Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Gerald's Heralds

I've found myself a bit surprised at the level of pomp and circumstance surrounding the funeral of former president Gerald Ford over the past week. Of course, because of the stature of the presidency, one would expect a certain amount of fanfare. And by all accounts Ford was an eminently decent man, well-liked by all. Nonetheless, the pageantry is far greater than I expected.

It perhaps won't seem kind to say this (and it surely won't be popular), but the natural desire to honor the dead is causing Ford to be vastly overrated during this mourning period. The fact is, as a president, he was largely a non-entity. Ford was a political pragmatist without any kind of guiding philosophy or worldview. Pragmatism can perhaps allow one to build a long Washington career, but it usually fails to inspire anybody. Pragmatists don't inspire love or devotion among real people (though the media usually loves them for their "bipartisanship"). Bob Dole was a similar kind of politician, and it's easily forgotten among this week's laurels that the uninspiring Ford/Dole ticket was soundly beaten in 1976, which largely (and thankfully) paved the way for the far more successful Reagan era. (Dole, inspiring nobody but his immediate family, also led the GOP ticket in '96 and was utterly trounced.)

Yes, Ford pardoned Nixon, which was a major decision whether one agreed or disagreed with it. But beyond that, there's precious little in the Ford record to remember him by. I was reminded of this while watching a rerun over the weekend of an interview Ford did with Larry King back in 1999. Here was one of the exchanges:
KING: You have an also been critical of your own party of late, especially its drift farther rightward. Was that tough for you, to come out and criticize your own, to break the Reagan rule of we don't criticize our own?

FORD: Not at all, because I think having been in the political arena actively and holding positions of responsibility, at my age, I have an obligation to speak out as I really feel, and I feel very strongly that the Republican Party ought to be the party of the middle, not an extreme right-wing party and duplicate the mistake that my Democratic friends made for about three elections of being too far to the left. The record is that when the Democrats nominated an extreme liberal...

KING: McGovern.

FORD: McGovern, Dukakis, the others, they lost. And we Republicans will lose if we nominate candidates who are on the fringe, the extreme right. The public generally, Larry, believes in moderation, middle of the road political philosophy and ideology.
That, in a nutshell, is the dullness which was Gerald Ford. His analysis of Democrats may be correct, but he was demonstrably wrong when it came to Republicans--and to the politics of the American people at large. The fact is that for decades now, it's the Republicans the media portrays as extremists who actually win and hold the presidency. Ford spoke these words just as a Republicans running as a staunch conservative was about to win the first of two terms in the White House. Meanwhile, Ford, taking this "centrist" position, was roundly booted from office by the American people. Indeed, while it hasn't been mention much this week, Ford was so uninspiring that he nearly lost the Republican nomination to Ronald Reagan as the incumbent president. That's virtually unprecedented.

The fact is, the most "moderate" Republican presidential candidates of the last 30+ years--Ford, Bush 41, and Dole--have been losers. Of these, only Bush 41 actually won a presidential election, and that was largely because he was (mistakenly) seen as an ultra-conservative after eight years as Reagan's vice-president. The ostensible "extremist" partisans--Reagan and Bush 43--have been the party's biggest winners. Nixon, though less conservative than I would care for, was also perceived by the media as an arch-conservative and loathed by the left, and as a result he won two presidential elections during a time of unrest as a "law and order" candidate--including a landslide in '72 during the height of the anti-war movement.

But Ford was the media's favorite kind of conservative, which is to say not very. Other than the Nixon pardon, his enduring legacy is the nomination of John Paul Stevens to the Supreme Court, which has been an unmitigated disaster for anyone who values the Constitution (the actual paper one, I mean, rather than the amorphous "organic" one from which Stevens works) and the rule of law.

"Why, oh why can't we have more Republicans like Gerald Ford?" the media is asking this week. The answer seems to be that, generally speaking, Republicans decided that they would rather win elections than run dull, uninspiring, middle-of-the-road, let's-all-go-play-golf-and-have-a-drink career hacks. No doubt the media and the Washington establishment would love to see an unending string of "moderate" Republicans who cannot actually win national elections (which is why they drool at the sight of John McCain), but for the most part, the Republicans have annoyingly seemed to prefer winning.

So there's a lot of hoopla this week as Gerald Ford is laid to rest, and I think generally that's a good thing. The presidency is important, and some degree of ceremony should attend the funeral of a president. A president is a president, and he should be buried like a president. But you'll be hard-pressed to find any real people getting emotional over the passing of Gerald Ford the way they did a couple of years ago when President Reagan died. It's purely a Washington phenomenon. As Slate's Timothy Noah writes:
Within the narrow confines of Permanent Washington—the journalists, lobbyists, and congressional lifers who are the city's avatars of centrism and continuity—Ford is considered the beau idéal of American leadership.

...Washington's Gerald Ford cult differs from, say, its John F. Kennedy cult or its Ronald Reagan cult in that no branches can be found outside the nation's capital. It is possible to say, "America loves JFK," or "America loves Reagan," but no one in his right mind would ever say, "America loves Ford." (If attempted, the statement would surely be mistaken for an advertising slogan touting the Dearborn, Mich.-based auto manufacturer.) America has not given Gerald Ford a lot of thought.

...That is why Washington loves Gerald Ford. Comity and bipartisanship are easy to overrate, and Permanent Washington can always be counted on to overrate them.
While we honor Gerald Ford this week, we should keep in mind that he's being highly overrated by the media and his fellow politicians. No doubt he was a fine gentleman, but he was a medium-to-bad president and we're probably fortunate we were only stuck with him for two years.

And if you think I'm lacking charity, just take a gander at what Christopher Hitchens has to say about the Ford send-off this week.

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