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Original article URL: http://bridgemi.com/2014/08/forty-years-later-appreciating-president-fords-leadership/

Guest commentary

Forty years later, appreciating President Ford’s leadership

Patrick McLean

Patrick McLean

For those with an eye on the American political calendar, the summer of 2014 marks the 40th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s resignation. The media has already begun revisiting Watergate and the road toward Nixon’s likely impeachment as we approach the August 9 date of his 1974 resignation. But the date marks the flip side of the same coin, the swearing in of our nation’s 38th president, Gerald R. Ford, the only Michigander to occupy the White House.

Gerald Ford inherited much more than political chaos when he took the oath of office. The economy was in a shambles, reeling from high inflation, an oil embargo and low job growth. American society remained fractured by the Vietnam War, and the foreign policy successes of Nixon in China were overshadowed by conflict in the Middle East and a challenging nuclear arms relationship with the Soviet Union. It was not a hand any new president would hope to be dealt.

Ford assumed the office when American trust in the political establishment was at a low point. The president’s challenge was to restore the integrity and dignity of the White House and the presidency at a time when Nixon’s fate remained in limbo since the resignation had not absolved him of potential guilt in the Watergate scandal and subsequent cover up. In spite of Ford’s desire to move the country beyond Nixon and Watergate, the Nixon issues would not go away as long as the possibility of an indictment, trial and sentencing remained real.

Ford pledged in his swearing-in statement after he took the oath of office that he “would be the President of all the people.” He made great strides toward transparency and openness by meeting more frequently with the press and by taking advantage of his strong, personal relationships with members of Congress from both sides of the political aisle to work in a more bipartisan fashion.

As Ford makes clear in his memoir “A Time to Heal,” he had no use for staffers who would simply reinforce what he already thought, instead directing his senior advisors to bring him competing policy options along with their best professional recommendations for the proper course of action. He sought to replace the blatant political decision making of the Nixon White House with a more thoughtful process that would better serve the American people.

By keeping many of Nixon’s top cabinet members in place, Ford hoped to signal to Americans that there was continuity in the country’s governance even in the face of a constitutional crisis. As he reminded us in his August 9, 1974 remarks as he became the first vice president elevated by the 25th Amendment, “the Constitution works.”

The American people responded favorably to the new president, giving him strong approval ratings in his first month in office. But Ford knew that difficult decisions would lie ahead.

President Gerald Ford

President Gerald Ford

A divisive pardon

On September 8, 1974, just two months before midterm Congressional elections, Ford made the decision to pardon Richard Nixon. The outcry was deafening and Ford’s approval ratings plummeted, falling almost overnight from 71 percent to 49 percent. Charges – some of which continue even to this day – that the pardon represented a quid pro quo agreement between Ford and Nixon were leveled by the new president’s critics. But over the past forty years, it has become clear that no such evidence exists, and that Gerald Ford, ever true to his moral compass, granted the pardon to allow the country to move beyond Watergate.

He knew the political consequences would be significant, both to himself and to his fellow Republicans running for Congress, but he took the action in spite of this risk, writing later that “the national interest overrode any political considerations.” Years afterward, Ford acknowledged that the pardon may well have cost him the 1976 presidential election against Jimmy Carter.

History has not always been kind to Michigan’s president. The economy did not improve markedly during his tenure. He was criticized for offering amnesty to Vietnam draft dodgers and deserters. His record on foreign policy was viewed as mixed in the immediate aftermath of his time in office. Yet this focus on specific policy outcomes misses the larger successes and lessons of the Ford presidency, that American government at its best can function for the betterment of its citizens and can withstand crises. Further, the right leaders can have a profound impact on the stability of the American political system.

History proved kinder

On the day Ford left office, incoming President Jimmy Carter recognized his predecessor’s service to the country when he thanked Ford “for all he has done to heal our land.”

Long after the Nixon pardon, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy told Ford, while presenting him with the Profiles in Courage Award from the Kennedy Library, that he had come to realize that the pardon was the right thing to do for the country:

“I was one of those who spoke out against his action then. But time has a way of clarifying past events, and now we see that President Ford was right. His courage and dedication to our country made it possible for us to begin the process of healing and put the tragedy of Watergate behind us.”

Another Massachusetts Democrat, former House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, offered the ultimate presidential comparison:

“God has been good to America, especially during difficult times. At the time of the Civil War, He gave us Abraham Lincoln. And at the time of Watergate, He gave us Gerald Ford – the right man at the right time who was able to put our nation back together again.”

