Friday, December 29, 2006

Gerald Ford's Presidency Viewed Well by Historians

The nation is mourning this week the death of Gerald R. Ford, the nation's 38th president. The Washington Post obituary is here. Ford was a modest man. He said he was a Ford, not a Lincoln, in an automotive play of words, and he's generally viewed as the prototypical "average" president in American public opinion. (See this CBS News item for polling trends on the Ford presidency.)

Historians, though, give the Ford presidency high marks,
according to this Los Angeles Times story:

Gerald R. Ford left office a defeated incumbent vilified for his pardon of President Nixon. But in hindsight, his short, tough presidency has been viewed kindly by historians.

Long overlooked as a lightweight, Ford and his brand of moderate, consensus-oriented Republicanism — out of vogue in today's GOP — have earned high marks from presidential scholars in the three decades since he left office.

And the pardon is now seen by many as a wise decision that helped the nation move beyond Watergate.

"His early, sure touch on reassuring the nation in the aftermath of the Watergate meltdown … was really a restorative, refreshing contribution that he made, giving people hope," said Bruce Buchanan, a presidential scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. "Then he took the step of pardoning Richard Nixon. Most people think in retrospect that it was the right thing to do, but at the time it smelled of politics as usual."

Ford decided to pardon Nixon just a month after he resigned in 1974. The former president had faced possible criminal prosecution for his role in covering up a 1972 break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate office complex.

The controversy cast a shadow over Ford's entire presidency.

He became the first president to testify under oath on Capitol Hill, trying to convince Congress that he had not made a secret deal with Nixon to exchange his resignation for a pardon.

In the end, historians say, the pardon helped the country recover from Watergate, but it cost Ford the presidency.

"Unlike many of us at the time, President Ford recognized that the nation had to move forward, and could not do so if there was a continuing effort to prosecute former President Nixon," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who opposed the pardon at the time, as he awarded Ford a 2001 Profile in Courage Award for leaders who make unpopular but correct decisions. "So President Ford made a courageous decision."

Melvin R. Laird, a former Republican congressman from Wisconsin, former secretary of Defense and a close friend of Ford's, said that was the former president's style. Through almost three decades of public service as a Michigan congressman, vice president and president, Laird said, Ford frequently put politics aside to do what he considered the right thing.

"He put his country first, even ahead of his church," Laird said. "He always felt that politics were very important, but not as important as doing the right thing for the country."

The article cites Ford's own assessment of his legacy:

"No doubt arguments over the Nixon pardon will continue for as long as historians relive those tumultuous days. But I would be less than candid — indeed, less than human — if I didn't tell you how profoundly grateful Betty and I are for this recognition," Ford said in 2001 as he accepted the Profile in Courage Award.

"Courage is not something to be gauged in a poll or located in a focus group. No advisor can spin it. No historian can backdate it," Ford continued. "In the age-old contest between popularity and principle, only those willing to lose for their convictions are deserving of posterity's approval."
The lead editorial at yesterday's Wall Street Journal noted:

Perhaps President Ford's greatest achievement was in demonstrating to a nation angry and dispirited over Watergate and Vietnam that its political system was resilient and the Office of the Presidency still worthy of respect. In that sense his Presidency was a triumph of Ford's personal character--not the first, or last, time America has been fortunate in the leaders our democracy has produced.
See also Peggy Noonan's remembrance of Ford at today's

I've been very moved by this week's commemoration of Ford's life. Gerald Ford embodied the essence of good -- his legacy is one of true greatness in the American character.

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