Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Football Helmets Used To Be Leather

In watching the Larry King interview from 1999 with Gerald Ford, another exchange struck me that pointed to Ford's relative cluelessness, though it also provides another window onto Ford's sudden canonization by the media.
KING: What are your thoughts on the great debate in your party about abortion?

FORD: Well, I have to be very frank and clear here. Betty and I are pro-choice, period. We have no apology for that. And we, on the other hand, don't think that issue should be in the partisan political arena.

KING: Shouldn't be in the platform even?

FORD: That's right. It's not a philosophical, partisan issue. It's a very personal issue. We can be opposed to abortion, but it should not be thrown into the partisan political debate. And, therefore, even though we're pro-choice, we would oppose any effort to get an anti-abortion provision in our platform.
Interestingly, Ford's "argument" (if one could call it that) essentially draws a false dichotomy between the "personal" and the "philosophical"--as if all our personal actions (as well as public policies) were not produced by a philosophy of some sort or another. It also begs the question by ruling opposing views out a priori, as if to say, "You can have your views and I'll have mine, and mine will be the law by decree and yours must never be mentioned in public because that wouldn't be proper."

But more than that, Ford is exactly and precisely wrong here. Abortion is absolutely a political and philosophical issue. The very fact that the issue of abortion was suddenly removed by the Supreme Court from the public political arena is the reason the nation is still deeply and substantially divided over it 34 years after Roe v. Wade. As Judge Robert Bork has written:
If judgments about the prudence of overruling are invoked, the justices should take note of the fact that Roe lies at the center of the bitter polarization of much of American society. In countries where the issue is decided democratically, no such intense animus exists. Compromises are worked out and each side knows that it is free to continue the public debate in hope of doing better next time. That was, and would be again, the case in America if the subject of abortion were returned to state legislatures and electorates. Overruling Roe would not, as some Democrats will claim, make abortion illegal, but merely the subject of democratic regulation. We have paid a high price for a ruling that rests upon nothing in the Constitution and was arrived at in an opinion of just over 51 pages that contains not a line of legal reasoning.
Even noted liberal law professor Cass Sunstein agrees with Bork on this:
The court might've gradually built up to something pretty close to Roe v. Wade without anything like the intense public backlash that Roe itself yielded. We would've eventually gotten there through the slow process of case-by-case decisions. Another possibility is that the court would permit some restrictions on abortion rights -- more restrictions than it now does -- and we would see some variability across the states. Some states would basically ban abortion, with exceptions for rape and incest, but most states would allow abortion, probably quite freely. We wouldn't have the intense political tangles we now do, and things would be much more congenial between pro-choice and pro-life people.
I don't agree with Sunstein about what the American public would have ultimately done, but his overall point still stands. The fact is, abortion absolutely is a political issue, and by removing it from the people's policy-making power (where it properly belongs, contra Ford), the Supreme Court insured that it would never be settled.

Ford's stance is emblematic of the wishy-washy, pragmatic philosophy that made him a presidential non-entity. He demonstrates the same mushiness on the gun issue:
KING: And, of course, Reagan being shot. Do you have some thoughts on guns in this country? There's a constant debate about it.

FORD: Let me just say this. We've never owned a gun in our house. I'm not a hunter, so I have no ...

KING: Personal.

FORD: ... personal views, other than I think some reasonable, responsible gun control legislation is desirable. I don't think that's going to solve the problem a hundred percent, but I think reasonable restrictions do make sense.
Again, a man of few words who says even less. In fact, this demonstrates one of Ford's most characteristic qualities: he was a lifelong member of the Faux-Decisive School of Public Speaking. This is the club in which members begin statements with such steely declarations as, "Let me be perfectly frank here," or, "Let me give you my unqualified, unvarnished opinion on this," followed by a mushy, blobby, amorphous, gelatinous nothingness.

"Larry, I want to make something perfectly clear here. I have always felt that some laws were good, and some laws were bad. I think it would be wise for us to try to have more of the good laws, and perhaps fewer of the bad ones." Because reporters are generally morons, they'll actually believe you're being perfectly frank as long as you simply inform them that you're being perfectly frank. Which is why this week you hear the press bemoaning the fact that we don't have more Gerald Fords. Now, in Ford's defense, I don't think he was being misleading or disingenuous. He really was mushy, blobby, and amorphous, and his "frankness" merely demonstrated that. He may have been a decent guy, as we've been hearing incessantly. But make no mistake about it. A car full of Gerald Fords could never even get out of the garage. Thank heavens we only had 2 1/2 years of this.

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