Friday, May 4, 2012

Ford Prepares

President Gerald Ford made momentous decisions which set the course for last quarter of the twentieth century. Always a reflective and spiritual man, he moved the nation in the direction of forgiveness when he issued a presidential pardon to Richard Nixon. A very unpopular move at the time, it proved to be the step which eventually allowed the country to recover from the pangs of the Watergate scandal. Historian Barry Werth writes about the morning of Sunday, September 8, 1974:

Ford awoke early and took 8 A.M. Holy Communion at St. John's Episcopal Church, the "Church of the Presidents" across Lafayette Square from the White House. He prayed alone, asking, he said, for "guidance and understanding," in pew 54, where every president since James Madison had worshipped. As he was leaving, reporters asked what he was doing for the rest of the day. "You'll find out soon enough," Ford said.

President Ford's pardoning of Nixon proved not only to be unpopular, but to be politically devastating, both to Ford and to his party. It essentially assured Ford's loss in the 1976 election to an unqualified and unknown candidate - Carter didn't win that election; Ford lost it. The Ford administration never quite recovered its momentum or political capital with the nation or with Congress. But in the long run, after Ford left the White House, the wisdom and benefits of his action became clear:

Beginning in 1996, notable critics who'd condemned Ford's decision to pardon Nixon started to revise their views. Richard Reeves, who in 1975 wrote a scathing biography in which he claimed "it is fair to say that Ford is slow. He is also unimaginative and not very articulate," now lauded Ford for his courage in an American Heritage article entitled "I'm Sorry, Mr. President." The Post's Bob Woodward, after interviewing Ford in 1998, concluded: "If Ford mishandled some of the details and disclosures, he got the overall absolutely right - the pardon was necessary for the nation." During that interview, Ford said about his August 1 meeting with Haig that, "yes, on paper, without action it was a deal, but it never became a deal because I never accepted." When Woodward questions Ford why he hadn't made more of the moral and legal point that accepting a pardon was tantamount to admitting guilt, Ford reached into his pocket for his wallet and, after searching around, produced a folded, dog-eared piece of paper - a portion of the 1915 Supreme Court ruling in Burdick. "I've got it in my wallet here because any time anybody challenges me I pull it out," he said.

As Ford's work was re-evaluated, and it became clear that his decision had been the best way to move the nation forward, out of the malaise of Watergate, and open a way into the future, even his enemies, those convicted of crimes, and those guilty of ethical violations - even they acknowledged that President Ford had done the right thing in pardoning Nixon:

In 2001, Ford received the Profile in Courage Award at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston. Senator Ted Kennedy and liberal representative Barney Frank were among those who praised the award.

One of the qualities which Ford possessed, and which brought even these criminals to honor him, was humility. Ford cast aside many of the trappings which Nixon had orchestrated around himself, trappings which caused some to speak of Nixon's "imperial presidency." Both in lack of ceremony and lack of presumption, Ford made it clear that he was a citizen like any other, who simply happened to live in the White House. Ironically, decades after Ford left the White House, the humility which President Ford brought to the presidency was replaced by another wave of royal presumption. President Obama has called forth these same two words as the public notes

the reemergence of the Imperial Presidency - a phrase last used to describe Nixon's presumption of being above the law.

The decency, honesty, and humility of Ford remain the best manner in which to carry out the duties of the president. History shows this repeatedly.