Honest and Decent

The adjectives “honest” and “decent” have been so repeatedly attached to the recently deceased 38th President of the United States, Gerald R. Ford, that they are rapidly becoming clich√©. Nonetheless, these traditional mid-western virtues explain a considerable portion of both Ford’s success and failures as president.

Ford was the only un-elected president and openly acknowledged that fact. When he assumed the presidency after the resignation of President Richard Nixon on August 9, 2004, Ford explained, “I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your President by your ballots, and so I ask you to confirm me as your President with your prayers.” The words are poetic and his intent genuine.

When President Nixon resigned the country was deeply divided, in the final years of a bitterly divisive war, and in economic distress (unemployment 6-9%;, inflation 10-12%). Perhaps there was not an adequate sacrifice offered to the gods of a harsh justice, but it was Ford’s inherent decency and longing to assuage the country’s pains that explain his decision to pardon President Nixon. Many at the time were frustrated of an opportunity to pursue Nixon further and the decision probably caused Ford the election in 1976 to President Jimmy Carter. Ford knew the likely consequences of his decision and put his vision of what the country needed over any political advantage.

In retrospect, the decision was probably a wise one. An indictment and trial probably would have lasted through his term and through the term of the next president. Any political energy required to deal with the nation’s problems would have been dissipated by such proceedings. The country would not have been able to begin to address any of the problems confronting it.

Ford’s conspicuous forthrightness and directness, perhaps unfairly associated with mental dullness, also helped heal a nation. After Nixon, the country needed a president that did not appear too clever or nefarious.

Ford’s decency also explains a good deal of his failures. Only a good man who mistakenly expects his own notions of good will and patriotism to be embraced by others and who came from the WWII generation would have believed that “Whip Inflation Now” program to exhort Americans to restrain their wage and price demands had any possibility of succeeding.

Only a person who spent his life in the House of Representatives and believes that all differences are splittable would have been so willing to overlook Soviet behavior and eagerly negotiate with them. This eagerness caused him to twist his normal good sense and argue that Poland was not dominated by the Soviet Union and to spurn Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn, fearing that the Soviets would break off the warm relations of detente.

It was in Ford’s good nature, when he defeated Ronald Reagan for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976, at the end of the Republican National Convention, to call down Ronald Reagan to the platform with him. It was Ford’s moment, yet he extended the olive branch to Reagan and simultaneously undercut his own chances of victory against Jimmy Carter in the fall. Reagan was reluctant to come to the platform. After all, he had just narrowly lost the nomination. However, once he did, Reagan gave an impromptu speech which charged the Republicans present and gave everyone there the palpable feeling that in nominating Ford, they had just sellected the wrong fellow.

Ford was a caretaker president filling in between two elected president. Despite his shortcomings, Ford was welcome relief from President Nixon’s mendacity. Moreover, he served his nation’s interest far better than his successor President Carter. At least, he never embarrassed himself during his post-presidential years, as has Carter,¬† in self-righteous dotage

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