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Posted Sunday, December 31, 2006
The historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. pointed out some years ago that presidential reputations move in cycles, rising and falling as we look back with fresh eyes. Thomas Jefferson has toppled from his pedestal, thanks to modern DNA tests, while John Adams has risen, thanks to David McCullough. John F. Kennedy maintains his popularity among the public but has slipped among historians, while Ronald Reagan continues to climb among both.
But if there is any reputation that has been wholly transformed, surely it is that of Gerald Ford. His pardon of Richard Nixon a month after taking office not only ignited a firestorm but turned him into a target of criticism and merciless ridicule. On its cover, for example, New York magazine ran a fake photo of Bozo the Clown sitting in the Oval Office with a headline, "Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States." Inside, journalist Richard Reeves wrote: "It is not a question of saying the emperor has no clothesthere is a question of whether there is an emperor." A year later, echoing the sentiment of the times, Reeves wrote a book arguing that "Ford is slow. He is also unimaginative and not very articulate." On Saturday Night Live, Chevy Chase made a name for himself by depicting Ford as a hopeless buffoon.
Yet, even before he died and the nation began its mourning, Ford began a long-overdue renaissance. The Kennedy Library, in a decision cherished by Ford, gave him its Profile in Courage Award for the pardon. Richard Reeves manfully recanted, writing a piece in American Heritage entitled "I'm Sorry, Mr. President." Historian Edmund Morris concluded: "Gerald Ford was our most underrated president."
Why does Ford look so much better in the rearview mirror? Mostly, I suspect, because the personal qualities that he brought to public life seem so scarce these days. The simplicity of his burial reminds us again that Ford was, first and foremost, a humble man of the Midwest. When Richard Nixon was president, every chair around the cabinet table was the same height save oneNixon's, which had a back 3 inches higher. The day after Ford's inauguration, I slipped into the Cabinet Room and saw that every single chair, including the president's, was the same height. Not for him the arrogance of power we see so much of these days.
Ford also searched for the best people to help him and insisted they give him their unvarnished views. Over time, he built one of the best cabinets in contemporary history, and as they debated in front of him, Ford engaged in what Warren Bennis calls "deep listening" before he made the call. While conservative by inclination, Ford was guided less by ideology than by a pragmatic judgment of what was best for the nation. He vetoed big spending bills, but he also granted amnesty for draft dodgers and pursued détente with Moscow. It's revealing but no real surprise to learn now that he opposed the war in Iraq. This was a man who was healthy in both body and spirit.
A man to trust. But most of all, Ford brought a forthright honesty to politics. In his two dozen years in Congress, he built up trust on both sides of the aisle, so that when Nixon wanted John Connally to replace Spiro Agnew in the vice presidency, Democratic leaders Mike Mansfield and Carl Albert persuaded him instead to choose Fordthe man they trusted. As he testified to the Congress before taking office, Ford believed, "Truth is the glue that holds government together, not only government but civilization itself."
Bob Hartmann, who had served Ford well for years on Capitol Hill, remembers accompanying him into the Cabinet Room hours after his inauguration for an important ritual: selecting portraits of three former presidents to display on the walls. Nixon had chosen Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Dwight Eisenhowermen who had inspired his own dreams. Pondering for a moment, Ford decided to keep Ike and to replace TR with Lincoln.
"The other might be a Democrat," Hartmann suggested. "How about Andy Jackson?" "No. Harry Truman," Ford answered, remembering how Truman, too, had been drawn to the White House by fate and how he had fared. Searching for words, Hartmann told his friend, "You are going to be a great president." "Thanks, Bob," Ford responded. "I don't know about that. But I want to be a good president."
And so he wasgood in the best sense of the word.
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