Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Ford's Career Shows Reporters Can Be Wrong

Gerald Ford, who died Tuesday night at his home in Rancho Mirage, was an example how political reporters can be mistaken about major personalities and events in politics at the cost of the personalities themselves.

Most political writers, of whom I was one, felt Mr. Ford lacked intellect and was chosen for the vice presidency by Richard Nixon when Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace as a kind of guarantee that Mr. Nixon himself would not be removed.

This assessment of Mr. Nixon's reasoning may have been correct, but after the Watergate scandal intensified, Mr. Nixon was forced out, and Mr. Ford became President, the view that the new president was without intellect proved overstated in its importance.

With the advantage of hindsight, we can see now that he made the right decision when he pardoned Mr. Nixon, because it made Watergate history and spared the country the spectacle of putting a former president on trial. Instinctively, it was the right thing to do. But at the time, many political writers, including myself, thought it was a mistake. It may have ultimately cost Mr. Ford the 1976 election and also led, here in California to the victory of Democrat Jerry Brown over Republican Houston Flournoy for governor. But years later, the Kennedy Library awarded Mr. Ford a prize for his courage in granting the pardon, and Sen. Edward Kennedy confessed he had been mistaken to have opposed it.

The often-goofy L.A. Times editorial page as late as this morning said it would have been better to let the legal process go forward on Mr. Nixon, but this is not the common view today.

If I had been asked in 1976 who would make the better President for the next four years, I would certainly have said Mr. Carter. After all, I was covering the Carter campaign, and very favorably. Now, I feel in retrospect I went too easy on him.

As it turned out, Mr. Ford was a better President than Mr. Carter. He may not have scored as highly on an I.Q. test, but his instincts were good on the great issues, and he had more of a sense of command than Mr. Carter. He knew better how to prioritize, and even to inspire the country. His staff was superior.

Mr. Ford was in office in 1975 when the U.S. finally abandoned the fruitless Vietnam war enterprise and withdrew from the Southeast Asian country without devastating strategic consequences.

But when Cambodian Communists soon thereafter seized the unarmed American container ship Mayaguez and its crew, Mr. Ford quickly showed that American forbearance had its limits. He ordered the U.S. military to attack Cambodia, and the ship and crew were quickly released. Had Mr. Carter adopted the same policy in the Iranian seizure of American hostages in Tehran four years later, the outcome of that crisis might have been different and terrible subsequent events in Afghanistan and the Middle East avoided.

I now feel the press put entirely too much emphasis on Mr. Ford's perceived ineptitude and occasional awkwardness. His mistakes, such as his denial in a debate with Mr. Carter that Poland was under Soviet subjugation, turned out fairly inconsequential. Mr. Carter's mistakes were far more destructive.

My own most personal memory of Mr. Ford came from an episode in 1980 when I went to Rancho Mirage to interview him about the possibility that he might thrust himself into the 1980 presidential race, (which he decided wisely not to do).

I took my son, David, then five years old with me, and David threw up all over the rug in Mr. Ford's office. The former president was visibly disturbed, but the interview went on successfully.

Mr. Ford was always a gentleman, if a partisan one. We can all view him today with fondness and respect.



Anonymous bonehead said...


I found the January 1 Calendar piece on Chevy Chase to be rather amusing.

Chase is evidently getting tired of all the media attention surrounding his impersonation, in the wake of Ford's death. And he especially resents the media perpetuating what he considers to be the myth that the Ford impersonation created any kind of breakthrough or watershed for his career. It "hurts his feelings". But this was no myth: Chase had certainly paid his dues prior to appearing on Saturday Night Live, but the Ford impersonation clearly propelled him to stardom.

Evidently he sees no irony whatever in the fact that he himself was responsible for perpetuating the genuine myth that Ford was a bumbler and a stooge. Presumably he still has some sense of pride for whatever role he may have played in driving Ford from office.

1/02/2007 9:02 PM  

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