Gerald Ford was smarter than advertised. But decent and honest?
For days now, we've been saturated by the mainstream media's deification of the late President Ford. (Even many progressive outlets have been surprisingly muted in their criticism of his record.) This fantastical portrait demanded expurgating from his obituary such moral acts as green-lighting Indonesia's invasion of East Timor, the result of which condemned hundreds of thousands of its citizens to slaughter, decimating one-third of its population.
Does that sound like the "innately decent" Jerry Ford we keep hearing about?
Lacking the charisma, eloquence and wit of a Kennedy, Reagan or Clinton, Ford embraced his limitations as a politician and forged a successful career as a reliable behind-the-scenes role player, an honest face and affable demeanor used to obscure the realities of some of his party's, and our government's, darkest machinations.
In his role on the Warren Commission (detailed in his handwritten notes released by the U.S. government-endorsed Assassination Record Review Board in 1997), Ford pressed for a key edit in the commission’s final report that worked to preserve the single-bullet theory, moving the point of entry from JFK’s upper back to the base of his neck. The original line in the Warren Commission’s report read: “A bullet had entered his back at a point slightly below the shoulder to the right of the spine." Ford wanted it changed to: "A bullet had entered the back of his neck slightly to the right of the spine." The commission settled on: "A bullet had entered the base of the back of his neck slightly to the right of the spine." Whether one believes that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, clearly Ford’s manipulation of evidence served not to shed more light but to safeguard the plausibility of the “magic bullet,” which the commission said traveled on to critically wound Senator Connally.
Little known as well is Ford’s close ties to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who, incidentally, was championing the lone gunman story before the Warren Commission had even convened. While serving on the commission, Ford also served as Hoover’s inside man, reporting back to him the details of the proceedings. In September 1975, in his remarks at the dedication for the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building, Ford said of the decidely crooked man: “J. Edgar Hoover served under eight Presidents - Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard Nixon. All had high praise for this man and his professional achievements - praise which I am pleased to join in here on this auspicious occasion.” Praise, on the contrary, that Kennedy most certainly did not share.
Of course, then there’s the pardon.
In much of the mainstream media, there is only the pardon, which is presented almost uniformly in the most favorable light: Ford ruined his chance of being elected president by pardoning Nixon; thus, it was a selfless, courageous act, all in an effort to heal America’s wound. It's a nice story. I'm sure it's the same story that convinced Ford to go ahead with the pardon. But sentimentality aside, it’s a story that fails to take into account the reality of Ford’s political career. No Republican was better fit than Ford to pardon Nixon and simultaneously convince Americans it was for their own good. Though he may have lost the 1976 Presidential Election because of it, that Americans weren’t storming the White House was testament to his powers to, if not heal, then numb. As he addressed the nation, Ford said he sought to "firmly shut and seal this book" on the Watergate scandal. Mission accomplished. Truly.
This story also ignores the longtime friendship Ford and Nixon shared, forged in the late 1940s. News of this friendship, though certainly available to the media before now, is trickling in from Bob Woodward’s just released excerpts from an interview he conducted with Ford last year. Most notable is that Ford admitted he was compelled to pardon Nixon because of their friendship: “I looked upon him as my personal friend. And I always treasured our relationship. And I had no hesitancy about granting the pardon, because I felt that we had this relationship and that I didn't want to see my real friend have the stigma.” While Ford was the House minority leader, Nixon, in fact, sought his counsel during the Watergate scandal. Said Ford, “I think that Nixon felt I was about the only person he could really trust on the Hill” and called himself Nixon's "only real friend."
Ford asked Woodward not to release the contents of the interview until after his death (which included his criticisms of George W. Bush as well as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld - both of whom served as his chief of staff). Yet rather than presenting this news as the bombshell revelation it is - that Ford saved his friend Nixon from having to account for his crimes in the guise of healing our country - the national media snored today, reporting the story as if it were a rather inconsequential footnote, focusing as much or more on the trickle of criticisms du jour from the Woodward interview, today directed at Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and the extremist path of the Republican Party.
On taking the oath of office as president, Ford said, “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works. Our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here, the people rule.” But the full pardon of Nixon just one month later, especially in light of Woodward’s interview, reveals the utter hollowness and galling mendacity behind Ford’s words, no matter how genial their messenger. What better example of a government of men - and not laws - than providing a full pardon to his felonious pal? Moreover, in giving Nixon a get-out-of-jail-free card, Ford set a dangerous precedent for imperial presidencies of the future.
Surely, we are all paying a price for that today. And we will continue to do so as we attempt to hold our current leaders accountable for their actions. Because of Ford, the likelihood of this has been greatly diminished, which of course fuels the disregard of leaders like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
Maybe Gerald Ford was a nice guy in person (he obviously didn't come off like the petulant psychopath currently at our country's helm). But Gerald Ford was the consummate party hack. The loyal tool they pulled out of the shed when they needed to appear trustworthy or were desperate for an escape route. He was the mold for "moderate" GOP tools of today, such as Senator Pat Roberts, another soft-spoken everyman who has covered time and again for the Bush administration’s flagrant lawbreaking.
In December 1975, just days after General Suharto invaded East Timor and the genocide of the Timorese population was in full swing, President Ford, an avid golfer, sent him a gift set of golf balls. This anecdote is an even darker twist on Jerald terHorst’s summation of Ford (TerHorst, who served as his first press secretary, resigned in protest over the Nixon pardon and later wrote a biography on Ford): “The problem with him - he doesn’t like to be kidded about it - but the fact is, this guy would, if he saw a school kid in front of the White House who needed clothing, if he was the right size, he’d give him the shirt off his back, literally. Then he’d go right in the White House and veto the school lunch bill.”
I won’t be dancing on Gerald Ford's grave, but excuse me if I don't shed a tear for him either.
I'll save that for James Brown.