Why Republicans Feel Guilty About Gerald Ford

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Mr. Greene is Paul J. Schupf Professor of History and Humanities, Cazenovia College, and an MSNBC Political Analyst.

When my book, The Presidency of Gerald Ford(Lawrence: 1995), the first full-length study of the Ford presidency and the first book to make broad use of the Ford papers was released, it was treated kindly by reviewers and scholars who welcomed it for filling a gap in American political history. But I received a very subtle criticism from an unexpected source—my friends and colleagues of the Republican persuasion. They would quietly nudge me for working on, in the words of one, such a “small” topic. After all, Ford was unelected, a caretaker, and defeated in his only attempt at electoral justification. I didn’t agree with them now, and still don’t. But I could not understand why they were going out of their way to castigate one of their own.

Now, as I carefully watch the proceedings of the Ford Funeral as an analyst for MSNBC, I understand.

Gerald Ford makes today’s Republicans feel guilty.

In an era of drooling incivility in national politics, and in an era when there is only one functioning wing of their party—the far-right wing—Republicans look back to the Ford presidency with wistful envy. You can see it in their eyes and hear it in their tone--to hear them talk about a president who understood the difference between an enemy and an opponent is to hear them talk about ‘the good old days’ of party politics. When asked to compare the Congress of Minority Leader Ford with that of the present; or President Ford with the president incumbent of the White House, they become wistful, and speak to his innate decency and sense of understanding of the American people; it is not necessary for them to clarify that they see a lack of that same decency in present politics.

Under the Capitol Dome last evening, they praised a man from Grand Rapids who not only gave them their big break in politics, but also labeled him as the type of human who acted in a way that present politicians have long since stopped acting—as a role model. These (largely) men who have perfected the politics of abrasion now line up alongside the casket of their mentor, a man who practiced the politics of inclusion—and they wish for an earlier, younger, more civil day.

Political analysts have, over the past 48 hours, picked up on these feelings; in our interviews we have quietly confirmed what the cameras and carefully crafted speeches have suggested. Not only has Gerald Ford passed from the scene, but also has his way of doing business. Republican leaders (and, I suspect, many Democrats as well), are sighing, shedding a tear, and wishing for what once was, but will never be again.

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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

I agree with Lisa Kazmier above.

Furthermore calling Ford's presidency "a disaster" (above) is an absurd exaggeration (possibly provoked by some of the feelings discussed in the article?). Lawrence Hughes himself claims (below) that Carter was worse (what a "mega-disaster"?). And where can we then place G.W. Bush's presidency on this lopsided scale ("end of the universe"?). What kind of astronomical low odds would one have to believe in otherwise? That the lameduck corporate welfare feeder from Texas will pull off something like the Israel-Egpyt peace deal in the next 2 years? Or that the sins of commission in the bungled invasion and occupation of Iraq 2003-07 might somehow shrink, Alice-in-Wonderland-like to become less wounding of American national security than sins of ommission when the Shah of Iran fell in 1978-80?

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

You may be too young to remember an era when one was "either a CONSERVATIVE or coarse."

"Conservatives," or at least the most hypocritical fraction of them, increasingly embraced coarseness during a less-distant time when historian Newt found Academia insufficiently coarse and took his rude arrogance and pomposity to Capitol Hill instead. The salient result of "conservative" embracing of coarsness is the administration of George W. Bush, probably the least competent US president of all time. Unlike many politicians, the lameduck president tries not to be coarse himself, but his vote-getting in 2000 and 2004 was based extraordinarly on appealing to the fearful, the ignorant, and the coarse in America (and on leaving the coarseness to the Swiftboat Vets and other attack dogs in the Dirty Tricks dept.)

The oddly symmetrical "liberal" move AWAY from coarseness in recent decades is based, of course, mainly on wimpiness and waffling, not on any new committment to civilized discourse. But the recent "conservative" nose dive is even more disgusting, because it is based on the hypocritical abandonment of practically every viable conservative principle including "its not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game"

Greene and Hall are basically right on. Take that, Mr. Hughes, and,
do something coarse.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

I have nothing against specificity, but taking a irrelevant specific and twisting its meaning in order to deceive is something else.

Corruption in government and politeness of politicians are distinct and unrelated issues. Congressional Democrats in power (before 1994) hada tendency to abuse it and to line their own personal pockets. Republicans (1994-2006) have been little different. The rot takes awhile to set in: clever Republican spin-doctors will wait a few years to let the new Democrat majority (if it holds in 2008) start getting its hands dirty.

