Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Dead by 2007. President Gerald Ford.


Somebody was saying something about celebrity deaths coming in threes. This month we've had:

  • Gerald Ford

  • James Brown

  • Saddam Hussein

1. Gerald Ford.

He was Michigan's only president, originally from Grand Rapids, which is my mom's hometown. He has also become un-controversial enough by now that just following his death his Wikipedia article is only "semi-protected."

Interestingly, I've learned 90% of what I now know about Ford from actually the months just prior to his death, when I was working on Facts on File's Eyewitness History: The 1970s. I read about his (ultimately) ineffectual grappling with stagflation, his tough stance against New York City's deficit, and his Cambodian "moment of glory." He appointed a Donald Rumsfeld as Secretery of Defence, but the man's personality seemed light-years away from what we've seen. And of course, First Lady Betty Ford was known not only as we know her today - for the clinic with her name - but for her candor with reporters and controversial stances on sex, marriage, and illegal substances.

What I knew Ford for prior to my work here, and what of course we all remember him for today, is his relationship to the Watergate scandal. A popular representative and House Majority leader before his appointment, he was chosen to shore up the reputation of the White House after the resignation of Spiro Agnew, who was almost as notorious as Nixon would later become. The following years kind of put Ford on the fence via the office. On the one hand, he was never connected to either Watergate or its cover up, as were a whole domino row of Nixon advisors. On the other hand, his most memorable moment historically came just several months following his move to the Presidency, when he pardoned Nixon. I've heard the typical argument that the move cost him the White House, but I've also heard surprisingly compelling arguments that the pardon actually worked in Ford's favor long term, by allowing him to confront the nation's foreign affairs and economic issues without distraction.

Regardless, public cynicism in the presidency was eroded to the point that, despite his reputation as a "good" and "honest" man, Jimmy Carter's election was essentially a vote of no-confidence in the Washington status quo. (Reagan, of course, turned such sentiments on their heads.)

I know these seem to be unremarkable and summary observations, and I wish I had been blogging when Reagan died, because he was someone I felt strongly about. Weirdly enough, when Jess points out to me the number of presidents from Ohio (eight, or roughly 20%) I always tease her that they're the least memorable 20%. I realize that people might say the same about Ford. A counterthought would go that he presided over the nation during a troubled domestic transition, those weird years between the upheaval of the sixties and the neoconservative momentum that started to build in the eighties... that because such a political atmosphere was unpresidented since Reconstruction, his administration must only be considered interesting and worth considering. The counter counter is that the "boring" Ohio presidents are probably boring only because of their removal. Taking into consideration the difference in media saturation, we might reasonably expect to have felt as strongly about, say, a President Harrison.

Then I remember that many of those Ohio presidents were elected soon before and after Reconstruction.

I guess periods of domestic recalibration are given to modest leaders with understated legacies.




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