Aright-minded, salt-of-the-earth pres­i­dent . . .

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Mor­ton Kon­dracke

In an Oval Of­fice in­ter­view in 1976, I asked Pres­i­dent Ger­ald Ford about charges made to me and many oth­ers by In­dian Prime Min­is­ter Indira Gandhi that the CIA was try­ing to over­throw her.

Mr. Ford said it was non­sense but de­clared Mrs. Gandhi was pro-Soviet and no friend of the United States. As he spoke, an aide sit­ting by got no­tice­ably fid­gety. “Ah, ex­cuse me,” the aide said. “Can we please make that off the record? It will cause no end of trou­ble with In­dia.”

I agreed — then put the ques­tion to Mr. Ford again for what I ex­pected would be a more diplo­matic an­swer. The sec­ond an­swer was prac­ti­cally iden­ti­cal with the first and the aide just threw up his hands.

That was Ger­ald Ford — straight­for­ward, hon­est, un­com­pli­cated, salt-of-the-earth Mid­west­ern, an Ea­gle Scout nearly in­ca­pable of dis­sem­bling. He was just what the coun­try needed af­ter the trau­mas of Water­gate — the prod­uct of Pres­i­dent Nixon’s de­vi­ous­ness and para­noia.

Mr. Ford’s par­don of Mr. Nixon also was pure Ger­ald Ford. He saw Mr. Nixon’s fate — pros­e­cu­tion and pos­si­ble sui­cide — would pre­oc­cupy the coun­try and dom­i­nate his pres­i­dency. “This Amer­i­can tragedy could go on and on,” he told the coun­try. “Some­one must write an end to it. I have con­cluded that only I can do it, and if I can, I must.”

The par­don cost Mr. Ford dearly in po­lit­i­cal sup­port, but he thought it was the right thing to do and did it. As his­tory has proved, it was not part of a deal to make him pres­i­dent — though one was of­fered to him — and it was the right de­ci­sion to heal the na­tion.

He was straight­for­ward and right-minded, too, in han­dling the coun­try’s sec­ond great trauma — Viet­nam. When North Viet­nam launched its fi­nal of­fen­sive against the South in 1975, Mr. Ford wanted to stand by an ally in dis­tress and asked Congress for $650 mil­lion in emer­gency mil­i­tary aid.

Congress re­fused. South Viet­nam’s army col­lapsed and all Mr. Ford could do was res­cue as many Viet­namese as pos­si­ble. When some Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties balked at ac­cept­ing refugees, he said such at­ti­tudes were un­wor­thy of Amer­ica.

Mr. Ford’s straight­for­ward­ness lim­ited his imag­i­na­tion, too. As a reg­u­lar Repub­li­can con­gres­sional leader, he voted against fed­er­ally funded hous­ing, aid to ed­u­ca­tion, the Medi­care pro­gram and for­mer Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son’s war on poverty.

Mr. John­son, a highly com­plex char­ac­ter, in a re­mark cleaned up by the press de­clared that “Jerry Ford can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.” When Mr. Ford was pres­i­dent, his first do­mes­tic pre­oc­cu­pa­tion was in­fla­tion, which rose to 7 per­cent. Mr. Ford termed it a men­ace to the coun­try as great as any for­eign en­emy and launched the ill-fated “Whip In­fla­tion Now” cam­paign that had no ef­fect what­so­ever.

When un­em­ploy­ment rose to 9 per­cent, Mr. Ford kept to his con­ser­va­tive fis­cal prin­ci­ples and tried to re­strain spend­ing, which Democrats thought could tem­per the re­ces­sion. Mr. Ford ve­toed 66 bills passed by the Demo­cratic Congress, most of them ap­pro­pri­a­tions de­signed to re­lieve un­em­ploy­ment. Mr. Ford said he saved the Trea­sury $9 bil­lion.

In for­eign pol­icy, Mr. Ford was a re­al­ist, not an ide­al­ist like Pres­i­dents Ron­ald Rea­gan or Ge­orge W. Bush. Mr. Ford fol­lowed the guid­ance of his (and Mr. Nixon’s) sec­re­tary of state, Henry Kissinger, who was pes­simistic about hu­man na­ture and the West’s prospects.

Mr. Kissinger be­lieved de­tente and co-ex­is­tence with the Soviet Union were the best ar­range­ment the United States could achieve. Mr. Rea­gan, by con­trast, thought the West could de­feat the “evil em­pire.” Mr. Rea­gan, it turns out, was right. And Mr. Ford’s de­tente pol­icy, as much as the par­don, may have cost him his pres­i­dency.

Mr. Ford turned back Mr. Rea­gan’s chal­lenge in Repub­li­can pri­maries in 1976, but ques­tions about de­tente un­doubt­edly caused the de­bate gaffe that elected Jimmy Carter.

In 1976, Mr. Ford signed the Helsinki Ac­cords, which crit­ics at­tacked as guar­an­tee­ing Soviet con­trol of East­ern Europe. Mr. Ford was try­ing to re­fute that charge in the de­bate when he de­nied Poland was Soviet-dom­i­nated.

Go­ing into that de­bate, Mr. Ford had pulled even with Mr. Carter. The gaffe — and his stub­born re­fusal to walk back from it for days — caused him to lose the elec­tion by a hair.

Had Mr. Ford won, chances are he would have been at con­stant war with Congress. Ron­ald Rea­gan prob­a­bly never would have been pres­i­dent, though he would have won the 1980 Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion. The coun­try would have blamed Repub­li­cans, not Mr. Carter, for the stag­nant econ­omy and would have wanted a change af­ter 12 years of Repub­li­can rule.

In char­ac­ter, Mr. Ford presided over one of the most open White Houses ever. His first chief of staff, Don­ald Rums­feld, was ca­pa­ble of in­trigue, con­stantly try­ing to oust Trea­sury Sec­re­tary William Si­mon with leaks.

But af­ter Mr. Rums­feld be­came de­fense sec­re­tary, Mr. Ford in­stalled Dick Cheney as chief of staff, and Mr. Cheney was one of the most ac­ces­si­ble fig­ures ever to hold that job — amaz­ing as that now seems, given Mr. Cheney’s now-de­served rep­u­ta­tion for se­crecy.

The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Bob Wood­ward re­ports Mr. Ford told him — in an in­ter­view to be pub­lished only af­ter his death — that he op­posed the Iraq war launched by his old pro­teges and Pres­i­dent Bush. It’s a mark of Mr. Ford’s de­cency that he didn’t try to un­der­mine a suc­ces­sor by speak­ing out as Mr. Bush pre­pared for war. But it’s also a flaw: He might have given the coun­try pause.

Mor­ton Kon­dracke is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

Tony Blank­ley is on vacation.

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