Gerald Ford and the Limits of Conciliation

February 19, 2009


Perhaps what is going on in Washington is only business as usual, but it’s impossible not to be alarmed by the open leftism and radicalism the Obama administration is displaying with almost every act. The monstrous “stimulus,” Hillary’s “outreach” to Muslims, and today we had the attorney general warning whites (while demeaning America to the rest of the world) that they’d better not think they can stop thinking about race now that Obama is in office. I didn’t know that it was the Attorney General’s job to express opinions on such matters, but he is a black politician, and different rules seem to apply. Well, I hope some of us will begin to take his advice, and start speaking honestly of racial issues – but I don’t think it will be what he has in mind.

Last week, as I was preparing for a short trip to Grand Rapids, Michigan, a friend recommended that I visit the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, which he described as fascinating. With that endorsement, coming from a non-conservative, and the interests I write about here, I knew I ought to go, but I admit that I was not exactly excited. There is just nothing very spicy about Ford’s image, and, come to think of it, the concept of a “presidential museum.”

As a matter of fact, it was absolutely fascinating – and I was moved by the experience. Born in the mid-1960s, the Nixon and Ford years represent the America I came from, but my memories and understanding of that period are murky. I remember the constant discussion of Vietnam, and the announcement from a teacher at school that the “war was over,” to which we broke out in uncomprehending applause. I remember the fervent dislike of Nixon expressed by many adults, and the strange sound the word Watergate had to a child’s ears. I remember visiting Philadelphia for the Bicentennial and the excitement of that time. But all this is now the distant past, and with the drama of the events unfolding in America today, who has time to think about the 1970s?

Yet we should think about them. As one can observe in films and TV of the time (for instance, All In The Family), this was the period when the old (white, male) authority structure of America was still formally in place but was being loudly challenged by the sizable portion of the younger generation that was consciously moving away from the essential values of the earlier society. Hollywood tends to portray the change as led by “hippie” types, but in reality the entire generation growing up from the late 1960s onward experienced or was affected by a freer approach to sexual relations, non-Christian forms of spirituality, feminism, black “empowerment” and racial mixing, recreational drug use, and other phenomena that marked our transition to the explicitly and radically liberal society we have become. Also going on right under our noses was the first wave of mass non-European immigration, causing, no doubt, consternation in the areas affected but never reaching the national level of discourse. What were we thinking? Is there any way that the revolutions of those times could have been stopped, or deflected?

Our presidents seem to have shrunk in stature since the election of Bill Clinton, the first post-World War II president with no experience of that war. And the first thing that strikes one about photos of the early Ford is his active nature and his athleticism – Eagle Scout, captain of his high school football team, and center and linebacker for the University of Michigan team. He was, of course, portrayed as a “klutz” by a comedian on Saturday Night Live who later admitted to political motives in doing this – perhaps not the smallest injustice Ford was done by the media.

The museum is full of fascinating items, which to me told the story of America as much as of Ford himself. Among those that stood out for me were the notes made by his interviewer when he applied for law school (he was described as intelligent but lacking general knowledge); photos of his wedding to Betty, who, as a divorcee, did not wear white; his book, Portrait of an Assassin, supporting the idea of a single assassin of Kennedy; numerous Watergate-related documents; campaign gear from 1976; and videos of visits by various foreign dignitaries to the Ford White House.

I am always touched to learn about important figures from America’s past who seem to have been genuinely strong, decent, honest people, and Ford certainly seems to have been that. He was truly aggrieved by the circumstances that made him president, and he desperately wanted to help the nation “heal” from the trauma of Watergate. His pardon of Nixon, intended for this reason, is often thought to have cost him the election in 1976. My feeling about it was that Ford was right in his reasons for pardoning Nixon, but that the healing he sought was impossible for deeper reasons. The rage and fury directed towards Nixon was not merely justifiable outrage at the immoral and illegal behavior of that man and his team; it was contaminated by a growing hatred for the power structure of America itself and by a vaguely destructive wish to radically “democratize” our institutions and reduce our power in the world. That hatred was not something that could, in the end, be appeased. A Nixon trial may indeed have been worse for the nation, but smoothing over the gap in values between the traditional and liberal sectors of the population was just not possible. “Nixon-hatred,” seemingly justified, morphed into Reagan-hatred and Bush-hatred, the instinctive and vicious dislike of Republicans no matter how affable and conciliatory that candidate may be.

