyone who ever runs.

I was all set to vote for Jimmy Carter in 1976. I'd voted for Carter in the New York primary when he was still a face in a crowd of candidates. But the day before the election, I saw a TV interview in which a reporter asked Carter what he would do if he didn't win. He said he'd go back to his peanut farm. This answer -- does it seem innocuous to you? -- gnawed at me overnight, and, as I was walking to my polling place, I sat down to talk about it with someone who was also planning to vote for Carter, and the two of us changed our vote to Ford. It wasn't so much Ford. It was Carter. I'd decided he was a small man. He didn't fit the Presidency. Did Ford? But Ford was already President. In truth, no one deserves to be President. But Ford did not select himself as President. He had only selected himself to represent one legislative district. I found that appealing.

When Ford became President, I was living in New York City. I wanted to be an artist -- I was presumptuous enough to select myself for that -- but I was working at a day job in a market research firm, doing a job that consisted of reading and classifying the articles in magazines. I remember the cover of Newsweek -- or was it Time? -- when Ford came in. It was a cartoon of Ford in the Oval Office with housecleaning implements -- maybe a feather duster and a vacuum cleaner, perhaps with extra hands and even more implements. There was an article inside about how the cartoonists -- so used to Nixon -- were going to draw Ford. Nixon offered the cartoonist such rich material. Now what were they going to do? Ford looked so normal. And he didn't mean anything to anyone yet. Nixon not only looked weird, he had come to mean so much over the past two decades, and the meaning seemed to burst out of those weird features. We had been talking about his weird features in connection with his character traits for so long. Shifty eyes! Five-o-clock shadow! Ski-jump nose! One cartoonist cited a general principle of cartooning: You have to decide on one feature to exaggerate. Trying to decide on the spot, he said -- maybe this is verbatim: It looks like his chin is giving birth to a golf ball.

I remember watching the speech in which President Ford pardoned Nixon, and I remember thinking -- before I heard all the indignant outcry from my friends -- that he was doing the right thing. I believed his asserted reason: Let it be over. Let's not drag ourselves through the further torment of a criminal prosecution of the man. Let's not dwell on the past. Let's look to the future. He was right about that, wasn't he? Did he throw away his chance in 1976 because he pardoned the man who made him President? I knew a lot of people who considered that unforgivable. They needed to get even farther from Nixon than Ford could take them.
Stuart Spencer, his campaign manager, said that polling data about the pardon had made it clear that “it cost him the election.” He said 7 percent of Republicans had either voted for Mr. Carter or stayed home because of the pardon, and it hurt with Democrats and independents, too.
The NYT obituary (linked above) has this quote:
"It was an hour in our history that troubled our minds and tore at our hearts," he said. "Anger and hatred had risen to dangerous levels, dividing friends and families. The polarization of our political order had aroused unworthy passions of reprisal and revenge. Our governmental system was closer to stalemate than at any time since Abraham Lincoln took that same oath of office."
We might do well to think about that today.

It's a long obituary. There was that Daily News headline: "Ford to City: Drop Dead." I remember seeing that on the stands.
As president, he was quick to assert to Congress, in a play on words that nobody misunderstood, “I am a Ford, not a Lincoln.” If it was true, as was often said, that the Oval Office shaped the occupant, Mr. Ford resisted the temptation of the imperial. On an early trip as president to South Korea, he called American enlisted men “sir.” His prose was so pedestrian and his tongue so unreliable — he referred on one public occasion to the noble American “work ethnic” and on another to the disease of “sickle-cell Armenia” — that he became a favorite target of comedians.
(And then Jimmy Carter replaced him and went around saying "nucular" and got terrorized by a swimming rabbit. Everything was terrible but funny in the 70s.)
John Hersey, after spending a week in close observation of [President Ford] wrote in The New York Times Magazine of April 20, 1975: “What is it in him?”

“Is it an inability to extend compassion far beyond the faces directly in view?” Mr. Hersey wrote. “Is it a failure of imagination? Is it something obdurate he was born with, alongside the energy and serenity?”

The answer seemed to be a belief — one Mr. Ford was schooled in if not born with — in the essential dignity of human struggle. “Everything didn’t turn to gold just because I did it,” he remarked. “I had this foundation, and I had been brought up with the training that — and this is an oversimplification, but I think it’s indicative — the harder you work, the luckier you are. And whether it was in such things as the Boy Scouts or athletics or academics, I worked like hell.”

