The Crisis Manager: Gerald R. Ford (1913-2006)
by Shelton Hull
The two years Gerald R. Ford spent atop the mountain of American politics predated my own birth, so I cannot speak of his career in terms of direct, or even immediately indirect, experience, but a few words are in order on the occasion of his passing. Ford had passed the late Ronald Reagan as America’s longest-lived former President earlier in the year, but he had been in turbulent health for several years, of which one reported consequence was his inability to attend Reagan’s funeral in 2005.
Ford holds the distinction of being the only man to serve as both Vice-President and, later, President without having been elected to either office. After 25 years in the US House (the last nine as Minority Leader), Ford was nominated to succeed Spiro T. Agnew as the understudy of Richard Milhous Nixon in 1973, after Agnew admitted to influence peddling during his years as mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland. Nine months later, Ford became the 38th President of the United States after Nixon resigned. The ouster of Nixon, who was arguably the greatest of post-war (or is it pre-war?) Presidents, was a disaster whose repercussions resonate through American history to this day. Ford bore the burden of a job he allegedly never wanted, and in so doing wrote his own compelling chapter in the big book of crisis management.
Due to the unique circumstances of his run, Ford’s legacy is somewhat muddled. However, in terms of relevance to our present-day reality, it could be put thusly: it was on Ford’s watch that Donald Rumsfeld and his protege, Dick Cheney, got their first taste of executive-branch activity. Rumsfeld was Ford’s second Chief of Staff, and was replaced by Cheney upon becoming the youngest-ever Secretary of Defense; he would later be the oldest, under President Bush. Speaking of the Bushes, former President George H.W. Bush was appointed CIA Director by Ford; in his letter of acceptance, Bush memorably said of the gig, “I can’t help but feel as if this is the end of [my] political career.”
Bush’s appointment was reportedly engineered by Rumsfeld, as the two were in competition (in their own minds, at least) to be Ford’s next Vice-President, a job that eventually went to the infamous Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller. This maneuver is said to be the basis of a longstanding “Poppy”-“Rummy” feud that manifested in a) the marginality of Bush 41 associates’ ideas on Iraq policy, and later b) the ouster of Rumsfeld from the Pentagon and replacement with longtime Bush ally Robert Gates. At the time, it may have well been expected that Ford’s VP would probably become President, given that Ford survived two assassination attempts. (Both were by women, which might be why they failed.) Any successor would have been the second consecutive President to hold both posts without election, and that would have seemed a bit off to the American people.
Ford lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter, in great part because of the pardon he gave Nixon shortly after taking office. By failing to satiate the blood-lust of the radical left, Ford exposed himself to charges of conspiracy, and he was mercilessly taunted by the popular culture. Most notable, of course, was Chevy Chase of “Saturday Night Live,” who portrayed Ford as a stumbling bumbling dunce- cruel buffoonery masked as satire, with no attempt made to mimic his voice or appearance. It may be ironic that a 1976 skit in which Chase, as Ford, fell awkwardly onto an unpadded wooden podium during a mock debate with Carter (the inquisitors included John Belushi as Hunter S. Thompson) was cited by Chase as the beginning of a long-term addiction to painkillers.
Ford believed that a protracted legal case involving a former President, who was in fact a lawyer himself, would overwhelm all other matters of state and further divide an already-divided nation. Twenty-four years later, a Republican congress would fail to grasp that very wisdom, and their sloppy, underhanded impeachment of a president who was popular at home and abroad helped set this nation on the path to world war. The lesson of this all may be that if more politicians were like Ford, our country would be better off. RIP.