A look back at Ford raises grades as president

February 11, 2007|By Jack Nelson | Jack Nelson,Los Angeles Times

The nation's 38th president didn't live quite long enough to bask in the glow of the latest assessment of his presidency, Gerald R. Ford, by the historian Douglas Brinkley. Ford, who died Dec. 26, would have seen that his pardon of Richard M. Nixon has not only faded as a negative in the eyes of most Americans, but also is now judged a distinct positive. Moreover, Brinkley gives Ford high marks for restoring Americans' faith in their government as well as for several foreign and domestic successes.

The pardon, issued after the House Judiciary Committee had approved three articles of impeachment against Nixon in 1974, was widely denounced at the time and cited as the main cause of Ford's 1976 loss to the Democratic nominee, then-Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia. Brinkley writes that in a wide-ranging, "no-holds barred" 2003 interview, Ford told him that "Carter was running on `I'll never tell a lie.' I had the albatross of having pardoned Nixon, a known liar."

The Democratic Party considered Nixon's pardon a political plus - and it was. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts called it "an unforgivable betrayal of trust." And at the time, as Brinkley notes, most reporters agreed with The Washington Post's Bob Woodward, who termed Ford's action "secret and dirty." They, like many Americans, suspected a deal had been struck between Nixon and his unelected vice president.

As a reporter covering the impeachment hearings for the Los Angeles Times, I was among those who thought the pardon was wrong and smacked of collusion. But, like Woodward, I finally concluded that there was no deal, that Ford truly believed he was acting in the nation's best interest. He spared himself and the country the distractions of drawn-out impeachment proceedings and a Senate trial that could have sent Nixon to prison and further divided the nation. If the pardon cost Ford the election, it also helped him steer the country on a steady course.

Although Brinkley calls the pardon and its "healing" effect on America Ford's most enduring legacy, he deftly describes other achievements. These include ending the divisive Vietnam War while doing his best to aid South Vietnam's refugees; helping to forge the 1975 Helsinki Accords that led the Soviet Union to acknowledge basic human rights and opened the way for its collapse, and fiscal policies that cut inflation in half and, according to Brinkley, boosted the U.S. economy out of its lowest trough since the Great Depression.

This slim volume, part of The American Presidents series under the general editorship of historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., is heavily footnoted but a fast read. It moves briskly from Ford's birth on July 14, 1913, in Omaha, Neb., to the memorial service at Washington's National Cathedral this New Year's Day, when former President George H.W. Bush described him as a "Norman Rockwell painting come to life."

Calling Ford a once-dependable Cold War hawk, Brinkley favorably compares the decision to end the Vietnam War with his earlier desire for the kind of clean start that had prompted him to pardon Nixon. "Like that risky decision, his move to pull America out of Vietnam grew from his expedient belief in facing the inevitable sooner rather than later," the historian writes. "After the slow agonies that Watergate and Vietnam had put the nation through, seizing the first opportunity to move on from them just seemed the sensible thing to do."

He praises Ford for ensuring that all South Vietnamese who could get out of their war-torn country could find a new home in the United States - a promise he kept despite opposition from many Americans.

On the domestic front, Ford is credited for being the first president to acknowledge the seriousness of the global energy crisis and the need for the industrialized world to tackle the problem.

Although this largely positive assessment of Ford emphasizes how he solved problems without losing sleep over what history might say about him, the author contends that he failed to fully comprehend - or use - the art of persuasion inherent in the modern presidency. Had he done so, in Brinkley's view, Ford probably would have accomplished much more as president.

Nevertheless, if the outpouring of public affection after Ford's death is any indication, he has risen to the rank of "near-great president," Brinkley writes. He concludes that most Americans now agree with the Rev. Billy Graham, who told Ford in a letter after the 1976 election that he had been "the right man at the right time to lead this nation."

Jack Nelson writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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