Saturday, January 8, 2011

A Time to Heal: The Autobiograhpy of Gerald Ford

A Time to Heal: The Autobiograhpy of Gerald Ford
by Gerald R. Ford
copyright 1979

Gerald Ford has always fascinated me. While Richard Nixon is the first president I remember seeing and hearing, Gerald Ford was the first one I paid attention to -- mostly because women kept trying to kill him and I didn't understand why.

He fascinates me because I regard him as one of the truly great Americans of all time. He was not a great president. His conduct of foreign affairs was uneven and his domestic policy was completely inept. However, there's nothing more American than serving when called upon. Gerald Ford did not seek the office of President. He was never elected to it. Yet, when his country needed him, he stepped up and served. When he carried out the most courageous political decision since Harry Truman's firing of Douglas McArthur, we turned on him. After he left the presidency, he largely faded from our view and our memory. Only his death and funeral would make Americans revisit his short presidency and discover what a great American he was.

The book opens with a narrative account of the final days of Watergate. Contrary to what history has told us, Nixon and Ford were close, personal friends and Ford took Nixon at his word when he said there would be no future revelations regarding Watergate. He was devastated and angry when the infamous smoking gun tape was made public and Nixon's fate was sealed.

Ford was the most uncomfortable vice president since John Tyler waited for William Henry Harrison to die. He could say nothing in Nixon's final days. He couldn't defend the indefensible position Nixon was in, but he certainly could not criticize him. All he could do was quietly allow the White House and his own staff to establish a transition team. Even that was risky, because had it become public, it would have made Ford look anxious to assume the presidency. Nixon's final day in the White House and Ford's brilliant inauguration speech where he declared "Our long, national nightmare is over."

Gerald Ford was born Leslie King, Jr. in Omaha, Nebraska on July 14, 1913. His father was a wife beater and well known jackass and his mother, Dorothy left him and moved to her parents' home in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She would eventually marry Gerald Rudolph Ford. Ford who would rename the young boy Gerald R. Ford, Jr. Ford recounts when he was a teenager, Leslie King, Sr. came to visit him in Grand Rapids. Ford's bitterness is not entirely concealed and says the meeting left him feeling nothing for the man who sired him.

Ford doesn't provide a lot of detail about his childhood except to say he was frequently a hothead and his parents were strict disciplinarians. He did well in school and went to the University of Michigan where he was an All-American center. While there, he had to work two jobs and sell his blood to get by. Instead of joining the Green Bay Packers, he elected to go to Yale Law School.

While at Yale, the tall, blond, athletic Gerald Ford worked as a male clothes model and worked at a diner to get himself through law school. While he always listed his profession as lawyer, Ford spent little time practicing law. Therefore, Ford could be described as the first professional model to serve as President!

Ford won election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1948. With this addition, three future presidents (Kennedy, Nixon, and Ford) were serving in the U.S. House. Ford did well in sponsoring legislation, but was not a prolific floor speaker. When the Democrats cemented their large majority in the House in 1964, it was clear to House Republicans they were going to need someone who could schmooze Democrats if the Republicans were going to have any hope of influencing legislation. Ford was well liked on both sides of the aisle and was a natural choice for the few Republicans left in the House.

Ford led the fight against Lyndon Johnson's Great Society and tried to temper some of the more outlandish spending programs that Johnson proposed. While he was no Everett Dirksen, who was enjoying much more success in influencing legislation in the Senate where Republicans were also in the extreme minority, Ford did manage to stave off some of Johnson's more radical proposals. However, Ford stood with the hawks on Vietnam and supported Johnson's conduct of the war.

That Ford and Nixon were close friends is remarkable considering the contempt with which Nixon treated both parties in Congress as President. As a man who had served in both chambers, he should have known better. Ford often successfully defended the indefensible positions Nixon put him in as Minority Leader. He continued to support the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War and, against every conservative principle he held, supported Nixon's initiatives to expand government oversight of the environment, worker safety, and government imposed economic controls. Ford was the loyal lieutenant to Nixon.

Ford also staunchly defended Nixon as Watergate developed. As Spiro Agnew's career began to unravel, Nixon became desperate to find a VP who might be able to influence the House as the House Judiciary Committee might be considering impeachment in the near future. Ford was a natural choice.

Here is where we learn of the character of the man who was Gerald Ford. It was not something he wanted to do. He was asked to step up to the number two position in the most embattled administration in 110 years. While he led a squeaky clean life, he did not welcome the scrutiny the vice presidency would bring him. His wife, Betty, was an alcoholic and a drug addict. The scrutiny might have brought that to the public view and the pressure of the office may have aggravated it. Nonetheless, Ford accepted the responsibility.

After Watergate, Ford received a great deal of good will from the country and from congressional Democrats. That would evaporate quickly as he began to lay out his programs for dealing with stagflation that was sapping the American economy. Democrats thwarted his every initiative.

One initiative that seems laughable today was the WIN (Whip Inflation Now) program. This was little more than a PR campaign (including posters and buttons) to encourage the private sector to voluntarily impose wage and price controls. It was a complete and utter failure and was scoffed at by the media.

Of course, Ford's most profound act was the pardon of Richard Nixon. This would also be his most costly act. Ford struggled with this. His staff was split. His oldest and closest confidants said he had to pardon Nixon to put Watergate behind and move forward. Younger aides counseled that Ford ought to leave Nixon to his own fate and not be tainted with Nixon's misconduct. Ford had to consider the humanitarian aspect of Nixon's plight. Nixon was horribly despondent and at one point, near death with a blood clot. Emissaries from San Clemente reported that they thought Nixon was potentially suicidal. After considering all of his options, Ford issued a complete and unconditional pardon to Richard Nixon for any crimes that may have been committed during the Watergate affair.

