Politics & Policy

Secrets of the Crypt

A president's posthumous anger.

Ford’s interviews offer assessments of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, George H. W. Bush, and Clinton. He declined to comment on George W. Bush.

Politicians often have acerbic opinions about their contemporaries. Winston Churchill described Clement Attlee (Britain’s prime minister, 1945-1951) as “a modest man who has much to be modest about,” and later as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing.” But then no one ever lauded Winston Churchill as his nation’s model of principled civility. To think that President Ford devoted regular time over the last 25 years of his life to secretly bad-mouthing fellow presidents with the expectation of having his opinions un-shrouded as he was lowered away is a bit chilling.

PRIVATE STEAM ROOM

Shouldn’t we add a little addendum to those funeral orations? “President Gerry Ford: He saved his spite for one last bite.”

Ford at one level was conscious of the dignity of the office he had once held and did not want to drag the office or himself down by slanging his successors. Maintaining a public persona of quiet and calm respect for 30 years is an accomplishment, especially if, during most of those years, Ford was privately steaming. Steaming may not be the right word. His comments on Clinton, for example, are coolly dismissive: “I never felt that, when the chips were down, in a tough crisis, he would make the right decision.” He judges Clinton a kind of scoundrel (“You could never give Clinton a high mark on integrity.”) but in such a tone so detached that he might as well be saying, “His grades in spelling leave room for improvement.” This isn’t the voice of a man stewing in resentment over what his successors have wrought. Rather, Ford seems at moments like this to be the retired sportsman coolly appraising the techniques of those currently in the game.

It would be asking much to say that an elder statesman never open his mouth on such matters or record his thoughts for posterity. But the publication of these interviews just weeks after Ford’s death does give them an air of score-settling. But even that is not accurate. Some reporters, for example, have noted that Ford’s opinions changed from interview to interview over the years. In 1981, Ford rated Jimmy Carter as “the poorest president of my lifetime.” In 1983, he praised Carter for various foreign-policy accomplishments, including the Panama Canal Treaty. In 1998, Ford declared that Carter “will be looked on as a better president than some comments we hear today.”

So what exactly was Ford doing when he started giving these interviews to a local reporter, Maury DeJonge, in 1979, and then kept them going after DeJonge moved on a few years later? Twenty-five years of secret interviews suggests a pretty strong motive. Moreover, Ford allowed himself in these interviews to pronounce the sorts of belittling judgments that were noticeably absent from his public demeanor. No one who knew President Ford ever described him as eager to dwell on the faults of others.

I suspect that what we see in Ford’s secret interviews is the old main-street Republican discovering the allure of expressive individualism. The secret interviews were more than an outlet for things Ford wanted to say publicly but couldn’t. They were a breeding ground for the whole idea — the vanity — that his private judgments really mattered and should be recorded. Had he wished to stay in character, he could have done what some other presidents had done: write books. President Ulysses S. Grant’s memoir is masterpiece, without a shred of self-importance. Even the disgraced and perpetually self-pitying Richard Nixon found a way to write serious books. Ford in fact did write his autobiography, A Time to Heal, in 1979. The Grand Rapids Press secret interviews can be seen as his regular supplement to A Time to Heal, the therapeutic title of which may enunciate where Ford is headed next — which is into a world where emotional tonalities and psychologized relationships loom larger and larger.

Ford looks back to Eisenhower as “the best president of my lifetime.” The judgment rests partly on what Ike did: He built NATO and stopped the Soviets. Ford’s assessment of Eisenhower, however, ultimately rests on Ike’s general manner: “He was not a person who did a lot of evident things, but he ran the country in a very responsible way.” This sort of bland assessment of a president’s aura runs through many of Ford’s comments. Truman is “decisive;” Carter “was a very decent, fine individual;” Clinton, an excellent “salesman” who didn’t have “the willpower to face up to a crisis.” None of these characterizations is the least bit surprising or even faintly insightful. They are simply commonly held views expressed in pedestrian language. What we learn from them perhaps is that when Jerry Ford cut loose in his secret interviews he remained as dull and conventional as he was when he was speaking on the record.