There were those who contended, as did Richard Reeves, the author of a critical biography, that Mr. Ford had a “tragic gap” in his understanding of such crucial matters as the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. More common was the assessment of Mr. Ford as “innately decent.”

Mr. Ford disputed the notion that it required forceful, even harsh, character to meet the tests of the White House. He was asked once if a nice guy should be president, and answered: “Those who allege that you’ve got to be a mean, sinister, devious person to be president are just dead wrong. I don’t see how a president in his conscience could be that.”

He, too, could be forceful. He resented the accident of fate that had made him president as the nation watched South Vietnam and Cambodia — where so much of America’s human and economic treasure had been spent by three predecessors — fall to the Communists in 1975. Rebuffed by Congress when he sought a last-minute $972 million in aid to Saigon, Mr. Ford made it possible for 130,000 or more refugees to come to the United States.

When the Cambodian Communists seized the American merchant ship Mayaq├╝ez in May 1975, Mr. Ford reacted with uncharacteristic emotion, sending United States military forces to recapture the ship.

The order was motivated in part by concern for national image. “We had just pulled out of Vietnam, out of Cambodia,” Mr. Ford said later, “and here the United States was being challenged by a group of leaders who were bandits and outlaws, in my opinion, and I think their subsequent record has pretty well proved it. And it was an emotional decision to tell the Defense Department we had to go in there and do something.”

Mr. Ford’s economic policies were traditional for Republican conservatives. He proclaimed, amid considerable White House ballyhoo, a campaign to “Whip Inflation Now,” complete with “WIN” buttons. Scarcely had it begun than mounting joblessness and the worst recession since the 1930s caused Mr. Ford to abandon the anti-inflation program and propose tax cuts to stimulate the economy instead of tax increases to dampen it.

Congress, meanwhile, reflected its dominance by the Democratic Party in a steadily increasing number of spending programs and expansion of the federal deficit.
"Whip Inflation Now"... how we mocked him for that... for everything. At least the NYT obituary spares him the mention of the name of Chevy Chase, who in the early days of "Saturday Night Live" ridiculed him by doing little that had anything to do with him. Chase just acted like an idiot and took endless pratfalls.

We even laughed at the two assassination attempts:
On one of those trips, to Sacramento on Sept. 5, he narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by Lynette (Squeaky) Fromme, who had been a follower of the convicted killer Charles Manson. Mr. Ford was moving through a crowd in Capitol Park, shaking hands and waving, when a Secret Service agent saw Ms. Fromme’s arm and the pistol. She was subdued, and it turned out that while the gun was loaded there was no bullet in the chamber. She was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to life in prison.

The other attempt, by Sara Jane Moore, took place in San Francisco. A former Marine, Oliver W. Sipple, knocked a pistol out of Ms. Moore’s hand as she fired.
These were only absurd because they failed. Gerald Ford went on to live to be very old, mostly out of our view. And now he's gone. R.I.P.


Anonymous said...

A man who as an alternative to leading his country would go back to his farm is to small a man to lead his country? The Romans considered such a man the model of the Roman republic's virtues: Cincinnatus.

Anonymous said...

Not a bad first draft. Now please redo without the extraneous insults to Jimmy Carter, those insults have no place in an obituary, they demean a President, and they reflect poorly on you.

I'm Full of Soup said...


I think McCain has some of Ford's down to earthiness and inability to be offensive or mean. That is one reason for the senator's apeal. Americans want and need to be united by an ordinary idealist.

Ann, you surprised me with the Ford vote. You have said manytimes you only voted for 2-3 Reps for presdient but I never would guess one was Ford. I voted for the smarter nuclear engineer Carter and I did not understand until Clinton's first term that brains should not be my primary measure to determine which candidate to support.

And reality check, Ann told us why she voted for Ford but she did not insult one of our most mediocre presidents (who I voted for).

Anonymous said...

I actually met Gerald Ford once: he wanted to thank me for lending one his sons my car the night before. Rather impressive, considering that he was Vice President of the United States of America at the moment and I was all of 19 years old.

