Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Gerald Ford: Our Insurance Policy

Richard Nixon thought that Gerald Ford was his insurance policy. It turns out that the unassuming man from western Michigan was our insurance policy.

Reports circulated in mid-1974 that President Nixon, with evidence of his multiple violations of the Constitution, the law, and his oath of office mounting, had asked aides disdainfully if they could imagine that any member of Congress would proceed with impeaching or removing him from the presidency knowing that Ford would succeed him. When Nixon's first Vice President, Spiro Agnew, had been forced to resign in disgrace, the thirty-seventh President initially wanted to nominate John Connally to take Agnew's place. However, members of Congress, especially Democratic Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield, told the President that Connally, soon to be indicted in federal court, couldn't be confirmed, but that he and the Senate were enthusiastic about Ford.

Nixon thought of Ford as a lightweight. Initially resistant to the notion of nominating him for Vice President, he came to view Ford as a hedge against having to resign the presidency. He simply couldn't imagine anyone seriously wanting to see Gerald Ford become President.

But in this as on many things, Nixon was wrong. When, after taking the oath of office on August 9, 1974, Ford announced that our long national nightmare was over, we heaved a sigh of relief. Gerald Ford was our generation's Harry Truman, a plain-spoken man who loved his country, did his best, and let the chips fall where they might. We needed a President like him after Vietnam and Watergate.

I'm writing this post from a hotel in Charleston, South Carolina. It was at a fort visible from this spot that the greatest constitutional crisis of US history began with the attack by Rebel insurgents on Fort Sumter. The Civil War ensued, testing whether that nation or any nation, paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln, dedicated to the principles of the American Revolution could survive.

Throughout much of our national history, there have been those who have misinterpreted the theme of the American Revolution and of the American experiment. They've seen the cause of America as being solely centered on individual liberty or freedom, particularly their own freedom.

Ironically, people who see America in this way usually are the ones who most threaten the freedom they claim to value. Unbridled freedom can become what the Founders called mobocracy, the tyranny of "the free," exemplified for them in the terrors of the French Revolution.

The desire for freedom is certainly part of what motivated America's founding generation. Thomas Jefferson, a delegate at the Continental Congress that declared American independence from Great Britain, well-articulated the views of his countrymen when assigned the task of presenting the American brief to the world about which even schoolchildren today know.

It turns out though, that even Jefferson didn't fully understand the other theme which completed or fulfilled our revolution. Both James Madison, his protege, and John Adams, his friend and rival, had constantly to correct Jefferson, who never really got it. Because of his misunderstanding, Jefferson disdained the Constitution. While out of office, he saw it not as a compact which bound Americans together, but as a temporary and expendable document meant to fix the flaws in the Articles of Confederation, flaws he never fully acknowleged. While President, he viewed constitutional limits on his ideas about the republic and giving Americans a continent in which to expand their agrarian nation, as being inimical to the principles of the Declaration of Independence.

But the Constitution had been made necessary because freedom without mutual accountability can lead to a weak and ineffectual nation, as happened under our Articles of Confederation, or to license and violence as it did in France.

During the Civil War, southern leaders insisted that they were fighting for freedom. They were, in a way: their "freedom" to enslave others and to allow states to legitimize the "peculiar institution" of human bondage which kept their rice and cotton plantations afloat. More than one-hundred years later, Nixon chafed under attempts to bridle his "freedom" as a chief executive to violate the Constitution, overstepping his presidential prerogatives and violating the freedoms of others.

This is the sort of thing that always happens when one of the two guiding US principles is forgotten.

What Adams, Washington, Hamilton, and to a lesser extent, Madison, saw was that the Constitution completed the American Revolution, balancing freedom with mutual responsibility and checks and balances.

Lincoln would later fully articulate and explain the twin components of the American experiment, seeing that the nation was birthed to be a republic in which liberty was wedded to the rule of law, institutionalizing mutual accountability.

Ford, unlike Nixon, understood and accepted these twin components of the American experiment. That's why, in the address he gave on taking over as President, Ford declared that his ascent to the presidency as the culmination of the Watergate crisis proved that our constitutional system worked, that ours was a nation of laws, not of individual people.

"I am the President," Nixon once declared, in a statement eerily similar to that ascribed King Louis XIV: "C'etat est moi." Ford knew better than this, seeing that no human being is above the laws that bind nations together.

This decent, principled man was precisely the prescription needed to affirm both freedom and responsibility as the essential elements of our national identity.

I didn't agree with Gerald Ford's decision to pardon Nixon, although I understood his desire to get the disposition of Nixon's life off the national agenda. Nonetheless, as I'm sure many commentators have noted today, Ford, in his understated way, restored our trust in government and the Constitution and ended the War in Vietnam. He unflinchingly made some of the toughest decisions ever made by an American President, all in an amazing two-and-a-half year period.

In his typically self-deprecating way, the former Michigan Congressman said of his oratory that he was a Ford, not a Lincoln. But with actions if not eloquence, Gerald Ford, like Lincoln before him, insured Americans' continued fealty to the two primary principles of our country's founding. That's no mean achievement.

[UPDATE: See here.]

[THANKS TO: Two of my favorite bloggers, Charlie Lehardy, for linking to this post and to Pastor Jeff for doing the same.]

[THANKS TO: Joe Gandelman at The Moderate Voice for linking to this post.]

3 comments:

Danny said...

Excellent post, Mark. I really appreciate the range of topics on your blog, all written with understanding and intelligence.

Charlie said...

Thanks for coming out of your vacation long enough to comment on Gerald Ford. And I think you've hit it right on the head, that what made Ford a great president, and the perfect one to succeed Nixon, was his deep respect for America, the Constitution, the office of the presidency, and his moral decency. Very well said, Mark. I've linked to your post.

As an aside, I remember being very angry with the Ford pardon. I hated Nixon and I wanted his blood. I'm ashamed today that I was so blinded by political zeal, and I am grateful that Ford had the guts to cut short the calls for retribution by issuing that pardon. I think it was better for us as a nation that Ford put Nixon behind us and helped us move on. And, there's a sense in which I think the country as a whole was responsible for having permitted corruption to flourish in American politics.

Mark Daniels said...

Danny and Charlie:
Thanks so much for your kind and generous comments. Coming from two people who write as well and as insightfully as the two of you do, they mean a lot to me.

Charlie, I entirely understand President Ford's decision to pardon Richard Nixon. But I still think that it was a mistake. To preemptivly truncate the judicial process is probably not a good idea, particularly when the suspect in question was himself President. It breeds suspicion.

Nonetheless, President Ford brought healing to many aspects of our national life. I regard him as one of the finest Presidents of the twentieth century. My guess is that because of the grace and courage with which he confronted the second gravest constitutional crisis in our history that future generations will name him as one of the best chief executives ever.

Mark