By the Maui Curmudgeon (38th in a 43-part series)
How do the U.S. Presidents stack up? I thought I’d find out by reading biographies of all 43 presidents, in the order of their administrations. Here are briefly the pros and cons of my discoveries, the interesting bits, and how I’d rank him. For comparison, I give you the 1982 Murrary-Blessing ranking, a survey of hundreds of leading historians who ranked each president by number. This survey is the gold standard of presidential rankings and is most cited when this kind of thing needs bringing up in media.
GERALD R. FORD: 1973-1976 ~ 38th U.S. President
He served for fewer than three years and was the only president never elected to national office, but Gerald Ford nonetheless holds a pivotal role in American presidential politics. He spent more than 26 years in the House, rising in rank to the Minority Leader, which would have made him the Speaker of the House had his party ever won the majority during his tenure.
During this time, he was adept at balancing being a party loyalist with being honest. He engaged in several important duties, including being a member of the Warren Commission investigating JFK’s assassination (some believe Ford was FBI Head Edgar Hoover’s spy on the commission). He never wavered publicly from the commission findings that Oswald was a lone assassin.
Ford also appeased his party by pushing for the impeachment of the great U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O Douglas, a liberal of great conscience. Ford did so in 1969 at the request of the Nixon White House. However, the move was very unpopular, and Nixon quietly backed away and left poor Ford looking like an idiot. Ford did not hold a grudge.
When Spiro Agnew had to resign as Nixon’s vice-president, and the Watergate scandal was threatening to drown the White House, Nixon choose Ford to be appointed by the Senate as his vice-president. Wildly popular within the Congressional community, Ford’s appointment was never in jeopardy. He did, however, promise that he would not run for the office of president in 1976, a promise he quickly violated.
In 1973, when it became apparent that Ford would have to be president at Nixon’s resignation, Ford wrote that he felt ready.
We may never know if his action was good or bad, but Ford pardoned Nixon for all crimes committed or supposed on the 30th day of his presidency. The move was and remains highly controversial. When he decided to do it, Ford called Congressional leaders, one of whom was Speaker Tip O’Neill, who told him, “Jerry, you will lose the presidency when you run.” This turned out to be spot on.
Ford was a bad manager of people close to him. He let Alexander Haig, who faced his own criminal charges stemming from his role at the Nixon White House, to remain on has staff. He brought George H.W.Bush into his White House, and hired Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld as staffers as well. All of these men showed early on their predilection for lying, backstabbing, bad judgment and interoffice squabbling.
He was a decent and kind man, which goes a long way in my book. He did not lie, to the nation, his party, his friends or to himself. Yet, he was not coldly honest. He had a warmth to him that was much needed after the chilly Nixon years. During state visits, he and his wife Betty were often the first on the dance floor and the last to leave.
He had an unexpected joy de vivre which radiated during his first month, and sadly was crippled by his decision to pardon Nixon. He never once regretted that decision, saying in his defense, while it might have gotten a guilty man free from punishment, the nation would have been severely wounded by Nixon’s trial. After reading more about it, this liberal has changed his mind, and respects Ford for his decision. It was right for the times.
Ford sounds like a liberal now, which is why I like him. He took Nixon’s commitment to many of the Great Society programs even further, financially expanding Social Security, OSHA work standards, the FDA, and welfare programs. He supported fledgling drug programs, and believed in tax relief for low-income people while raising rates on the rich.
Here’s a shocker: in his first year Ford tried twice to pass a universal health care coverage program. Both times it was his own Republican party which shot it down. If that doesn’t prove the man did what he thought right, over and above conservative pressure, nothing does.
Except maybe this: Ford also felt that to heal the country, Vietnam War “draft-dodgers” had to be allowed home (most were in Canada). He was pragmatic, and knew that a free ride would never work, so he proposed to bring home the men without penalty so long as they worked a time of public service (i.e. hospital work). Courageously, he had the guts to announce this program at a VFW meeting, and was met by stony silence and disbelief. He strongly pushed the program in Congress anyway, but was supported only by Democrats.
Ford was an Eagle Scout and Ensign in the U.S. Navy.
Attending the University of Michigan as an undergraduate, Ford played center and linebacker for the school’s football team and helped the Wolverines to undefeated seasons and national titles in 1932 and 1933.
His wife Betty hated politics, and seriously hoped that she and Jerry would have been back in Michigan long before 1973. Before Ford was appointed vice-president, he nearly decided that he wouldn’t run for his district again, as he knew his party would never gain control of the House. Ford blames his move to the White House as a key reason Betty became an alcoholic.
Contrary to current thought, Ford was often a dynamic speaker, not a bumbling warbler. He earned big laughs with jokes, and warm applause at meetings.
He was the last honest, truly noble Republican to hold the office; a man who believed in principle but never doubted his opponent’s patriotism or good intentions. He would have made a better president than Jimmy Carter and I now publicly recant my vote for Carter, though even at that young age, I felt the choice I had for my first presidential vote to be a good one, with either man being decent and both striving to do their best for our country. Those days are gone.
Murray-Blessing Ranking: 24th
My Score: 70%
31 Days: Gerald Ford, the Nixon Pardon and A Government in Crisis by Barry Werth