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Will Vindication Elude Ford?

by Christopher Bates on Dec 28, 2006

“History will vindicate me!” It is the rallying cry of politicians worldwide who are unpopular, or under attack, or scandal-ridden. Sadly for former President Gerald Ford, who died Tuesday evening, his well-deserved vindication will probably never come. Thrust into a difficult situation — one he handled with aplomb — his reputation was unfairly and irrevocably ruined by his pardon of Richard Nixon.

When Americans look backward, they’re impressed by bold words and dramatic actions. Ending slavery, declaring a bank holiday, speaking softly and carrying a big stick, staring down Nikita Khrushchev, demanding that the Berlin Wall be torn down — these are the things of which legends are made. It’s no coincidence that of our six or seven most popular presidents, only Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson did not lead the nation through a war.

Maintaining the status quo, by contrast, is far less impressive. But in Gerald Ford’s case, maintaining the status quo — or, more precisely, rebuilding it out of the ruins left by Nixon — was a Herculean task. The nation was deeply scarred by the Watergate scandal, and Americans’ faith in the presidency was badly shaken by the misdeeds of Nixon and his cronies. When Gerald Ford took office, the nation was skeptical, not only about him — he was called “the accidental president” — but also about the office he occupied.

The American system is fundamentally based on a delicate balance among the three branches of government. If Gerald Ford had been unable to restore faith in the presidency, and to reassert the place of the executive in American politics, that balance might have been permanently upset. Ford brought class and dignity to the White House — qualities sorely lacking during the Nixon years — and so restore it he did.

However, despite all of Ford’s good work in bringing what he called “our long national nightmare” to an end, the focus has always been on his pardon of Richard Nixon. Only one month after taking office, Ford announced that Nixon would not be prosecuted for any crimes he might have committed. Forever afterward, Ford was dogged by charges that he had traded the pardon for the presidency.

This destroyed his reputation, and cost him a chance at election in 1976. But given Ford’s long record of integrity in office, the charges are almost certainly untrue and unfair. Pardoning Nixon was entirely consistent with Ford’s agenda of restoring the presidency and not allowing the office to be dragged through the mud any further.

Beyond his role in healing the damage from the Watergate scandal, Ford was also a model of moderate, bipartisan leadership — a model that the current Republican administration would do well to follow. During his eight years as House minority leader, Ford developed a talent for working with members of both parties, and he put that talent to use as president. “He just doesn’t have enemies,” observed Sen. Robert P. Griffin, a sentiment echoed by many other politicians on both sides of the aisle.

Ford pursued a progressive — even visionary — legislative agenda. He pushed for clemency for Vietnam-era draft dodgers, and helped thaw the Cold War with the Helsinki Accords. He supported a number of laws designed to protect consumers, worked for campaign finance reform and saw to it that the benefits of the Voting Rights Act were extended to Spanish-speaking voters. He was the first president to take aggressive action aimed at curbing American dependence on foreign oil.

As a reward for his efforts, Ford was heaped with scorn and abuse. He was mocked as “Betty’s husband” and a man too dumb to “fart and chew gum at the same time.” After he slipped and fell while exiting Air Force One, the ridicule increased. He was skewered weekly on “Saturday Night Live,” with Chevy Chase portraying the president as a bumbling oaf who staggered around the White House, constantly stabbing and stapling himself while falling over everything in his path.

Given the circumstances, the treatment accorded Ford may have been inevitable, and even necessary. With Nixon out of the public eye, the American people needed a target for their frustration, and Ford was the best one available.

But more than 30 years have passed since Gerald Ford left the White House. The anger of the Nixon years has waned, and there has been ample time for Ford’s reputation to rebound. The rebound has never come. Invariably, in every poll and book and study, he is ranked as a mediocre president, or worse. And that is too bad, for America could have done much, much worse than Gerald Ford in the dark days after Watergate.

Christopher Bates is an adjunct professor of history at California Polytechnic University, Pomona, and a writer for the History News Service.