Reversal of Fortune

By Barry Werth, the author of “31 Days: The Crisis that Gave Us the Government We Have Today” (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 28/12/06):

AMERICA got its first real impression of Gerald Ford on the steamy August morning 33 years ago when he took office as president, and most people instantly liked what they saw. Mr. Ford stood in the driveway of his suburban split-level house, hours before assuming a post he never sought and hoped to avoid having to fill. One of the questions he took was about Harry Truman’s comment when he had the office abruptly thrust upon him. Mr. Truman said he felt that the moon, the stars and the planets had fallen on him.

“I think that’s an apt description,” Mr. Ford said. “I can tell you better this afternoon after it actually happens.”

“Mrs. Ford hoped you would get out of politics. What is her response?”

“Well,” Mr. Ford shook his head. “She’s just doing her best and we’ll wait and see about the other.”

Like Mr. Truman, President Ford was a seemingly ordinary Midwesterner, a career politician and party man dogged by low expectations and doubts — suitable “standby equipment,” as Nelson Rockefeller called the vice presidency, but no one’s idea of a commanding leader.

Still worse, he came into office not as Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson had, inheriting the mantle of a popular fallen leader and with a supportive Congress, but replacing a disgraced and reviled figure and facing Democratic majorities in both houses, as well as right-wing rumblings about Richard Nixon’s foreign and economic policies. By the time Mr. Nixon departed, Mr. Ford wrote, “he had no mantle left.”

Of necessity, President Ford devised a new one — “the mantle of the presidential center,” The Washington Post’s Lou Cannon called it. For a month, Mr. Ford set out not just to heal America’s divisions but to expunge them. He moved hard to the center, determined, he wrote, “to leave the right sputtering.”

He chose Nelson Rockefeller as his vice president (over George H. W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, who both campaigned vigorously for the job), met with blacks and women, proposed partial amnesty for Vietnam-era draft resisters, and hewed to Mr. Nixon’s realism in foreign affairs. The press corps extended him the benefit of the doubt, finding him refreshingly open and honest after Mr. Nixon, and his approval ratings soared — literally, from nowhere — to 70 percent.

Then, one Sunday morning a month after moving into the Oval Office, he pardoned Mr. Nixon before the former president was indicted. With a pen stroke, a very different Ford presidency emerged. Though he said he was forgiving Mr. Nixon because the televised spectacle of a former president in the criminal dock would stir up “ugly passions,” the pardon instantly and inevitably looked like the last cynical act of the Watergate cover-up — Mr. Nixon’s hand-chosen successor giving him a free pass.

The pardon was a political disaster for President Ford. His approval ratings plummeted, inviting attacks from not only the Democrats, but also the Republican right, which rallied around Ronald Reagan.

President Ford spent the remainder of his presidency trying to stave off the intraparty challenge that had suddenly emerged. Two weeks after the pardon, he appointed Mr. Rumsfeld as White House chief of staff, and Mr. Rumsfeld chose Dick Cheney, then 33, as his deputy. A year later, President Ford fired Defense Secretary James Schlesinger and replaced him with Mr. Rumsfeld, put Mr. Bush in charge of the C.I.A., forced Nelson Rockefeller off the 1976 ticket, and promoted Mr. Cheney to chief of staff. In that role, Mr. Cheney instituted a more centralized, secretive, Nixonian approach to presidential power, as he and Mr. Rumsfeld moved to replace President Ford’s restraint and realism with a swaggering, messianic view of American might. If it all sounds familiar, it is.

Unlike those he elevated to power, President Ford accepted accountability and showed uncommon political and personal courage. He announced his amnesty plan before the annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars — the toughest audience he could find — telling reporters it would be “a little cowardice” to roll it out before a hand-picked crowd.

When it came out that Gen. Alexander Haig, President Nixon’s chief of staff, went to Mr. Ford a week before the president’s resignation proposing that he pardon him, Mr. Ford volunteered to testify before Congress, where he swore under oath, “There was no deal, period, under no circumstances.” Suspicion still lingers that President Ford telegraphed Mr. Nixon that he wouldn’t face jail — after the pardon discussion, according to a close Ford aide, he told General Haig to “do whatever they decided to do” to convince Mr. Nixon to step down. But he never complained publicly about his reversal of fortune in office.

President Ford believed that by pardoning Mr. Nixon, he was putting Watergate and the imperial presidency in the past. But by sacrificing his popularity, he also lost much of his mandate to address the aftermath of Watergate and Vietnam with moderation, bipartisanship and national humility — the very goals he set out to achieve. Forced to the right, his administration spawned many of the core attitudes and key players of the George W. Bush White House.

Mr. Ford didn’t struggle for the presidency, didn’t win it, but he was determined not to fail at it. His candor and decency helped restore America’s faith in its institutions. It’s regrettable that the pardon — shadowed by ambiguity, politically catastrophic, and with a long tail extending to the heart of today’s White House — weighs so heavily on his legacy.