Washington’s Jones for Gerald Ford

The very discreet charms (and substantial drawbacks) of Richard Nixon’s successor.

Gerald and Betty Ford, 2000

During the 25 years that I’ve lived in Washington, I have never once heard a negative word spoken here about former President Gerald Ford, who died at 93 on Dec. 26. Within the narrow confines of Permanent Washington—the journalists, lobbyists, and congressional lifers who are the city’s avatars of centrism and continuity—Ford is considered the beau idéal of American leadership. “By the time he finished his short tenure, he had put together one of the most talented administrations, at least of those that I’ve covered in fifty years here,” the Washington Post’s David Broder recalled after Ford’s death. “People who served in the Ford administration will tell you even now, the survivors of that administration, that it was the best experience they ever had in government.”

Washington’s Gerald Ford cult differs from, say, its John F. Kennedy cult or its Ronald Reagan cult in that no branches can be found outside the nation’s capital. It is possible to say, “America loves JFK,” or “America loves Reagan,” but no one in his right mind would ever say, “America loves Ford.” (If attempted, the statement would surely be mistaken for an advertising slogan touting the Dearborn, Mich.-based auto manufacturer.) America has not given Gerald Ford a lot of thought. To the extent it has, it’s pegged Ford as a dimwitted klutz who, though certainly decent enough, extended unwarranted favoritism to his fellow Republican Richard Nixon by granting the former president a blanket pardon. The latter gesture probably cost Ford the 1976 election.

The American electorate got Ford more right than the Washington mandarins. Permanent Washington believes the Nixon pardon was an act of martyrdom, a necessary gesture allowing the country to move on—even Bob Woodward thinks so—but, in fact, the American system of government was sturdy enough to withstand any prosecution of Richard Nixon. (I have my doubts there would have been any.) Ford would have done far better, both politically and in serving justice, to leave well enough alone. The mandarins are right to say that Gerald Ford was certainly smarter than the caricature invented by Lyndon Johnson (“can’t fart and chew gum at the same time,” with “fart” subsequently softened to “walk”) and later refined by Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live, but he was no genius, particularly in the realm of foreign policy. Because of Ford’s weakness in this area, the White House became a free-fire zone between the pro-détente Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the anti-détente tag team of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, Ford’s successive chiefs of staff. (Maybe veterans of the Ford administration think it “the best experience they ever had in government” because they experienced little supervision from the boss.) Rumsfeld/Cheney ultimately prevailed (as later they would under President George W. Bush), but the experience left Ford sufficiently addled that when, in a 1976 presidential debate with Jimmy Carter, he got asked about the 1975 Helsinki accords—which contained vague, mollifying language recognizing Soviet domination of Eastern Europe—Ford babbled, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.” Max Frankel of the New York Times, who’d posed the question, responded incredulously * (“Did I understand you to say, sir … “), prompting a second nonsensical gusher from Ford:

I don’t believe … the Yugoslavians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don’t believe that the Rumanians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don’t believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. Each of those countries is independent, autonomous: it has its own territorial integrity …

In retrospect, Ford surely meant to deny not the fact of Soviet domination in Eastern Europe, but merely U.S. acquiescence in that domination. Finding the right way to say so required Ford to reconcile two successive and fundamentally irreconcilable foreign-policy stances. Ford resolved this tension by spouting palpable untruths guaranteed to offend the pro-détente camp, the anti-détente camp, and just about everyone else except the Politburo. These comments about Eastern Europe remain, I believe, the single dumbest thing ever said by a sitting president during my lifetime, heavy competition from the present incumbent notwithstanding.

Ford also had his good points, and these deserve to be noted. Although Ford’s Whip Inflation Now program, remembered today chiefly for producing ridiculous little buttons that said “WIN,” was treated as a joke, Joseph Nocera points out in his book A Piece of the Action  that under Ford, inflation dropped from double digits down to below 5 percent. Unfortunately, during the same period, unemployment rose to 8 percent, which hurt Ford in the 1976 election. That nonetheless compares favorably with the economy under Ford’s successor, Jimmy Carter. By October 1980, Ronald Reagan could point out that the “misery index” (unemployment plus inflation) had risen under President Carter from less than 13 to over than 20. The American Prospect’s Harold Myerson recently pointed out that when Ford’s nemesis William O. Douglas stepped down from the bench in 1975 (Ford, while serving as House minority leader, had led an idiotic impeachment drive against Douglas based partly on Douglas’ allowing something he’d written to appear in the racy Evergreen Review), Gerald Ford appointed to the Supreme Court John Paul Stevens, who has since become a crucial bulwark against an increasingly ideological conservative majority.

Ford was not an ideologue, and during his presidency the country was not ideological. We remember those years as tumultuous, and they were—it was the Watergate scandal that made Ford president in the first place, and it was during Ford’s presidency that the Vietnam War came to its ignominious end. But Bill Bishop of the Austin American-Statesman did some number-crunching a couple of years ago, and concluded that geographic self-segregation at the county level by party affiliation reached its nadir in 1975, when Gerald Ford was president. Conservatives and liberals lived in closer proximity than before or since, and that minimized partisan enmity in both the country and in Washington. As I wrote at the time:

The 1970s, which most of us remember as an era of high inflation, long gas lines, and malaise, were, in short, the Golden Age of Bipartisanship. Gerald Ford, the most boring man in modern memory to occupy the Oval Office, was its high priest.

That is why Washington loves Gerald Ford. Comity and bipartisanship are easy to overrate, and Permanent Washington can always be counted on to overrate them. At the moment, though, it does seem we could use a bit more.

Correction, Dec. 28, 2006: An earlier version of this column mistakenly said it was Jimmy Carter who responded, “Did I understand you to say, sir. …” (Return to the corrected sentence.)