As the nation mourns the late President Gerald Ford, the muses of history must be smiling. They have proven again that their wisdom eclipses that of contemporary opinion-makers who lack the clarifying benefit of time.
With time, everything we thought we once knew about Gerry Ford has come untrue. He wasn't a corrupt tool of Richard Nixon pardoning away his predecessor's crimes in exchange for the presidency. He wasn't a failure. And he wasn't clumsy or stupid. All of these judgments were once part of the conventional wisdom about Ford, a conventional wisdom that dissolved as his presidency became more distant, and thus easier to see clearly.
Ford's pardon of Nixon demonstrates the long-term advantage of doing the right thing, and what is often its short-term cost. The pardon put Ford's public-approval rating in a downward spiral from the 70s to the 30s. That is the very definition of a political disaster, and Ford had to take the unprecedented step of testifying before Congress as a sitting president to try to beat back accusations of a corrupt deal.
The pardon certainly cost Ford the 1976 election, but it was certainly the right thing, saving the country from the Third World-like spectacle of a former president fighting criminal charges. In retrospect, the political mistake became one of the jewels of his legacy. Even Sen. Ted Kennedy, a scourge of the pardon at the time, admitted that it had been the correct decision when the Kennedy library bestowed on Ford a Profile in Courage Award, a sure sign that he had slipped into the good graces of the liberal establishment that once scorned him.
What the popular imagination latches on to at any given time might be an irrelevance. President Ford's economic policy has long been synonymous with the risible "Whip Inflation Now" lapel buttons that Ford promoted as a grass-roots blow against spiraling wages and prices. But, more importantly, Ford eventually pursued successful stimulative economic policies. Unemployment had hit 9 percent and inflation 12 percent during his term. By 1976, according to The Washington Post, "unemployment had dipped to about 7 percent, inflation had abated to 4.8 percent and the gross national product was humming along at a robust rate of growth."