Gerald Ford and the Limits of Conciliation

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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.

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4 Responses to Gerald Ford and the Limits of Conciliation

  1. This is an edifying article, Stephen. I admit that I do not think often of Gerald Ford, either. He absolutely did the right thing in pardoning Mr. Nixon, though, as you say. It was an act Alexander Hamilton and James Madison would each have written Federalist Papers in detailed support of, I suspect, had they lived to see it. John Adams would have added a page about it to his memoir. Those men would have understood, as Mr. Ford did, what was truly at stake in the pardon.

    That hatred was not something that could, in the end, be appeased.

    Were you to encapsulate or summarize the entirety of Heritage American in a single sentence, this sentence would be a good candidate.

    Like you perhaps, I have tried and tried and tried to understand that hatred. I have tried for years. I do not understand it.

    Howard

  2. stephenhopewell says:

    Thank you, Howard. You’re right that this blog seems to continually return to question of the origin and nature of the liberal-conservative divide in this country (and in the West). I have seen the anti-conservative hatred from the inside, to some extent, yet still don’t understand it.

    One thing I think is true about most political “hatred” is that it’s absorbed almost unconsciously as part of a social ethos, and is manifested automatically under certain prompts. It’s not the kind of burning, deep anger and resentment of someone who has been existentially harmed that the word “hate” otherwise connotes. Perhaps that fact give hope that it can be de-programmed.

  3. Old Atlantic says:

    Part of this hate is a complete rejection of any restraint. Loyalty imposes many constraints. They don’t want any obligation. They want government to have the obligation to them, but not depend on any peer to peer loyalty or obligation such as family, school, community imposed in Ford’s time.

    They end up hating those they owe obligations and loyalty to. Any time loyalty comes up, they are in an instant outrage. It doesn’t matter what loyalty it is.

  4. stephenhopewell says:

    Old Atlantic – yes, I think you hit on part of it. And for some reason the growing rejection of loyalty to our leaders has gone hand in hand with the emergence of leaders who no longer command respect and admiration even if we “conservatives” have tended to support them by default.

    Orwell: “It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during God save the King than of stealing from a poor box.”

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