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?