Thursday, December 22, 2011

Simple Words, Complex Maneuverings

The series of events and trends which led to America's victory - really, the victory of Western Civilization - in the Cold War is long and complicated, and subject to various interpretations. To this day, historians disagree as to the precise amount of credit to be given to the various individuals involved - Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, Lech Walesa, Pope John Paul II, to name a few of the individuals; but also larger movements among the ordinary citizens of regions like East Germany and Romania. There are also less obvious candidates: the American labor union movement, which steadily supported a courageous stance against the Soviets.

In any case, Reagan certainly deserves some credit. We'll let the historians decide exactly how much, but there can be no doubt that there was a certain sophistication hiding behind his simple and folksy facade. His goal was not only to win the Cold War, but to win it while keeping it "cold" - to ensure that no major armed conflict would break out.

To do that, he hit upon a subtle strategy. He would out-maneuver the Soviets economically. By applying pressure to the financial system of the USSR, and meeting them at every turn with no room for escape, he could engineer Russia's economic collapse - which is precisely what happened. Simply put, America built ever more expensive weapons, forcing the Soviets to do the same in order to keep up. Eventually, they simply outspent themselves - they couldn't afford to match our defense spending.

In the pre-1990 world, however, few would have believed that this was indeed the key to defeating communism's world-wide aggression. Those who recognized the threat believed that it would take a military confrontation. To convince citizens of that political view that he had the resolve to defeat the Soviet, Reagan developed an ingenious political vocabulary for which he is now famous. Early in his presidency, at his first press conference, he wanted a bold statement to set a diplomatic tone; he said that

the Soviets will lie, cheat, and steal to get whatever they want.
Reaction to Reagan's strong language was mixed; most citizens acknowledged this as a realistic appraisal of the situation, but the media establishment, largely controlled by left-liberals, feared that Reagan would anger the communists. Further into his presidency, he introduced phrases for which he would become widely loved and hated; he said that the Soviets
preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the Earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world.
he continued:
I urge you to beware the temptation of pride - the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire.
Finally, in 1987, at the climax of the Cold War, Reagan stood in Berlin, and spoke to massive crowds, addressing the Soviet leader directly:
General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!
Although these rhetorical flourishes became famous, it was an economic strategy which ultimately defeated the Soviet Union.

Ford Begins

It is always a telling moment when a nation receives a new leader. Much of what will happen is foreshadowed, and even swayed, by the tone of the transition - by the manner in which it is perceived and retold among the people.

Historian Douglas Brinkley describes the setting for Gerald Ford's first day as President of the United States:

Aside from Washington, Lincoln and FDR - America's big three - it's difficult to recall a president who took office amid less favorable circumstances. The true public courage exhibited that day didn't emanate from Nixon fleeing Washington but from Ford, who was anxious to heal a deeply divided nation. He was being asked to assume the presidency in a White House sinking in the quicksands of Vietnam and Watergate. Ford said "yes" not because he wanted power but because it was his duty.
Ford would prove to be unique and pivotal. Pivotal, because it was his task to somehow revitalize the American political psyche, which had been devastated by the events of the early 1970's. Unique, because,
unlike all his predecessors (save George Washington), he had never slogged through the mud of a presidential campaign. Thus arriving in the White House with neither an untoward gratitude for those who had supported him nor any lingering animosity toward those who hadn't, Ford gained an unobstructed view of his enormous and widely diverse constituency.
As if the problems of Watergate and Vietnam weren't bad enough, the nation's economy was encountering problems with inflation, which threatened to morph into a recession or a depression. The Nixon administration hadn't helped, because it had engaged in deficit spending. What to do? In January 1975,
Ford unveiled a new economic strategy centered around cutting taxes for most individuals and businesses.
In foreign policy, Ford's involvement in the Helsinki Accord remains controversial to this day. A treaty among thirty-five different countries, it was out of favor with conservatives because it didn't specify clearly enough its standards for human rights, and how those standards were to be enforced by the international community; it was out of favor with the liberals because it raised the issue of human rights at all, which might anger the Soviets.
Ford's participation proved controversial from the start. And it would haunt him ever after, losing him much crucial support among conservative Republicans. Yet, with their calls for openness and respect for human rights, the Helsinki Accords would mark the beginning of the end of the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Ford's attendance at the Soviet-sponsored conference substantially boosted the credibility of the ensuing Helsinki Accords, which became one of the finer legacies of his presidency. The agreement reflected everything that was best about Jerry Ford: long-term thinking,
his mid-western outlook which tempered pragmatism with principle, and his experience. Although leaving much to be desired, the treaty was perhaps the start of the pressure which would eventually cause the Soviet Union to collapse. Reagan's sophisticated out-maneuvering of the Soviet economy was not a departure from Ford's approach to the Iron Curtain, but an extension of it.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