Ford was affable and conciliatory to a fault, and between Betty Ford’s support of the Equal Rights Amendment and Ford’s own vocal support of affirmative action and gay marriage, it is impossible to see him in any way as a defender of traditional values. One can easily imagine him voting for Obama if he were alive today. At best, he was a firm believer in American democracy, and saw the Presidential Museum and Library as resources for teaching about that subject.

The Presidential Museum brought back to me a time when we were still a real country – unified enough to speak of a common “we” and to share a sense of history and destiny. Unfortunately, the Ford presidency marked the end of that period rather than the time of “healing” Ford hoped for. I have no answer as to whether anything could have been done at that time to save us from the national disintegration we face today, but some of the clues to where we went wrong may be found in this time capsule of the life and presidency of Gerald Ford.


Two Views of Citizenship: Roosevelt and Wilson

February 7, 2009


One of the Heritage American’s secret sources is a 1937 textbook and anthology entitled Our Literary Heritage: American Literature, edited by Russell Blankenship et al. (1) Collections like this are precious because they introduce the whole range of our tradition as it stood before it was ravaged by the anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-military, multicultural, and – well, anti-American movements. It is not that we can’t get hold of our pre-PC literature if we look for it, and quite a bit of it is still in print, but it’s hard to know where to begin when no one alive teaches our history or literature as a tradition. Groups like the Conservative Book Club can help, but I prefer to start with older collections like American Literature, which are more than adequate to set one on an unending journey of reading and discovery.

American Literature seems to be aimed at male high school students, and one point that it emphasizes is the concept of citizenship. The idea seems to be that American literature can help to instill in young readers a sense of national identity and patriotism. A noble enough purpose, although it does raise the question of what the cause was of the lack of patriotism that obviously concerned educators at the time. In any event, one section that caught my eye presents two selections on the topic of “citizenship.” The first is by Theodore Roosevelt, published in 1910 in the first Handbook of the Boy Scouts of America and quoted here. The other is a 1915 speech by Woodrow Wilson to newly naturalized citizens, reproduced in its entirety here. The textbook asks students to compare and contrast the conceptions of citizenship held by each man, and asks “Which of the two selections is more likely to live? Why?” I thought I would try to turn in a response some 70 years later.

Roosevelt writes that the Boy Scout movement is “in its essence a practical scheme through which to impart a proper standard of ethical conduct, proper standards of fair play and consideration for others, and courage and decency, to boys who have never been reached and never will be reached by the ordinary type of preaching, lay or clerical.” After discussing the excellent service rendered by boy scouts in the Philippines after a major fire, he explains that “The [Boy Scout] movement is one for efficiency and patriotism. It does not try to make soldiers of boy scouts, but to make boys who will turn out as men to be fine citizens and who will, if their country needs them, make better soldiers for having been scouts.” Honing in on the idea of citizenship, he writes:

No one can be a good American unless he is a good citizen, and every boy ought to train himself so that as a man he will be able to do his full duty to the community. I want to see the boy scouts not merely utter fine sentiments, but act on them; not merely sing, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” but act in a way that will give them a country to be proud of. No man is a good citizen unless he so acts as to show that he actually uses the Ten Commandments, and translates the Golden Rule into his life conduct – and I don’t mean by this in exceptional cases under spectacular circumstances, but I mean applying the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule in the ordinary affairs of every-day life.
Roosevelt elaborates several things he would like boy scouts to learn, such as taking care of their neighborhood parks and not permitting a “gang of toughs” to ruin them; exercising self-control; and treating girls and women well.

I was a boy scout; and although in reality boy scouts are not so squeaky clean, cussing, talking about girls, and playing cards, I have many fond memories of camping, sailing, ushering at football games, and other activities I could never have experienced otherwise. And I do think that the all-male environment, with good supervision, is good for boys. By the way, the idea that such a movement could function with openly homosexual scoutmasters is beneath contempt, too ridiculous for words.

I think one can detect in Roosevelt’s moral exhortations a sense of social and moral crisis brought on by urbanization and immigration. Why should there be a movement with such an explicit emphasis on parks and the outdoors, unless there were the perception that the boys of the day were being harmed by their urban environment? And who were the “gangs of toughs” who needed to be driven from the parks? In any event, this dear man sees the solution to various social problems in personal responsibility and morality.

