The Forgotten Virtues of Gerald Ford
by Yanek Mieczkowski on Aug 17, 2004
During this election year, political polarization seems the rule rather than the exception. The Iraq war, Democrats’ anger over the 2000 election and the resurgence of cultural issues have all fomented passions and balkanized Americans into highly charged groups.
Presidential conduct has played a vital role in this development. White House leadership under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — spanning almost 12 years — has exacerbated the divisions among Americans. Gerald Ford did the opposite when he became president after the Watergate scandal. Unless the next president follows his example, partisan warfare will continue to distort American politics.
In the early 1970s, the country was even more polarized than it is today. The deceptions of Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, plus their rough treatment of the media and political opponents, angered many Americans and gouged deep national wounds. The Vietnam War bitterly divided the country, high inflation crippled the economy, and Nixon’s supporters and detractors snarled with contempt at one another during the Watergate investigations that finally toppled his administration.
Yet within two years after Nixon’s departure, this long-festering acrimony had subsided. The new mood owed much to Ford’s political behavior, which recalls a different manner of presidential conduct, one that places a high premium on civility.
After Nixon resigned in 1974, Americans wondered how the nation’s first unelected president would lead. Ford quickly showed them. He delivered a plainly eloquent inaugural address, declaring that “our long national nightmare is over.” Three days after taking office, he appeared before a joint session of Congress and pledged “communication, conciliation, compromise, and cooperation” with legislators, adding, “I do not want a honeymoon with you. I want a good marriage.”
Thirty years later, we can appreciate Ford’s refusal to let the presidency become an instrument of partisan knife-sharpening. He welcomed politicians and reporters banished from the Nixon White House and maintained warm personal relations with members of both parties. He humanized the presidency by introducing physical changes at the White House, such as a more congenial seating arrangement for East Room press conferences, with the president standing before the open doors of the main hallway rather than with his back against the room’s far wall, looking like a cornered quarry. In the executive branch, Ford retained civil servants from both parties rather than replace them with partisans, which would have wiped out valuable institutional memory while increasing polarization.
Ford’s politics reflected his conciliatory style. He used political moderation to breathe life back into the Republican Party, whose membership plummeted to just 18 percent of the electorate after Watergate. Ford needed to stop the party’s hemorrhaging and restore stability to the two-party system. To do so, he practiced a middle-of-the-road Republicanism that emphasized economic issues, especially fiscal restraint and tax relief, rather than potentially divisive social ones, such as abortion and school prayer.
While Bill Clinton also coopted the political center, polarization marred his presidency. Opponents hated him to the bitter end: his last-minute flurry of presidential pardons, including that of fugitive financier Marc Rich, was like a parting insult and struck a perfect contrast with Ford’s most controversial action, his pardon of Nixon. Compared with Clinton’s action, Ford’s pardon of Nixon seemed responsible, a critical step in healing political wounds that a Nixon trial would have ripped open.
Clinton’s pardons came as he left office. Ford’s action came just after he took office, and it burdened him all the way to the 1976 election. Yet Ford, refraining from the attack ads that are a staple of today’s politics, ran an upbeat campaign that year. He criticized Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter sparingly, preferring instead to tout his achievements, especially a nation at peace and substantially lower inflation.
Unlike today’s presidential candidates, who stump all summer and fall, Ford stayed in the White House for much of the campaign season, using a “Rose Garden strategy” that allowed him to concentrate on what he liked best, running the government and letting the people judge his performance. The strategy almost worked. After trailing Carter by 30 points in polls, Ford staged a dramatic comeback, losing the popular vote by less than two percentage points.
Coming so soon after Watergate, the 1976 election year could have been polarizing. Instead, the country celebrated its bicentennial amid calm. Ford’s style made a difference. At his inauguration, Carter began by thanking Ford for “all he has done to heal our land.” It was a fitting tribute to presidential conduct that harmonized rather than polarized. Today’s candidates could take a page from the book of both men.
Yanek Mieczkowski is an associate professor of history at Dowling College in Oakdale, N.Y. and a writer for the History News Service. His book on the Ford presidency, "Gerald Ford and the Challenges of the 1970s," will be published next year.