Monday, January 01, 2007

Thoughts on Gerald Ford

The late President Gerald Ford lies in state in the Capitol Building in Washington today. There will be a service tomorrow at the National Cathedral and the burial will take place on Wednesday in Michigan.

Many have praised him as a great president – one who helped heal the nation when the country was split over the war in Vietnam and the continuing expansion of the Watergate scandals.

I will have to dissent. I found Ford mediocre at the time and have found no reason to change my mind since. I think the “greatness” attributed to him has as more to do with timing than with what he accomplished. After all, he followed Nixon as President and died while Bush was in the White House. Admittedly, he does look good compared with those two.

As President he short-circuited the judicial process by pardoning former President Richard Nixon, who had resigned in disgrace, before he was even charged with anything. It displayed a lack of faith in the American system of justice and democracy. Apparently they were too fragile to confront the truth.

Foreign policy was a disaster. Christopher Hitchens in Slate sizes up the Ford international legacy:
… Bob Woodward has gone into print this week with the news that Ford opposed the Bush administration's intervention in Iraq. But Ford's own interference in the life of that country has gone unmentioned. During his tenure, and while Henry Kissinger was secretary of state, the United States secretly armed and financed a Kurdish rebellion against Saddam Hussein. This was done in collusion with the Shah of Iran, who was then considered in Washington a man who could do no wrong. So that when the shah signed a separate peace with Saddam in 1975, and abandoned his opportunist support for the Kurds, the United States shamefacedly followed his lead and knifed the Kurds in the back. The congressional inquiry led by Rep. Otis Pike was later to describe this betrayal as one of the most cynical acts of statecraft on record.

In December 1975, Ford was actually in the same room as Gen. Suharto of Indonesia when the latter asked for American permission to impose Indonesian military occupation on East Timor. Despite many denials and evasions, we now possess the conclusive evidence that Ford (and his deputy Kissinger) did more than simply nod assent to this outrageous proposition. They also undertook to defend it from criticism in the United States Congress and elsewhere. From that time forward, the Indonesian dictatorship knew that it would not lack for armaments or excuses, both of these lavishly supplied from Washington. The figures for civilian deaths in this shameful business have never been properly calculated, but may well amount to several hundred thousand and thus more than a quarter of East Timor's population.

Ford's refusal to meet with Solzhenitsyn, when the great dissident historian came to America, was consistent with his general style of making excuses for power. …there seems to have been a confusion in Ford's mind as to whether the Helsinki Treaty was intended to stabilize, recognize, or challenge the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. However that may be, the great moral component of the Helsinki agreement—that it placed the United States on the side of the repressed populations—was ridiculed by Ford's repudiation of Solzhenitsyn, as well as by his later fatuities on the nature of Soviet domination. To have been soft on Republican crime, soft on Baathism, soft on the shah, soft on Indonesian fascism, and soft on Communism, all in one brief and transient presidency, argues for the sort of sportsmanlike Midwestern geniality that we do not ever need to see again.
All of this is not to say he was not a decent man. I heard a story a couple days ago on NPR by Cokie Roberts telling of how Ford, a Republican, came to their house for support when the plane carrying her father, the late Majority Leader Hale Boggs – a Democrat, disappeared over Alaska. That, of course, was in the pre-Newt Gingrich era when politics among elected representatives was fought on the floor of the legislature but their families socialized together.

However, decency isn’t the same as greatness. The American people turned him out of office in the 1976 election. The American people made the right decision. Unfortunately, they elected another decent but less-than-great president.

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