Gerald Ford: The In-between president

Posted: Jan 01, 2007 12:01 AM
Gerald Ford: The In-between president

Good ol' Gerald Ford, people would say. The way Southerners say, "Bless your heart" - as an expression of both affection and dismissal.

It seemed the man could scarcely get out of Air Force One without bumping his head or stumbling down the stairs; he was a kind of walking sight gag. Once, campaigning in San Antone, a Midwestern stranger in a strange land, he bit into a tamale corn shuck and all.

There was a happy absence of malice in the man - an easy-going, go-along-to-get-along quality about him that put him in the Washington picture at almost every crucial moment during the 1970s. But he was always in the background even when he was in the foreground. When he appeared with Dr. Kissinger, you always looked at Kissinger.

Naturally he was the man Richard Nixon would turn to when he needed a vice president to succeed the Spurious Spiro as vice president. Now there was a guy who stood out, all right, but in all the wrong ways. Spiro Agnew was the un-Jerry Ford; he set off an automatic shudder among some of us even before he was exposed as a small-time grafter - unlike good ol' Jerry Ford. By then We the People were hungry for an honest man in that office - the way you crave an anti-acid after too much bad chili. Back then relief was spelled F-O-R-D.

Do you remember Woody Allen's Zelig? The Hon. and honorable Gerald R. Ford was the Zelig of national politics, the unidentified man in the background who - it was always a surprise when one realized it - had been present at an impressive number of creations in the country's mid- to late 20th century history. Even if he went unnoticed.

In a Shakespearean drama, Jerry Ford would have been in a barely supporting role, a character who might feed a line or two at most to the Prince Henrys and Iagos, not rising even to a Falstaff or Macduff. In that sense he was the perfect member of the repertory company that is American politics, his own man but not showy about it, someone to keep in reserve. Like a vice president.

Who after all would object to good ol' Jerry Ford? Certainly not his colleagues in Congress, who were as comfortable with him as they were with the columns and cornices they walked by every day. He was the center on the football team you wouldn't notice once the plays began. He actually was the center on Michigan's national championship teams of 1932 and '33. Perfect.

Jerry Ford would go on to become a congressman from Michigan in the bland Willkie-Vandenberg, bipartisan Republican style back in the '40s, when the party was comfortable with Dewey and defeat. He was the mild-mannered good fella who was best after a crisis, when the country needed somebody who could calm it down.

Congressman Ford would soon be confirmed as vice president, joining the long line of forgettable portraits of same. It was expected that he would restore mediocrity to its safe place in the history of the Republic, all would go on as before, and...

And then lightning struck. Also thunder and the whole raging flood called Watergate, with the result that good fella Gerald R. Ford, without ever having been elected either vice president or president, found himself placed atop the greasy pole in the stormy wake of our own Richard III.

Bob Dole, who never could constrain his wry wit, and so was naturally disqualified for the presidency, once spotted a line of ex-presidents at some White House ceremony, and, seeing Messrs. Carter, Ford and Nixon all in a row, he observed: "There they are. See no evil, hear no evil, and Š evil."

What a post-Nixon comfort it was to have an unobjectionable figure like Jerry Ford replace one of the most objectionable figures in the country's whole long presidential pageant. "Our long national nightmare is over," the new president announced. "Our Constitution works. Our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule."

It was just about the first memorable thing Jerry Ford had ever said, and the country began the long recovery from the criminal conspiracy and moral insult that R. Nixon & Unsavory Co. had been.

It was also just about the last memorable thing Jerry Ford ever said. Within a month, he had pardoned Richard Nixon, short-circuiting justice and assuring (a) his defeat in the next election, and (b) the victory of one of the most naturally incompetent, innocently destructive and utterly demoralizing American presidents of the 20th century: Jimmy Carter.

Some would later call Gerald Ford's pardon of his predecessor courage, but it was more the kind of instinctive conflict-avoidance that was always his strength - and weakness. It was only as the president between Nixon and Carter that Gerald Ford, whatever his miscues, would look like a towering figure.

There is much to be said for mediocrity, and surely it will be at the state funeral now in the offing. There are worse things. Certainly few things are more perilous than man's eternal striving for greatness and the hubris it engenders. Look what happened to Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson, and is happening to George W. Bush.

At such times we are tempted to think, oh, yes, better someone who can wrap up an indecent defeat as decently as possible, the way Jerry Ford did in Vietnam. It wasn't his fault. He was just there in the White House at the time, like Zelig. Give us another Zelig, the people cry. A nice unknown quantity who will soothe things over - a Jerry Ford. (And now a Barack Obama?)

It's exhausting, always acting on principle, seeking to shape history rather than be shaped by it. There comes a time when the country just wants it all to be over, and that is the time when a Gerald R. Ford earns our gratitude, or at least gets it. And let it be noted that Mr. Ford was a good citizen even if he was First Citizen - no easy thing.

Much like Gerald Ford himself, most of us want to do the decent thing and overlook some other things in the interest of a little peace and quiet for now, whatever whirlwind we are sowing for later. Let it be said that Gerald Rudolph Ford was just the man for his time - a time not unlike this discouraging one, a time yearning for a return to a normalcy that never was.

In the end the country was happy he came along; we could relax for a while. It gets tiring, always striving for principle.