All this, like Mr. Hughes' immediately preceeding comment, has nothing to do with either the article or the comment thread. It does remind me of the smokescreening about how Saddam was involved in 9-11, however.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 1/5/2007

When the Speaker of the House was making phony wholesale book sales as a novel way of taking bribes, when the chairman of the Ways & Means committee was laundering hot money at the House Post Office, and when hundreds of members were kiting checks serially to borrow money without paying interest at the House Bank, Mr. Gingrich was justified in being coarse about it in his "special orders" minutes to get the public's attention. I well remember those speeches, and despite their abrasiveness, Newt needed a long time to get the media's attention, and even longer to oust the crooks. His efforts eventually resulted in an end to the 40-year rule of the House by Democrats in 1994, and ushered in welfare reform and numerous other good things--long before George W. Bush. If Newt's appearances in those days are to be the standard for "coarseness," my view is we need much more of it... (This subject betrays a liberal principle: Talk in generalities when you can't stand the specifics. Talk about "coarsening the political discourse," and "incivility," but avoid, at all cost, any mention of stolen postage stamps and kited checks. In fact, liberal historians have become steadily less specific about anything, as their coveted nostrums have one after another been proven failures).

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 1/3/2007

It seems to me one is either a liberal or he is coarse... You are either a Bob Michel, a Lincoln Chafee, a Justice Kennedy, or you are coarse. If you don't "grow" away from conservativism you are labeled coarse. In reality, nobody was ever more coarse than Alcee Hastings, Barney Frank, Sandy Berger and Bill Clilnton--or Hillary Clinton, for that matter. How about the commodity future bribes, the travel office purge, the pornographic Christmas tree ornaments, and the missing FBI records? How can you get more coarse than that? You could be misled because the media and the academy in this country have been completely captured by the left, and adopted the habit of branding everyone who speaks out against them as "coarse." It seems to play well with apolitical citizens who are turned off by sharp criticism, regardless how well deserved.

Bert S Hall - 1/2/2007

I wonder if Lawrence Brooks Hughes is capable of understanding how his comments validate the major theme of John Robert Greene's remarks? As seen from across the border, the coarsening of political discourse in America over the past thirty years represents one of the most shameful trends I have ever witnessed. Gerald Ford's death reminds Americans of a lost past whose qualities they are unlikely ever to see again.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 1/2/2007

I remember something the Wall Street Journal once said about Ford: "Richard Nixon posed as the Middle American, but Gerald R. Ford is the genuine article." .. I do look back on the Ford presidency as terribly disappointing, and remember almost voting for Carter in 1976. I thought a guy who made a million bucks in Plains, GA, could not be all bad, but boy, I sure was wrong about that! Today the Carter legacy is the best thing Ford has going for him.

Bryon Butler - 1/1/2007

I am surprised at the unfair criticism launched against Gerald Ford, calling his presidency a “disaster” and not even considering its successes. A chief goal of President Ford’s was to turn the economy around (He said that the major reason for pardoning President Nixon was to focus on the country’s needs.) When Ford took office the country had a 12 percent inflation rate and a 12.4 prime interest rate. 895 days later inflation was at 4.8 and the prime interest rate was 6.25. Four years later under Carter the inflation rate was 13% and the prime interest rate was 21%! Ford said if elected in 1976 that he would have brought about a balanced budget by 1978, and with his track record up until then there was no doubt that he could have done it. As well, the signing of the Helsinki Accords, against the wishes of the right wing of the party, led in part to the fall of communism. His speech at the Helsinki Conference “History will judge us, not by what we say here today, but by what we do tomorrow; not by the promises we make, but by the promises that we keep” is classic. There is still an on-going debate as to whether the pardon of Nixon was the best thing to do, although at this point history is more accepting of his decision, and he was given both Congressional and Presidential medal awards in belated honor for his decision. So much recently has been written and discussed about Ford the man that I am reminded of something written by John Hersey back in the 1970s “The real Gerald Ford, for better or worse, will always be visible.” As a presidential campaigner that reality had its drawbacks, as a legacy it is an honorable way to be remembered.

Lisa Kazmier - 1/1/2007

Nothing that you say, however, detracts from what Greene posted. Ronald Reagan was not a saint and not exactly "successful" over a lot of things, either (Lebanon, Iran-Contra, massive debt, ignoring AIDS). This goes beyond the record and I've noticed the same trend -- that the msm is profuse in its praise of Ford because of what it obviously sees lacking currently, esp. with this president.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 12/31/2006

Jerry Ford was a decent man. That is the standard tag, and it is not in dispute. He was a fine scoutmaster, and would have made a good trustee for your children. But he was a disaster as a Republican president. Ford does not embarass me, but his friends should be deeply embarrassed by his appointment of Mr. Justice John Paul Stevens, his failure to decontrol wellhead prices of natural gas, his assent to federal aid for urban mass transit, and not least--by his standing in the way of Ronald Reagan, thus extending the Cold War by four years and delaying the revitalization of the U.S. economy through the Carter malaise. We can also thank Ford for the awful Carter judges... I don't understand why the only critical words about Ford have been those of Christopher Hitchens' on East Timor. His presidency was not a success.