Personality Issues

Still, the secret interviews do show the stalwart Republican drinking in the Kool-Aid of contemporary culture. Instead of analyzing the complex political situations faced by presidents and assessing their skill in handling them, Ford more and more registers them as personalities. Because of his longevity, Ford had an unparalleled opportunity to observe and comment on the statecraft of other presidents. As House Minority Leader for eight years (1965-1973), he had an intimacy with Congress that few of his successors had. On hearing that Ford had left some kind of political testament in the form of these interviews, I imagined we would hear his sober reflections on how other presidents had threaded their way through a quarter century of crises from the moment that 53 Americans were taken hostage in November 1979, through the liberation of Eastern Europe, and the aftermath of 9/11. Maybe such sober reflection is still to come from unreleased interviews, but what we have so far is just grouchy faultfinding mixed with a few attaboys.

Moreover, it is not just presidents that merge into the psychological mists. The end of the Cold War came about, as Ford explains: “When you put peace, prosperity, and human rights against poverty, a massive military program and a lack of human rights, communism was bound to collapse….No president, no Democrat or Republican, can claim credit for those programs. I’ll tell you who deserves the credit — the American people.” This is pretty wooly thinking for a former commander-in-chief. Presidents played no significant role “for those programs?” These “programs” just happened by some collective emanation from good-willed Americans? And the peace, prosperity, and human-rights advantage had existed for decades without communism collapsing. Ford’s assertion on this point recalls that strange moment in October 1976 when, debating Jimmy Carter, Ford declared, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration,” and went on to explain, “I don’t believe … that the Yugoslavians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don’t believe that the Romanians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don’t believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. Each of these countries is independent, autonomous, it has its own territorial integrity, and the United States does not concede that those countries are under the domination of the Soviet Union.”

That was jaw dropping at the time and still is. We can imagine a president refusing to concede the legitimacy of Soviet domination in these countries, but President Ford distinctly turned wish into reality. Perhaps it was a glimpse of the Jerry Ford who three years later sat down with the reporter from the Grand Rapids Press.

Ford’s New Anger

In the last few weeks, I have written a couple of pieces on NRO about the rise of New Anger on the Left and Stanley Kurtz, reviewed my new book, A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now, here as well. All three pieces observe that New Anger — this proud, self-satisfied, and publicly acceptable form of belittling other people — has found homes on both the Left and Right. New Anger is more widespread, more intense, and more central to the Left, I argue, because it is rooted in cultural changes that the Left finds congenial. Above all, New Anger is rooted in the rejections of traditional American self-restraint and the social dislocations, such as the weakened traditional family, that followed. But the Right has also found something gripping about New Anger. The “angry white male” of the 1980s; the rise of Rush Limbaugh and angry talk radio; Newt Gingrich’s rhetoric in the year leading up to the 1994 election in which he aimed almost to extinguish the Democrats; and the withering scorn directed at President Clinton in his second term were all conservative versions of New Anger.

But New Anger sits uneasily on the conscience of many conservatives, who long for the older verities of American life, including quiet self-control. To invite New Anger into the house is to invite domestic disturbance, but New Anger really does feel — at least for a little while — like a kind of empowerment. Especially if you think the light is dying, raging against it has a certain elemental dignity. Or so we tell ourselves. But how did New Anger creep past our traditional barriers? Didn’t we once know better?

Reading President Ford’s posthumous judgments on his fellow presidents tells us part of the story. Cultural change is hard to resist. When you begin to see yourself as a healer of nations; when you find yourself listening to and interpreting the heartbeat of a people; when you interpret the craft of politicians as their personal aura, you are on the road to making the “self” and its emotional perturbations into the real subject of political life. That’s where New Anger gets invited to the discussion.

Recommended

The Latest