Happy Birthday President Ford

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Mr. Mieczkowski is associate professor of history, Dowling College, akdale, New York.

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On July 14, Gerald R. Ford celebrated his 90th birthday. Only four former presidents have reached this milestone (John Adams, Herbert Hoover, and Ronald Reagan share the honor). A lifelong athlete, he still enjoys good health, and swims and golfs regularly.

Ford's physical stamina is not the only thing that holds up well. So does his record as chief executive, twenty-six years after he left office, especially in light of events that followed his presidency.

The mid-1970s was a difficult time to lead America. The Vietnam War had left a deep residue of hurt and anger. Inflation ran in double-digits. The cold war raged on. The coup de grace was the Watergate scandal, which forced Richard Nixon from the White House and made Americans feel that all politicians were corrupt.

Ford had never aspired to the presidency and, indeed, had never been elected to it. Yet on August 9, 1974, he was sworn in as the nation's 38th president, reassuring Americans weary of presidential scandal, "Our long national nightmare is over."

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People were agog over their new president, who had an attractive family, toasted his own English muffins for breakfast, and treated reporters like friends. Ford basked in approval ratings of more than 70 percent and enjoyed warm congressional relations.

The honeymoon abruptly ended on September 8, 1974, when Ford granted a full pardon to former President Nixon. Americans were outraged. Overnight, his approval ratings plunged 30 points. Critics fumed that Ford had struck a "deal" with Nixon to exchange the presidency for a pardon.

Over the years, the wisdom of this controversial act has become clearer. Already dogged by legal issues swirling about Nixon, Ford would have found his presidency mired in Watergate once the former president went on trial. The media was still fixated on the scandal and badgered Ford with questions about it. The pardon broke the spell, and although Ford handled it badly by springing it so suddenly on the nation, it allowed him to refocus attention on urgent issues.

Ford began by targeting inflation. He proposed an anti-inflation surtax and introduced a volunteer program, "Whip Inflation Now (WIN)," to rally a spiritually battered people to fight high prices. But the economy, suffering stagflation (a bewildering mix of inflation and stagnation), soon slipped into a recession--the worst since the Great Depression. Ford quickly reversed course and blandished Congress to pass a stimulative tax cut. By mid-1975, the economy began to recover. When Ford left office, inflation was under five percent; he seemed to have tamed the beast. Jimmy Carter could not do the same; in 1980, inflation surged to more than 12 percent and doomed his reelection bid.

Economic and fiscal issues were Ford's forte. He helped personally to formulate the federal budget and was so familiar with it that he gave his own budget briefings, a feat that no president since has duplicated. A deficit hawk, he vetoed 66 congressional bills, criticizing their cost and cautioning against deficits that were surpassing $40 billion. Years before deficits swelled to almost $300 billion, Ford rang the bells of warning.

Ford guided American foreign policy during a post-Vietnam mood of self-doubt. When communists overran South Vietnam, he evacuated Americans, declared the war "finished as far as America is concerned," and humanely welcomed thousands of Vietnamese refugees to this country, many of whom have led successful lives. Ford regards the 1975 Helsinki Accords as his crowning diplomatic achievement. Participating nations agreed to observe human rights, which put the U.S.S.R. under close international scrutiny and created the first large cracks in the Soviet monolith, eventually helping the country to crumble.

Yet Ford could not win a full term. In 1976, voters were still infuriated over Watergate and the Nixon pardon. Ford lost a close race to Jimmy Carter, a one-term governor of Georgia who, in the alchemy of post-Watergate anger, turned his political inexperience into an asset by stressing that he was a Washington outsider who would never lie to Americans.

After Ford's defeat, tributes poured in. He had, after all, cleared Washington of the stench of scandal and reached out to politicians on both sides of the aisle. Ed Koch, a Democratic congressman and future New York City mayor, compared Ford to "vintage wine" and predicted that he "will be viewed each year as better than the year before."

The achievements of Ford's brief presidency look good through the prism of time. After the presidential scandals of the 1990s, his integrity appears especially attractive. With Ford, there were no dalliances or slippery verbal subterfuges. The country simply had a steady hand at the tiller.

At 90 years old, Ford's hand is still steady.

Happy Birthday, President Ford.

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Anjelica Rose Pappin - 10/9/2006

Mieczkowski addresses that the scandal deeply affected Americans. I think it is wrong to say that Nixon got off "easy" and was not punished. Nixon's entire career as a politician has forever been tainted by Watergate. Every American citizen learns about the scandal and Nixon's role in it, and how he abused his powers to better his own future. Is that not punishment enough? A trial would have only focused attention on the fact that an American president had lied to and deceived his own people.
Also, let's not forget Nixon's many accomplishments as president, especially in the field of environment and diplomatic relations. Although Nixon made a career ending mistake in the break-in and cover-up of Watergate, he was a strong president in many other ways, and so I come to the conclusion that Nixon's name forever being tainted and tied in with the Watergate scandal is punishment enough!
The American people thirsty for blood without fully understanding all the pros and cons of a lengthy, crippling trial is not a good reason to try someone. Sure, Nixon's actions clearly deserve severe punishment, but there are other more important things than vengeance...like correcting the corrupt nature of the government, ending American involvement in Vietnam, and allowing an ex-President to retain at least a shred of dignity amidst all the outrage.

Oscar Chamberlain - 7/24/2003

I must differ with Yanek Mieczkowski on his assessment of Ford's pardon.

Watergate, we must remember, was not simply about a break-in. It was about a president who quite literally saw himself--or at least his office--as "sovereign." (I believe Nixon used the term in a David Frost interview). He acted accordingly, using and attempting to use executive powers to secure his reelection and harass and punish his enemies. He also established an intelligence unit (the Plumbers) that had no oversite whatsoever. Many of these actions were clearly illegal, but again, Nixon truly saw himself as above the law.

The facts had dripped out to the public like water torture, a bit at a time, for roughly 2 years. By the time of Nixon's resignation, he had been totally disgraced and the public deeply angered and distressed. Americans wanted more that a resignation. They wanted a trial. A trial would further document what actions of Nixon were illegal. More importantly, a trial would demonstrate that a president was not above the law.

By pardoning Nixon, Ford did place him above the law. Nixon escaped punishment. And the public was denied the further investigation that it wanted and that it deserved.

Mieczkowski argues that the pardon allowed the nation to "refocus attention on urgent issue." This ignores the fact that what Nixon had been able to do with the powers of the presidency remained an extraordinarly urgent issue. By cutting off the investigation, and by protecting Nixon from the judicial system, Ford did more than any other single person--except for Nixon himself--to encourage the sense of powerlessness and disaffection that marked the mid-1970s.

Whatever one thinks of Ford's other actions, he earned his defeat in 1976.