After 40 years, it is my view that Michiganders of all political stripes have begun to recognize Gerald Ford as a fine president and a great American. He has over that time become almost apolitical, with Democrats and Republicans alike expressing pride in his legacy. This fortieth anniversary of his swearing in offers all of us an opportunity to reflect what is good about those who choose a career in public service, and to recognize that acrimony and partisan hostility need not be the order of the day. Gerald Ford, through his words and his deeds, taught us that our constitution and our government can indeed work.

Patrick McLean is the Director of the Gerald R. Ford Institute for Leadership in Public Policy and Service at Albion College. He may be reached at pmclean@albion.edu.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

4 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. Cliff Schrader

    Really ! I lived thru this scary period of now American history when the framework of our government at its highest level was being threatened. Jerry Ford was obviously more concerned about protecting his good-old boy- buddies like Nixon and his Republican Party than our U S Constitution. In a county claiming to be “one of laws and not of men” Ford continued the cover-up where the whole truth of what was going on inside the White House to undermine our Constitution will forever be covered- up. I agree Ford should never have been voted out of office … he should have been impeached!

    1. John

      Cliff,
      It is sad that for so many years you have held such negative feelings toward any individual. I served in the military during Vietnam overseas and have let go of any harsh feelings toward Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, or Nixon. People in leadership make decisions that I do not agree, but in a democracy we all do not have to agree. Maybe a look at what is going on in the Middle East shows us how people still hold hatred for decades and cannot let go. I appreciate what President Ford was facing and made decisions to move the country forward.

  2. Brett

    We are supposedly a nation build on laws and justice. We have courts and prisons for people to “pay the price” for breaking the law.
    Richard Nixon was a criminal. He brought the United States to the brink of disaster by breaking the law in numerous ways: wiretapping, campaign laws, lying and perjury, and a host of unethical and bizarre behaviors. He was about to be successfully impeached. To suggest that a powerful and well-known criminal like Nixon should be exonerated and pardoned because we “have to move on” reveals the nature of power, money and political cronyism in the United States.

    Gerald Ford’s greatest accomplishment: appear like a moderate who is trying to “heal a nation” while in reality his pardon was a highly calculated political strategy that ensured Republicans would not lose an excessive number of Congressional and state elections. Ford’s pardon of Nixon completely derailed a full-scale investigation and prosecution which would have likely caused great embarrassment to the Republican Party.

    When do bank robbers and rapists get away with their crimes, because we supposedly need “time to heal?” When do motorists get away with speeding, or a hit and run accident, because its time to “move on?” Unless they are rich and powerfully connected, most ordinary Americans can never get a “get out of jail free” card like Nixon got for any crime they commit, let alone crimes of a national significance that Nixon engaged in.

    Have we forgotten the reason Gerald Ford became Vice-President was because of the criminal prosecution of Nixon’s VP Spiro Agnew for tax fraud?

    We did NOT move the United States forward by allowing Nixon to walk away a free man. It demonstrated to tens of millions of people in the US, and billions of people around the world, that America protects rich and powerful criminals by using fake reasoning, false sympathy and appealing to fake values and misleading ethics. Ford was amazingly weak and demonstratively showed he was not a leader, but a follower, and a follower of powerful Republican party members. His skill was in disguising his outrageous political agenda and appearing to be a moderate. Even Democrats were bamboozled by him, apparently including Tip O’Neill.

    What lessons are taught to young people with a case example like this? John’s comments above make no sense whatsoever. Wanting Nixon to be held accountable is not about holding “negativity” or hatred towards someone. We absolutely should NOT “let go” of negative feelings towards criminals and those who let criminals walk freely without compensating society for their illegal actions and being appropriately punished.

    History is doomed to repeat itself to those who forget the lessons of the past.

  3. Sue

    Personally, I was happy to see Nixon leave and to not have our country forced to see and hear his deeds and face every night on the news while a trial would have dragged out…..It was a very shaky, even frightening time here with demonstrations about everything from drug laws to anti-war. It truly felt like this country could implode any moment. So much hate and generational division.
    When Ford pardoned Nixon I and others were surprised but began to see the wisdom. Nixon was now a non-person swept away and ignored because he was a disgusting power player who was now irrelevant. I’m no bleeding heart but I can’t think of any punishment more fitting for him than being ignored and the humiliating(if it even pierced his concience) interview with David Frost. His own excuses took away any dignity he might have had left. So yes I think Gerald Ford meted out a very just punishment and any who think he was doing it for his own political aspirations, remember his party supported Ronald Reagan shortly thereafter. Didn’t “buy” him any loyalty.

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