Thursday, December 22, 2011

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.