Politics & Policy

Model Ford

Remembering Gerald Ford.

Lee Edwards is Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at the Heritage Foundation.

To Betty and the entire Ford family, we thank you for your remarkable husband and father who gave his all for his country. May a grateful nation remember his service and the sacrifices of your family. We pray that God will grant President Ford eternal peace and comfort you in the days ahead.

— Former Michigan governor John Engler is president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers.

Steven F. Hayward

It seems nearly every president enjoys an uptick in regard from historical revisionism decades after leaving office. Gerald Ford actually deserves it. It was his misfortune to be something of a 19th century-style president at a time when the rhetorical and mass-media presidency was reaching full flower. It was his further misfortune to be caught between a liberalism entering its final stages of decay but flushed with pride at having brought down Nixon, and a surging conservative movement that was running out of patience with the Republican establishment, of which Ford, a solid Midwestern conservative of the old school, was seen as a prominent member, and therefore an obstacle.

Although Ford confronted the runaway Democratic Congress with his veto pen and behind the scenes took the first steps toward economic and regulatory reforms that reached full fruition under Reagan, he seemed rhetorically unequal to the challenge of standing up to liberalism.

His greatest verbal gaffe — liberating Poland in the presidential debate in the 1976 — arose from a clumsy attempt to preserve the latitude of the Helsinki Accords that were widely reviled on the right, but which in the fullness of time served their intended purpose of undermining the legitimacy of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe and emboldening anti-Communist dissidents. Amidst the enervating fog of detente at the time, this was impossible to foresee, even if Ford had phrased his argument more deftly. In hindsight we can now appreciate that Ford served us very well.

— Steven F. Hayward is a resident scholar the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order, 1964-1980.

John O’Sullivan

Gerald Ford was a decent and competent man who was thrust by history into a series of grave crises, who dealt with them well, but who was damaged by a series of symbolic (and sometimes actual) mis-steps. He inherited a high rate of inflation and brought it steadily down by orthodox monetary measures. But he camouflaged this success with the irrelevant and unpopular jawboning campaign WIN (for Whip Inflation Now.)

Having inherited a masochistic Congress determined to lose South Vietnam, he overcame the defeatist post-Vietnam Syndrome with his intervention to free the Mayaguez almost immediately and began to rebuild America’s power and reputation. But his clumsy debating reference to Poland being independent of the Soviets (when he meant that the U.S. did not accept its subjection) made him seem uninformed and weak on national security.

Having inherited the post-Watergate national malaise, he restored America’s trust in its government. But his pardoning of Nixon — though brave and necessary to prevent the long national nightmare becoming a permanent one — temporarily undermined that trust again. Fnally, this accomplished athlete fell down once too often. In the eyes if the counterdultural media, the missteps rather than the

achievements came to symbolize his administration.

In fact Ford was a good president. He took over a wounded nation and restored its spirit. The electorate then denied him the chance to become a great president by electing Jimmy Carter — who promptly took

over a restored nation and wounded its spirit.

— John O’Sullivan is author of the new book The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World.

Lawrence W. Reed

Gerald Ford was not a great president, but he wasn’t a bad man either. If not for the Nixon pardon, wildly unpopular at the time, America might have been spared the agony of the Carter years. But it’s difficult for anyone inspired by the principled leadership of Ronald Reagan to recall fondly the two and a half years Gerald Ford occupied the White House. While the president was fighting inflation with “WIN” buttons at home, he was accommodating the Soviets abroad with an agreement in Helsinki that essentially endorsed the very domination of Poland and other East European satellites that the president oddly denied existed in a debate with Jimmy Carter.

Nonetheless, eight years into the Bush II era, I long for Gerry Ford’s veto pen. Ford nixed no fewer than 66 bills, compared to the current chief executive’s paltry, solitary one.

Thank you, Jerry, for the courage to tell Congress 66 times that its handiwork didn’t deserve to be enshrined in law. George, you have two years to break Gerry’s record, and there will likely be far more than just 66 bad bills that will make it to your desk.

— Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan.

Peter Robinson

I met Gerald Ford only once. As a speechwriter for then Vice President George H. W. Bush, I had drafted remarks for the vice president to use in dedicating the Betty Ford Center, and, when we reached Rancho Mirage, the vice president asked me to show the remarks to the former president.

When I knocked on his door, Gerald Ford said simply, “Come in!” Then greeted me with a smile and a handshake and had me take a chair next to his. Ford read my draft in silence, then nodded, smiled once again, and said he liked it. When I asked for his autograph, the former president spent a few moments looking around for a piece of paper — we were in conference room — then simply signed the draft itself. “Well done. Gerald R. Ford.”

An inconsequential meeting, but it provided a glimpse of Ford’s simplicity, modesty, and businesslike, genial decency.

In the bitterest moment since the Civil War, Ford applied those plain traits to the nation, on which they acted like a balm.

Occupying the White House for less than three years, he displayed neither FDR’s ability to enchant nor Reagan’s to inspire; he was, as himself once put it, “a Ford, not a Lincoln.” Yet all the same he proved a great American, and, as chief executive, providential: exactly the man we needed, exactly when we needed him.

Well done, Gerald R. Ford.

— Peter Robinson, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life, among other books.

James Rosen

Historians will debate President Ford’s legacy for decades to come. The national re-evaluation of Ford’s stature, so badly damaged by his pardon of ex-President Nixon, commenced in the weeks preceding Election Day 1976, when Jimmy Carter, theretofore enjoying a commanding lead in the polls, prevailed by a whisker. Unlike Harry Truman, Gerald Ford lived to see redemption: the Profile in Courage award, fond tributes from across the aisle, polls showing overwhelming, if retrospective, agreement with the pardon.

Although Representative Ford earned high ratings from Americans for Conservative Action, conservatives recoiled at President Ford’s selection of Nelson Rockefeller as vice president and his retention of Henry Kissinger as secretary of state. In 1999, Robert Kagan chastised Ford and Kissinger for “presiding over a period in American foreign policy widely regarded as disastrous.”

Ford’s greater legacy will be his decisive action to uphold the continuity of American government in wild and unprecedented times. This he achieved with his very first words as president: “The oath that I have taken is the same oath that was taken by George Washington and by every president under the Constitution.” Gerald Ford reminded Americans ours is a nation of laws — and he led by example.

— James Rosen is the Fox News State Department Correspondent and author of the forthcoming book The Strong Man: John Mitchell, Nixon, and Watergate (Doubleday).

Mark J. Rozell

Ford did not get the respect that he deserved as president, especially given the enormously difficult circumstances under which he became the chief executive. He did a remarkable job at bringing trust back to government and making Americans believe again that there are decent people in public life. In many ways, he was a model for decency in public life. Ford never personalized his differences with political opponents. He showed that it was possible to disagree with opponents but remain friends with them at the same time. Not so many people in public life today follow his lead in that regard, unfortunately.

Every discussion of Ford’s role in history mentions the Nixon pardon. It was absolutely the right thing to do, although he paid the ultimate political price for his action. Ford understood that the overriding purpose of the pardon power was to protect the national interest and he used his authority to do what was right, even though he knew it would be enormously unpopular. In so doing he demonstrated the true characteristics of a leader. We can especially appreciate Ford’s leadership in the current era of poll-driven decision-making.

Many observers have maintained that Ford was a mere “footnote” in presidential history. They point to that fact that he was not elected to office and that he served a mere 2 1/2 years as president. Nonetheless, over time, history will properly acknowledge and appreciate what Ford did for this country during a period of crisis. Few people could have stepped into the Oval Office immediately in the wake of Watergate and make people believe in their government again. The country survived this crisis in large part due to the unexpected leadership of a man who had never been elected to any office outside of his congressional district in Michigan and had never aspired to any higher elected office.

— Mark J. Rozell is a professor in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University.

NR SymposiumNational Review symposia are discussions featuring contributors to and friends of the magazine.


The Latest