Gerald Ford was a very nice man indeed. And the right man for the moment who did the right thing for country, although it cost him the election.

Ann Althouse said...

Wyatt: Great point. If someone had been there at the time to say that to us, we would both have voted for Carter, I'm sure.

Simon said...

"I have always instinctively resented anyone who thinks he should be President, and that has the overwhelming tendency to include everyone who ever runs."

What's the old saying - "a President worth voting for wouldn't run for office"?

I think Ford did a creditable job under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, and I wish him well as he moves on to a higher office indeed.

*Puts on The Great Gig in the Sky.

Glenn Howes said...

My mother mailed me a book by Jimmy Carter for Christmas.

A book of film criticism by Kim Jong-il would have appalled me less.

Simon said...

Shanna said...
"Ford is a little before my time and I know very little about him beyond Chevy Chase's impression and that he pardoned Nixon."

His most enduring legacy is probably this.

Scott Ferguson said...

The media is focusing on his pardon of Nixon; yet fail to recount that Gerald Ford was appointed to the Warren Commission by Lyndon Johnson.

Of course, Ford was the longest living Grand Master of the Illuminati; although in his dotage, day-to-day tasks were executed by staff at the Republican National Committee.

goesh said...

I just wouldn't want to be remembered as the man almost whacked by someone called Squeaky Fromme. It sort of makes him a blundering oaf somehow in the history books, doesn't it?

Todd and in Charge said...

Interesting thoughts, but Ford was simply not up to the task of being a national leader, and our country under his tenure spiraled downward in confidence, continued to fracture into drug-abuse and other social ills (and the guy had terrible judgment in his appointees, Cheney and Rummy being two prominent examples).

reader_iam said...

You laughed at assassination attempts?

Anonymous said...

An interesting note about Oliver Sipple, the former marine, he was gay, and out locally, but not out to his family back home. In covering the events surrounding the attempted assassination, the newspaper disclosed his homosexuality, which led his mother to end contact with him.

dearieme said...

I'm still trying to picture General De Gaulle at Colombey-Les-Deux-Peanuts. As for Carter faking his education, doesn't he know that that's a Kennedy perogative?

KCFleming said...

Paul Johnson referred to the US in the 1960s and especially the '70s as our attempt at national suicide. The cumulative effects of the New Deal, VietNam costs, the War on Poverty, Medicare, Medicaid, urban renewal, welfare, and the massive taxes required to pay for them all came to a head in the 1970s. Carter failed the diagnosis ("malaise"), but Reagan had it right (taxes).

I don't think Ford knew either, but moved correctly with taxes, too little and too late. He was a decent man, and time has borne this out. Saturday Night Live was, in retrospect, excessively vicious. They were at first laudatory (with messiah imagery) then barely teasing of Carter until he did the rabbit thing and started to seem like a loser. After which they turned on him, too.

How naive to scoff at people trying to shoot a President, as if it were some stand-up joke. It was a long nightmare, that decade, of being asleep to the decay around us. And he was stuck with Lyndon B. Johnson's remark "The trouble with Jerry Ford is that he used to play football without a helmet".

Johnson has fared poorly with time, exposing a frightfully bad president. Ford wasn't stellar, but an empty cardboard box would have been far superior to JE Carter's vile term and bigoted aftermath.

Tim said...

"Everything didn’t turn to gold just because I did it,” he remarked. “I had this foundation, and I had been brought up with the training that — and this is an oversimplification, but I think it’s indicative — the harder you work, the luckier you are. And whether it was in such things as the Boy Scouts or athletics or academics, I worked like hell."

So true; each of us, and our country, would be better off if this approach to life were more common than it is.

President Gerald Ford, R.I.P.

Bad Penny said...

Ah, the 70s. I wasn't old enough to vote in 76, but I worked on Carter's campaign, for which my father said he would "never forgive" me. (rolls eyes)

As I walked through my living room last night I heard my 17 year old son and his friend talking about how much they love "Freebird", which totally cracked me up. What a decade that was.

I'm Full of Soup said...

Jim H said:
"About that nuclear-engineer myth I keep reading: Carter graduated from the naval academy in 1946 with a bachelors in science. That takes a good amount of intelligence. But he dropped out of nuclear power training school and resigned from the navy in 1953 to run the family farm. Nuclear submarines weren't launched until 1955."