The reaction was brutal and Ford was pilloried in the press and in Congress. Some congressmen suggested an investigation to determine if there had been a "secret deal" between Ford and Nixon to secure the pardon before Nixon appointed Ford. While nothing came of this, Ford's public approval tumbled overnight and his ability to govern was dramatically diminished. Nothing is more indicative of this than Ford's request to Congress to provide funding and military support to our allies in South Vietnam who were under siege from the North Vietnamese Army. Prior to this, presidents were afforded almost unfettered ability to control foreign policy. This time, Congress asserted itself and denied his request. Ford and the country could only watch helplessly as American allies in Vietnam waited hopelessly on top of the American embassy for help that would never come. Shortly thereafter, the North Vietnamese would slaughter hundreds of thousands in South Vietnam. That final flight from the roof of the Saigon embassy has developed into an indelible image of our nation’s fifty years of failure in southeast Asia.

Politically, Ford's greatest blunder was the appointment of Nelson Rockefeller to be his vice president. Conservative Republicans, already unhappy with the leftist direction the party had taken under Nixon with wage and price controls and other government expansion initiatives, were outraged by what they considered a betrayal in the appointment of the liberal Rocky. It was the appointment of Rockefeller that spurred Ronald Reagan to seek the 1976 Republican nomination.

The battle between Reagan and Ford in 1976 was brutal. Ford entered the convention with a slight lead in delegates. Interestingly, Reagan, who made relatively few political blunders in his career, screwed up big time on the eve of the convention. To force Ford's hand on whether or not Rocky would remain on the ticket, Reagan tried to force Ford to declare his running mate before the convention. Unwisely, Reagan selected the liberal Pennsylvania Senator, Richard Schweiker, as his running mate. Conservatives were enraged and Reagan hurt his base. Ford decided to dump Rocky and selected Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas as his running mate. Any conservative delegates that were still in play came home to Ford and he won the nomination.

In 1976, Ford demonstrated what a deft campaigner he was. He and Dole came out of the Republican convention 30 points behind Carter/Mondale. Ford worked hard, as did Dole, speaking across the country. Ford was not a brilliant speaker, but his warm and engaging personality frequently won people over. Dole played the role of hatchet man, attacking Carter and Mondale without remorse.

Ford hurt himself badly while debating Jimmy Carter when he uttered the damning sentence "There has never been any Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there won't be under a Ford administration." Ford himself couldn't believe what he'd said. Conservatives, who were coming home to Ford -- mostly because of Bob Dole -- were once again put off by Ford. Dole didn't help when he alienated independents and moderates with his crack about all the people who'd died in "Democrat wars."

Despite these two major gaffes, Ford had pulled into within five points of Carter on election eve. The media saw it as a tossup. However, Carter took the south which Nixon had used as his Republican base. As Ford watched the election results come in and the southern states going into the Democratic column, he knew he'd lost. His family pleaded with him to wait for results from the west, hoping perhaps California might keep him in the race. However, Ford was smart enough to see that his fight was lost. He conceded to Carter that evening.

Ford was bitter toward Ronald Reagan. Reagan's challenge to him had hurt him. Reagan did more damage at the convention when, instead of extolling the virtues of the president, he made an impassioned speech to his conservative base. As Ford campaigned to keep the White House for the Republicans, Reagan remained on the sidelines. It would be four years before the two would speak again.

He also did not think much of Jimmy Carter. This can be detected in Ford's text as he described their transition. He did not think much of Rosalynn Carter who seemed determined to insert herself into the policy discussion between the lame duck and president elect.

We learn that, like most successful politicians, Ford relied heavily on the advice of his wife, Betty. Political wives play an important role in the lives of elected officials. They are the only person who cares only about the official. Advisers bring with them their own ambitions and prejudices. Wives care only about their husbands and family. Betty, even with her substance abuse problems, was a real asset to Gerald Ford. Had Nixon consulted Pat more frequently than he did John Dean and Bob Haldeman, perhaps Watergate would never have happened.

This memoir was the most extensive commentary Gerald Ford ever provided regarding American politics. He granted several interviews over the years, but they were usually short and not very introspective. Ford was perfectly willing to retire from the public eye and concentrate on serving on the boards of directors of various businesses. Unlike most ex-presidents who work hard to achieve elder statesman status to either rehabilitate or firm up their place in history, Ford was satisfied with what he'd done in his years of public service.

Ford's intelligence was often underestimated. While he was never called an "amiable dunce" as Clark Clifford once called Ronald Reagan, he never developed a reputation as a brilliant strategist nor was he gifted with a knack for policy development. However, in reading his memoirs, you find a man very comfortable with himself and his decisions. While their politics, demeanor, and conduct of the office were quite different, Ford very much resembles Harry Truman in his self-confidence. Ford's post presidential conduct resembled Harry Truman who left office as one of the most unpopular presidents in history.

America lost a national treasure when it lost Gerald Ford. Carter promised us he'd never lie to us and he almost made it. Ford was also just as honest and forthright in his conduct through his public career and was a superior president to Carter. Ford, who never wanted to lead the country, led it through its most difficult constitutional crisis as well as one of its most difficult periods of foreign relations. He will never get the credit he deserves simply because of the shortness of his presidency.

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