Woodrow Wilson’s speech is entirely different. Speaking to newly naturalized citizens, one might expect him to discuss what it means to be American, and he does so. And knowing Wilson, one might expect a touch of utopianism and one-world idealism. However, I was not prepared to see, in this 95-year-old speech, today’s neoconservative “proposition nation” ideology and simpering adoration of immigrants in such perfected form. George Bush and John McCain and the other politicians who drone on about how we are a “nation of immigrants” are saying nothing new at all; they are merely calling for the final, full implementation of Wilson’s ideals.

Wilson declares that

This is the only country in the world which experiences this constant and repeated rebirth. Other countries depend upon the multiplication of their own native people. This country is constantly drinking strength out of new sources by the voluntary association with it of great bodies of strong men and forward-looking women out of other lands. And so by the gift of the free will of independent people it is being constantly renewed from generation to generation by the same process by which it was originally created. It is as if humanity had determined to see to it that this great nation, founded for the benefit of humanity, should not lack for the allegiance of the people of the world.

Is this American exceptionalism, that sees America as so special that those immigrants self-selected by their desire to come here are by definition good and enriching to our society, not beginning to look like a vain conceit at the beginning of the 21st century? Thank you very much, but I’d rather be an ordinary country. Of course, Wilson was thinking of Italians, Slavs, and Jews; the segregation-minded Southerner would not have dreamed of the type of immigration that now has America in a death-grip. But having defined America as “founded for the benefit of humanity” one hardly has any grounds to exclude any particular part of humanity from membership.

Today, anyone who has a “dream” of coming here to have a “better life” seems by that fact to be consecrated as morally superior, more entitled to the country than its native citizens. Wilson’s use of the word to express an almost boundless reverence for desire of immigrants to come here, foretells that usage:

No doubt what you found here did not seem touched for you, after all, with the complete beauty of the ideal which you had conceived beforehand. But remember this: If we had grown at all poor in the ideal, you brought some of it with you. A man does not go out to seek the thing that is not in him. A man does not hope for the thing that he does not believe in, and if some of us have forgotten what America believed in, you, at any rate, imported in your own hearts a renewal of the belief. That is the reason I, for one, make you welcome. If I have in any degree forgotten what America was intended for, I will thank God if you will remind me. I was born in America. You dreamed dreams of what America was to be, and I hope you brought the dreams with you….

Assuming President Obama was actually born in America, he might find this speech a useful reference for when he is called upon to swear in some “new Americans.” However, I must give Wilson credit. He did at least want the new Americans to assimilate:

I certainly would not be one even to suggest that a man cease to love the home of his birth and the nation of his origin – these things are very sacred and ought not to be put out of our hearts – but it is one thing to love the place where you were born and it is another thing to dedicate yourself to the place to which you go…. America does not consist of groups. A man who thinks of himself as belonging to a particular national group in America has not yet become an American, and the man who goes among you to trade upon your nationality is no worth son to live under the Stars and Stripes.


You have come to this great nation voluntarily seeking something that we have to give, and all that we have to give is this: We cannot exempt you from work. No man is exempt from work anywhere in the world. We cannot exempt you from the strife and the heartbreaking burden of the struggle of the day – that is common to mankind everywhere; we cannot exempt you from the loads that you must carry. We can only make them light by the spirit in which they are carried. That is the spirit of hope, it is the spirit of liberty, it is the spirit of justice.

Darn right on both counts. And I’ll give Wilson credit for this, too: he was sincere in his love for his country, and wanted others to share its blessings. But as for me, I’ll take Roosevelt and the Boy Scouts. Programs like that will not save the world, but they can do some real good. Words like Wilson’s, beautifully conceived, can be the seeds of deadly delusion. And once you have given that precious gift, citizenship, to an outsider, it is a little late to begin telling him what you expect.

Finally, a bigger question looms up as we think of these earlier ideas of citizenship: what would being a good American citizen mean today? When the major institutions of our society work against the well-being of Americans, one thing a good citizen needs to do is resist the status quo. We can give Roosevelt the last word on that matter:

The man who tears down and criticizes and scolds may be a good citizen, but only in a negative sense; and if he never does anything else he is apt not to be a good citizen at all. The man who counts, and the boy who counts are the man and boy who steadily endeavor to build up, to improve, to better living conditions everywhere and all about them.


(1) Blankenship, Russell, Rollo Lyman, and Howard Hill, eds., Our Literary Heritage: American Literature, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1937.