Thanks Jim, I never knew that he left the navy in 1953 and the 1st nuke sub was not launched til 1995! So your comment about blogs was apt too. Blogs would never let that falsehood stand.

I'm Full of Soup said...

Had a typo on previous comment...1995 should read 1955.

Anonymous said...

Damn, I lost a post because of the new Blogger login. Grrrr.

Anyway, I recall Ford for two reasons. First, because he was the only one I ever saw in person, because he visited my home town of Fond du Lac, WI while he was president.

Second, although I was not of age to vote in '76, that was the first election I really noticed. Our class split into two groups and tried to come up with arguments to vote for Ford or Carter. I was on the Ford side. I remember being vaguely disappointed that he lost, but I was beginning to discover girls at the time so that was low on the totem pole of importance.

The whole "nuclear/nucular" thing was also one of the first issues that clued me into the fact that 99% of people talking politics is just hypocritical BS. I always just thought it was a southern thing, when in reality I guess it is either the height of stupidity (Bush) or a total non-issue (Carter).

Tex the Pontificator said...

A gracious obituary. I regret I lacked the wisdom to support Ford at the time.

KCFleming said...

Re: "It is particularly shameful that people who work in the industry should be proud of the fact that they don't know how to pronounce words properly."

Good lord, what a pedantic twit you are. I have more years of schooling than most people, and I don't give a rip if people mispronounce that stupid word. Nucular fits more nicely in the mouth than the correct usage, anyway. And what are words for? To be used. And by whom? People. Who decides the 'correct' pronunciation? The people.

In matters of language, Freder, the people win, and you lose. And really, who gives a damn?

Anonymous said...

Irregardless of what you all say, to air is human.

Unknown said...

Interesting story about the man who saved Gerald Ford's life in the assassination attempt. The man was gay, was outed by Harvey Milk, was subsequently disowned by his mother, then sued the San Francisco Examiner unsuccessfully over his outing, and ended up drinking himself to death and dying alone.

Anonymous said...

Yes, and our news is broadcast to us by airers.

hdhouse said...

I am a lifelong democrat but I did volunteer while in college for Ford re-election in his Michigan district (not even my own at the times) because I grew up in Grand Rapids, he knew my father and above all, was exceedingly decent.

Would he have taken cheap shots at Carter like Ann and Pogo and that ilk in a memorium on the death of another? no.

Would he take back some of his decisions that likely cost him in 76? Not likely...if its a "values" decision you don't change your decision, just your values".

Think good thoughts for a change. Remember Betty Ford who perhaps did significantly more to bring breast cancer diagnosis to the fore as well as susbstance addiction out of the closet for many than a whole host of activists

Think good thoughts for her as clearly this was a life long love and it must be terribly hard for her right now.

Last, stop thinking how to score cheap shots. It makes you look cheap.

rcocean said...

Ford didn't lose the election because of the Pardon. Thats just liberal spin. The idea that large numbers of Nixon haters were itching to vote for a Republican is absurd.

Ford lost because he acted liked a RINO. He appointed Rockefeller as VP, fired Schlessinger from DOD, signed the Helsinki agreements, appointed Stevens to SCOTUS. He also went out of his way to treat Reagan and his followers with contempt.

The result was a conservative revolt, and a bitter primary battle which didn't end until the convention.

Despite Reagan's efforts large numbers of conservatives either stayed home or voted for Carter. Carter afterall seemed to be just as conservative on many issues as Ford.

Ford was also one of the worst speakers and dumbest politicans ever to be President. For example, he lost support not just because he declared there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe but because he continued to say the thing for almost a week (!)after the debate. He only retracted his statements because his campaign manager told him he would lose if he didn't.

The idea that the Pardon lost him the election is simply a liberal myth.

hdhouse said...

pablo H said...
Ford didn't lose the election because of the Pardon. Thats just liberal spin."

why would liberals spin that? of course you saw Ford's poll numbers drop off a cliff after the pardon...i guess that doesn't fit into your agenda does it.

by the way, what is your agenda? that nixon was wrongly accused? that the "liberals" forced him out of office? that the sun rises in the west? that the earth is flat?

you may not like history but i am confused as to why you want to re-write it. .... oh and president mumbles i think is the worst speaker in history..president or not....