But one thing has been bothering me. Neither I nor any of the commentators I saw on television during FORD FUNERAL WEEK plainly stated how unusual the circumstances of Ford's courageous pardon were. Usually, a president taking an unpopular stand is taking it with the full backing of elites. Not this time. Elite opinion as well as the public's opinion was generally opposed to a pardon. President Ford was challenging both elite opinion and the public's opinion.
That took guts.
Why do I feel badly that I didn't make this point?
Because there was a teaching moment here and I missed it. The teaching moment was to explain that public opinion--the opinion of the much vaunted, never wrong, always wise American People--often is plain wrong. Leadership often consists in bucking public opinion.
It's LBJ bucking the racists in signing civil rights legislation. It's Jimmy Carter cutting a deal to "give away" the Panama Canal. It's George Bush I and Bill Clinton increasing taxes to reduce the deficit.
Ford got lucky. He managed to hit upon a policy that looks relatively good in retrospect even though both elites and the masses opposed it.
That's a point I should have made at the time when the public was paying attention. The public needs to be told that it is often wrong. It's bad enough that pols refuse to be blunt. When those in the media refuse as well our democracy suffers. To paraphrase, the public needs to be given the truth about their own subpar performance and given it good and hard.
Reservations to my own generalizations above:
1. How courageous was Ford? Ford didn't realize the pardon would be quite as unpopular as it turned out to be, so we shouldn't set this act down as the pure act of courage it's sometimes made out to be.
2. The pardon, however meritorious, was carried out so clumsily that it reinforced the cynical mood of the public. This was a blunder.