Friday, December 29, 2006

Ford: A model worth reconsidering

In death, life tends to get sanitized and ordinary people suddenly become heroic. When famous people die, lives get airbrushed and calling cards get hijacked by flights of exaggeration.

Once more, a former president has passed on to wherever it is we go, when we die. I never thought of President Ford as a historically significant president, although in fact, when he succeeded Spiro Agnew, who had resigned due to allegations of tax evasion and money laundering, he became the first Vice President appointed under the provisions of the 25th amendment. Less than one year later, on August 9, 1974, Ford became the first person to assume the office, having not been elected to the position.

As a 12-year-old at the time, and beginning to pay as much attention to politics as a politically precocious pre-teenager might, I recall the mid-70s as a time when the country seemed to be in a state of upheaval.

Three years before (I was in third grade), I remember Nixon imposing wage and price controls, a move that was extraordinary during peacetime. With inflation raging at the time, my father’s uncharacteristically patient explanation of Nixon’s actions stuck with me. With a paper route at the time and a nine-year-old’s understanding of the relation between prices and wages, the significance of inflation was easier to understand than one might imagine to a youngster.

While my parents weren’t huge Nixon supporters, his resignation took on an air of significance in 1974, as we learned the news from our nightly guest, Walter Cronkite. None of my family and for that matter, most Americans, knew much about Gerald Ford.

We knew he’d been a football player. Like most men his age, he’d served during WWII. As a member of the Congress, from a blue-collar state like Michigan, Ford had the kind of credentials that got you respected in a working-class home like mine and a mill town like Lisbon Falls.

One of Ford’s traits is that he was a likeable person and didn’t have a lot of enemies. Surprisingly, Lyndon Johnson didn’t like Ford, primarily because the practical Midwesterner didn’t like Johnson’s Great Society policies and was openly critical of them, as unneeded, or wasteful.

Apparently, Johnson, known for his salty speech, said that Ford “…couldn’t fart and chew gum at the same time.” The press, in an effort to sanitize the expression changed it to “chew gum and walk..,” which stuck.

During his tenure as president, this former college football star, who played for two undefeated Michigan Wolverine teams, in 1932 and 1933 and was voted team MVP in 1934, became known as a klutz. Ford actually was offered an opportunity to play professional football, but turned it down. [During this time in the U.S., playing professional sports was far from the lucrative, “sure-thing” that it’s become today] Instead, he went to Yale, to coach football and for the opportunity to attend law school.

As for the klutz part, there were several examples that later got amplified. On a visit to Austria, Ford tripped down the steps of Air Force One — to the chuckles and clicks of a press corps. Some posit that, in the aftermath of Watergate, the press was no longer interested in protecting the image of the president. The media seemed to compensate for its prior restraint by going overboard in their relentless spotlighting of each one of Ford’s subsequent missteps. He fell down on skis. He bumped his head while getting off a helicopter. His stray golf balls became the stuff of legend.

"It's not hard to find Jerry Ford on a golf course," quipped Bob Hope. "You just follow the wounded."

Chevy Chase, at the time, a member of SNL’s cast, lampooned Ford as the president who couldn't stay on his feet. In Time Magazine, Chase explained his technique:

"Ford is so inept that the quickest laugh is the cheapest laugh, and the cheapest is the physical joke." Part of the problem may have been that Ford really did stumble more than most people do: A nagging knee injury, acquired during his football years, possibly contributed to his imbalance.

Looking back, given the perspective of history and time, Ford being seen as a bungler is rather ironic, given that he may have been the most athletic of any recent president and jabs at his intelligence seem unwarranted, given our current intellectually-challenged inhabitant of the oval office. The shots at him over his supposed clumsiness apparently bothered him. In his memoir, “A Time to Heal,” he had this to say about the constant scrutiny his gaffes received.

“Every time I stumbled or bumped my head or fell in the snow, reporters zeroed in on that to the exclusion of everything else," he complained. "The news coverage was harmful, but even more damaging was the fact that Johnny Carson and Chevy Chase used my missteps for their jobs. Their antics — and I'll admit that I laughed at them myself — helped create the public perception of me as a stumbler. And that wasn't funny.”

As they say, hindsight is 50-50 and in retrospect, Ford would be a welcome change in this time of ratcheted rhetoric and hyperbolic huffing and puffing.

At the time, I wasn’t aware of how unkind the media can be to public figures. The same press that took great pleasure in amplifying each and every misstep of Ford, during his presidential tenure, now lionizes him, in typical post-mortem fashion. How ironic.

Ford’s presidency was an important one, for a country torn by the war in Vietnam, buffeted by an economy ravaged by inflation and reeling from political scandal (back before that sort of thing became Washington’s modus operandi).

With his unassuming manner and simple Midwestern humility, he helped restore some dignity to the office he held, ever so briefly.

Ford was a moderate Republican in the truest sense, back when such a designation didn’t seem like an oxymoron—a man given more to compromise, bipartisanship and the spirit of cooperation that seems archaic, only 30 years later.

Interestingly, in a 2004 interview with the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, whose details had been embargoed, Ford stated that he disagreed with the justifications for the Iraq War and indicated that he would not have gone to war had he been president.
In 2001, Ford broke with conservative members of the Republican party by stating that gay couples “ought to be treated equally. Period.”

He became the highest ranking Republican to embrace full equality for gay couples. Certainly a far cry from the dominant ideology of most ranking Republicans, today.
In reflecting back on his life and his presidency, one wonders just what kind of role Ford would be allowed today, in a party of ideological hacks, kool-aid drinkers and moral miscreants.

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