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Gerald Ford: Reflections On History And His Life

December 28, 2006

Former U.S. president Gerald Ford’s passing has naturally resulted in several obituaries and reflections on his life. The best I’ve seen so far have been in the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, and New York Times, as well as at History News Network (with several pieces by Yanek Mieczkowski). Of these, the Post‘s is a cut above with Mieczkowskis, taken as a group, in second place.

Almost all the aforementioned pieces mention the prominent, standard facts about Ford’s life: his athletic prowess at the University of Michigan; his un-elected ascendancy to the Oval Office; his famous “I’m a Ford, not a Lincoln” quote; the Nixon pardon; plaudits about Ford’s straight-forward honesty; his almost-as-famous wife, Betty; his defeat to Carter; and finally Ford’s long life.

But what is generally less known about Ford’s life? I found these dozen or so historical facts – some trivial and others of more consequence – the most intriguing:

1. Ford played a key role in getting the Soviet Union to agree to the “Helsinki Accords” (dealing with international human rights);
2. He was an adopted child – by his father (although his mother was his biologically);
3. Ford beat out Ronald Reagan for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976;
4. Ford didn’t initially like Reagan, saying Reagan tended toward “offering simplistic solutions to hideously complex problems.” Ford also called Reagan’s followers “right-wing nuts”;
5. Ford oversaw the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam;
6. Two women, Lynette Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, attempted to assassinate him in California in the same month, September, of 1975;
7. Some of Ford’s presidential aides went on to even more important roles, such as Alan Greenspan, George H.W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney;
8. Ford turned down offers from the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions to play professional football;
9. He campaigned for Wendell Willkie against Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940;
10. Ford was one of 18 Republicans who urged Eisenhower to run for president in 1952;
11. Ford nearly became Barry Goldwater’s running mate in 1964;
12. Ford was a Boy Scout, attaining their highest rank, Eagle Scout;
13. Ford disagreed with the current administration’s stance on the war in Iraq (see this Post article by Bob Woodward for more).

What seems to be missing, or underanalyzed, in Ford obituaries? What are the disconnects and disjuncts?

1. Few attribute to Ford much importance in narratives about the rise of political conservativism in the late twentieth century. Most obituaries rhapsodize about Ford’s moderation in contrast with conservative politicians such as Reagan. If Ford was such a moderate, how did so many future conservatives end up in his cabinet? Did they all become conservatives later, or has our definition of moderate and conservative shifted? Would Ford be seen as a moderate if he, or someone like him, ran for president today? The Chicago Tribune addressed this issue today. What of the 1960s Ev and Jerry Show (with Illinois’ U.S. Senator Everett Dirksen)? What of Ford’s 66 vetoes as president? In sum, how was Ford clearly a “moderate” versus a moderate conservative? I think it’s only in relation to Nixon’s problems that Ford was perceived as less conservative than todays Republicans in general.
2. What were his views on the cultural and social changes of the 1970s (increased sex in popular culture, the rise in drug use, the rise in crime, etc.)?
3. What were Ford’s views on religion? Was he an active Protestant? I assume so. How much did his religion affect his demeanor and political decisions?
4. What were Ford’s intellectual interests? He finished in the upper-third of his law school class at Yale, but is consistently described as simple, even bumbling. Yet one obituary noted that “at Yale, Prof. Myres MacDougal wrote in interview notes on the young [Ford]: ‘Very mature, wise person of good judgment. Informational background not the best but interesting, mature and serious of purpose.'” What is the disconnect? Was it simply Ford’s lack of eloquence?
5. What was Ford’s role in the “Truth Squad” that followed John F. Kennedy in the 1960 campaign? What “facts” did Ford “discover” about Kennedy? How did Ford hamper Kennedy’s campaign?
6. What role did Ford play in his wife’s alcoholism? If he was the good guy everyone says he was (not that I think Ford was secretly bad), how did this happen?

I’m sure some of the answers to these questions are tackled in Ford biographies, but it’s nevertheless interesting to ponder the “lesser” questions and events of his life. – TL

PS – 12/29/06 – Here’s an intriguing story, from the Boston Globe, about Ford’s pre-World War II interest in the “America First” movement. I first gave serious attention to that movement in thinking about Robert Hutchins, who was an isolationist before Pearl Harbor – not unlike Ford. – TL

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