On the occasion of President Gerald R. Ford’s death, the press applied the word decent to him so often that it stopped sounding like praise and started to sound like an insult.
On television, Morton Kondracke, Donna Brazile, Charles Gibson, Bob Schieffer, Andrea Mitchell, and Pat Buchanan all testified to Ford’s decency. The New York Times’ obituary rang the decency bell three times, the Chicago Tribune’s twice, the Boston Globe’s once. News coverage in both the New York Timesand the Los Angeles Timescited Ford’s decency, and so did Newsweekand Time.
But the Washington Post led the parade, hailing his royal decency in at least three news stories (Dec. 28, Dec. 29, and Dec. 31), as well as in a Dec. 28 editorial and a Dec. 29 op-ed by Watergate investigator Richard Ben-Veniste. A Dec. 28 Style section tribute by Wil Haygood buried the dead president with seven “D” words—and that’s not counting the eighth in the headline.
When not calling him decent, the press called him “honorable.” When not calling him honorable, it praised his “integrity,” his “virtue,” his “common sense,” and his “humble” style. They did so with such unceasing frequency you had to wonder what they had against the man. Was it the plaid jackets? The pipe? The bald head?
Ask the average reporter or commentator to pass quick judgment on somebody who just died and as likely as not they’ll reach for something that combines lukewarm praise with an appropriate cliché. If it’s a New Englander in the casket, they might go with “flinty.” For an African-American, especially if they don’t want to go on record as agreeing with him, they’ll probably pick “articulate.” For a Latino, “industrious” or “passionate.” When assessing the sons and daughters of that great flyover territory known as the Midwest, the formula suggests pale platitudes about honor, honesty, and being decent, as long as the word means “adequate” and “just enough to meet the purpose.”
The press has probably gone soft on Ford because he gave them very little material to work with. But he was more zero than cipher, somebody who made no enemies in politics because he rarely took meaningful political stands. Neither moderate nor conservative, he appears to have reached his political and personal zenith in the late 1960s and early 1970s when he happily led the humiliated minority in the House of Representatives. He excelled at bowing—to Democrats, to the press, to foreign dictators, as my Slate colleague Christopher Hitchens documents in his serving of strong meat.
The worst journalists produce their best work when the opposition party does their thinking for them, but this week the Democrats had a living president on their mind. Let’s hope the Republicans aren’t similarly preoccupied when Jimmy Carter is ushered to his reward.
Ford gave the commencement address at my land-grant diploma mill the year I graduated, and I got to shake his hand when he handed me my degree. Comedian Frazer Smith, just ahead of me in line, hit Jerry in the paw with a hand buzzer as they shook. “Oooooooo!!!!” the future president said, hopping a step back. Buzz me at firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slateis owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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