One of the greatest things about Gerald Ford as a former president was that he didn’t say much. He had no need for the spotlight. He was modest in the old-fashioned way of stepping aside and not getting in the way of the new guy.
He kept a lot to himself. This was in part because he had a self to leave it to.
It must have taken some effort. The man who replaced him, Jimmy Carter, was a kind of non-Ford, offering personal goodness as his main calling card. He carried his own garment bag. He was not imperial. He was awfully proud of his humility. The man who followed him, Ronald Reagan, differed from Ford not so much characterologically as politically, and his success might have grated on his old foe. But it doesn’t seem to have. Ford seemed happy when things turned out well for America. That was apparently his primary interest.
He seemed lacking in vanity. There is no evidence that he was obsessed with his legacy. He didn’t worry and fret about whether history would fully capture and proclaim his excellence, and because of this he didn’t always have to run around proving he was right. He just did his best and kept walking. What a grown-up thing to do. Former, current and future presidents would do well to ponder this approach. History would treat them more kindly. The legacy of a man who spends his time worrying about his legacy is always: He worried about his legacy.
Now we know Ford was not silent but discreet. He granted an interview with Bob Woodward in July 2004, to be released posthumously, in which he shared his views. Mr. Woodward reports Ford told him he would not have gone to war in Iraq based on the public information available at the time. “I don’t think I would have ordered the Iraq war. I would have maximized our effort through sanctions, through restrictions, whatever, to find another answer.”
This is the authentic voice of the American foreign-policy establishment, and it reminds me, among other things, that establishments are not all bad. They rise for a reason. One is an ability to apprehend reality.
By speaking posthumously, Ford gave his words greater weight. He did not insert himself into the current debate, and because he wasn’t in the fight he had nothing to gain or lose, no position to defend or attack. And so he could tell the truth as he saw it.
It is not clear who will speak at his funeral, but it is now unfortunately common practice for politicians to see every eulogy as an opportunity. Invited to reflect on biography, they tend to smuggle in as much autobiography as they can, and advance their personal agendas. If Bill Clinton speaks, one suspects he will laud Ford’s personal tolerance. The text: This was a man who did not judge others. The subtext: He wouldn’t have voted to impeach me! If George W. Bush speaks he will likely laud Ford as an exemplar of the old bipartisanship. In this way he will attempt to confer the bipartisan mantle on himself. And so on. I don’t suppose this is terribly harmful, but it often gives short shrift to the departed. Still, Gerald Ford, a practical man who enjoyed the hit and tackle of politics, would have understood. Would have chuckled, in fact.
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There are three points about Ford that I’m not sure can ever be sufficiently appreciated.
The first is that when he pardoned Richard Nixon, he threw himself on a grenade to protect the country from shame, from going too far. It was an act of deep political courage, and it was shocking. Almost everyone in the country hated it, including me. But Ford was right. Richard Nixon had been ruined, forced to resign, run out of town on a rail. There was nothing to be gained—nothing—by his being broken on the dock. What was then the new left would never forgive Ford. They should thank him on their knees that he deprived history of proof that what they called their idealism was not untinged by sadism.
Second, Ford’s personal dignity—his plain Midwestern rectitude, his old-style, pipe-smoking American normality, and his characterological absence of bile, spite and malice—helped the nation over and through the great tearing of the fabric that was Watergate. This is often referred to, and yet it is hard to communicate what a relief it was. Whether right or wrong, hopeless or wise, a normal man was in charge. This was a balm, a real gift to the country.
Third, he did not understand, and so was undone by, the rise of the modern conservative movement. He did not understand the prairie fire signaled by the California tax revolt, and did not see it roaring east. He did not fully understand how offended the American public was by endless government spending and expanding federal power. He did not see the growing estrangement between Republicans on the ground and a leadership they saw as tax collectors for the welfare state. He did not fully appreciate the public desire for a fresher, more candid attitude toward the Soviet Union, and communism in general. He was not at all alive to what would prove to be deep national qualms about abortion. He was not aware of its ability to alarm, to waken the sleepy Evangelicals of the South and the urban ethnics of the North, who’d previously been content to go with the Democratic flow. Ford was oblivious to this. He thought in his own stolid way that abortion was pretty much an extension of the new feminist movement, which he supported. How could a gallant fella not?
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In all this he proved that it is not enough in politics to be good. You have to have vision. You have to be able to see. If you can’t, they can tell, and they’ll retire you.
Which Republicans almost did in the great Ford-Reagan primary of 1976, and the electorate did later that fall.
And yet. This must be said and should be said. He was a good man, and that’s not nothing—it’s something. Gerald Ford fought for his country. He didn’t indulge his angers and appetites. He seems to have thought, in the end, that such indulgence was for sissies—it wasn’t manly. He was sober-minded, solid, respecting and deserving of respect. And at that terrible time, after Watergate, he picked up the pieces and then threw himself on the grenade.
We were lucky to have him. We were really lucky to have him. Rest in peace.