What Obama Said About Ford

Politicians are humans, which means that they are not consistent; more charitably, a wise politician may sometimes understand that consistency in ideology is not always his ultimate goal.

In either case, Barack Obama, in January 2007, gave a speech in honor of President Gerald Ford. It is instructive to read, in a case where the two individuals differed so greatly, what one elected official says to honor another elected official. Obama began by noting that

President Ford shouldered his burden with a unique sense of humility and good humor, in an office not known for nourishing those traits. President Ford's unusual combination of courage, strength, and conviction led America out of a deep crisis, healing our wounds and strengthening our Constitution in the process.
Ford's easy-going nature made him a friendly figure, even to those who disagreed with his policies. It was Ford's character, as much as his policy decisions, which led America out of a most troubled era; the Ford administration oversaw the aftermath of Watergate as well as the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Obama noted that
Gerald Ford was a self-made Michigander who worked part-time jobs as a young man to help support his family, and later to put himself through Yale Law School. A man of many talents, he could have been a professional football player, or lived well as an attorney. But instead, he chose a life of service, first as a decorated naval officer, then a 24-year Member of Congress, leader of his party in the House of Representatives, and Presiding Officer of this Chamber as Vice President.
Ford relied neither on his family's wealth, nor on handouts from a government program; he could have earned more money as an athlete or a lawyer, but chose to give up financial gain to help shape the nation's future. As president, he continued to set aside his personal chances to benefit from his circumstances or from his office, and instead made decisions which would help the country, and not help himself:
Domestic turmoil and foreign policy challenges marked the mid-1970s, and President Ford addressed them both. History has favorably judged his actions to move the country beyond the Watergate scandal, although he paid a heavy price at the time. He also acknowledged the severe economic difficulties faced by millions of Americans and worked head-on to alleviate them.
The "heavy price" to which Obama alludes was the election of 1976; the qualified Ford lost to the at most marginally competent Carter based mainly on public reaction to Ford's handling of the Watergate situation. Obama embraced Ford's interpretation of the Helsinki Accords:
His backing of the Helsinki Accords, while controversial, gave important support to dissidents living under Soviet rule who sought respect for their human rights.
Obama returned to the theme of Ford's character. At the end of Ford's career, and the end of Ford's life, his policy decisions may have been of the greatest benefit to the nation, but it was his personal nobility which made him most beloved.
Throughout his life, Gerald Ford handled the responsibilities and challenges that circumstance thrust on him without losing his Midwestern openness and sensibility. To many who disagreed with him, he still came across as a comforting figure who had the Nation's best interests at heart. Central to this ability to connect with people was his self-deprecating sense of humor, summed up by the quip, "I'm a Ford, not a Lincoln." And while he may not have been a Lincoln, he certainly was not a common President. America is a better place because of him, and we all owe President Ford and his wife, Betty, a tremendous debt of gratitude.
It will be a most interesting exercise to see how Obama's words about Ford would apply to Obama himself: will Obama use these same words to describe his own career?