A Modest Man but then he has so
Much to be Modest About!
Richard J. Garfunkel
December 31, 2006
Only in America, as the late Harry Golden would say, have we raised to an art form in the 20th and 21st Centuries this curious ritual of embalming the recently departed with a theatrical mythology about their lives and legacy. There is no doubt that throughout the last fifty or so years we have canonized people like James Dean, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, with a macabre type luminescence that they may never have deserved. Of course, each case must stand on its own merit. Marilyn Monroe is still sorely missed. But in the last few years of her relatively young life, she was cascading down a path to self-destructiveness, in the same way as James Dean and Elvis. Like many of her contemporaries she was trashed by the media, public opinion, and her celebrity was in eclipse. Others, like John F. Kennedy, who was liked and admired, was cut down in the prime of his life, and historically has been elevated to not only sainthood, but to the level of one of the most admired Presidents. Many other political and entertainment figures have also gone through this orgy of public sentimentality. Unfortunately, for many, in their last years they were relatively forgotten, or unfairly ignored or cast away.
In the case of the late Gerald R. Ford, the 38th President of the United States, we are now hearing him being eulogized and honored in a way that should confuse and befuddle most people who knew of him or lived through his presidency. From a personal view I would not recognize the man they are talking about. When John Kivo, the only grandfather I knew, passed away more than 33 years ago, I was unfortunately a bit late for the funeral. For some unfortunate reason we got held up in terrible traffic and by the time we got to the Riverside Memorial Chapel in NYC, the service had just started. We hurried in and took a seat in the crowded rear of the chapel. A rabbi was talking about my grandfather, who was the most irreligious of men, and I honestly looked around and wondered whether I was in the right service. Of all of his four grandchildren, I was by far the closest to him, but was I asked to contribute some thoughts and impressions about him when this rabbi was engaged to eulogize him? No! Of course not! In the same way, once again, I feel that I, like millions of others, are being bombarded by a cacophony of eulogies that make me wonder aloud, am I at the right funeral? As Winston Churchill said about Clement Attlee, the Labour Prime Minister who succeeded him in 1945, “A modest man, but then he has so much to be modest about.” Unfortunately for us, Ford wasn’t as successful as Attlee, and though he was quite a departure from Churchill, as Ford was from Nixon, he was a serious professional who was eventually admired greatly by his Conservative (Whig) successors. His leadership style, of consensual government, acting as a chairman rather than a president, won him much praise from historians and politicians alike. Unfortunately for America, Ford had the same opportunity to become a unity president, and he failed.
Gerald Ford was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1948.from the then 5th District in Michigan that encompassed Grand Rapids, the 2nd largest city in that state. He had defeated the incumbent Republican, Bartel J. Jonkman, a conservative isolationist. That district happened to be the home of many people who were Dutch descendents. Grand Rapids in the early 1970’s, just before Gerald Ford ascended to the presidency, was a very conservative Republican city, which reflected many of the values of the stern Calvinism of their (the Dutch) Christian Reformed Church. Up to that time, in recent history, the only Democrats to carry that city were the then popular Senator Philip Hart, and President Lyndon Johnson. It seemed that the Dutch community was unhappy with Barry Goldwater’s profanity and that led them to believe that he was a “flamboyant” man. Ford was born in 1913 with the name Leslie Lynch King Jr., but his father left his mother Dorothy Ayer Gardner 16 days after he was born. It was said that he had threatened both mother and child with a knife and eventually ran away to Texas. His mother moved back from Omaha to her home in Grand Rapids, Michigan and eventually, after three years, married a paint-salesman named Gerald Rudolff Ford. It was 15 or so years later when the younger Ford learned that he had been abandoned and that Ford was not his real name. He admired his stepfather greatly, was never legally adopted, and his name was not legally changed until 1935.
After another disastrous fall showing by the GOP in 1964, Gerald Ford challenged and defeated Charles Halleck in 1965, (1900-1986, a member of the house from 1935 until 1969) for the Minority leadership of the House Republicans. Halleck, who with Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen (1896-1969, member of the House 1933-49, US Senate 1951-1969) formed a “GOP truth squad” and made many television appearances, and were nick-named the “Ev and Charlie Show.” Dirksen, a lugubrious individual, who was known for his flowery oratory, was famous for saying, “When I feel the heat, I see the light!” He also is most often quoted about government spending with his remark, “You spend a billion here, and a billion there and pretty soon you are talking about real money!”
Although Ford was considered by many to be more moderate than the Neanderthal Halleck, he still had an ADA (Americans for Democratic Action) rating of 7 in 1969 and by 1970 when it went up to 12, his ACA (Americans for Constitutional Action) rating was 68! On the Conservation side, the League Conservation Associations gave him a 10, wherein the National Association of Business gave him an 83 rating. Ironically Ford turned out to be much more aggressive than his predecessor, and he believed that it was necessary for the Republicans to have an alternative plan of action rather than “blind opposition.”
Of course, he was pretty much thought of as a Nixon loyalist by the time of the Watergate Crisis. I cannot be positive of Ford’s total legislative record, but it is said that he authored very few pieces of legislation in his time. But he was in the minority for much of those years and with his football, World War II and law school background, he fit quite well into the roll of a partisan critic of the Johnson Administration.
As a young person involved in politics in the late 1960’s, I was quite active in the campaign to impeach Richard Nixon, whom I disliked intensely. I never thought that anyone would take Nixon’s “place” in my heart until the emergence of our current incumbent. Nixon was smart, experienced, articulate, and thoroughly familiar with the workings of our government. He had a long history in public office and was seemingly well prepared to be President. In fact, unlike George W. Bush, he seemed to have many of the positive virtues, a good part of the electorate, seeks in its leaders. Unfortunately for the country, Nixon’s most fatal flaw, his paranoia, affected him regarding the problem of “leaks” in the White House. He was so concerned over that problem, that he hired some, as it turned out, not-so professional “plumbers,” to fix those “leaks.” Of course those types of “leaks” differed from the ones Truman became aware of when he was forced to move out of the Executive Mansion and take residence across the street in the Blair House.
As we all know, the Watergate Crisis eventually brought down Richard Nixon, and the consequences of the congressional impeachment vote sent him packing to his exile in San Clemente, California. Of course, before that happened, his vituperative and criminal Veep, one Spiro Agnew, pleaded “nolo contendere” to a charge that he had been a long-time “bagman” while he was Baltimore County Executive and later Governor of Maryland. For those reasons he resigned the Vice-Presidency. After his departure and the payment of a $10,000 fine, that only covered the taxes and interest due on “unsupported income,” he seemed to have gotten away very lightly. Agnew was infamous as a Nixon “hatchet-man” and had become notorious with the phrases, “nattering nabobs of negativism” (written by William Safire), “radiclib,” and “hopeless, hysterical, hypochondriacs of history.” Former Maryland Attorney-General Stephen Sachs later sarcastically said, “he had gotten away with the greatest deal in history since the Lord spared Isaac on the mountaintop.” But, that wasn’t the end of the Agnew saga! A professor at the George Washington Law School found four Maryland residents, and they demanded in a suit against Agnew that he repay the state for his real crimes. The court’s ruling determined that he had taken bribes of $262,482, he was therefore convicted, and after two lost appeals, he wrote a check for that amount and was later disbarred. His meteoric six-year rise from Baltimore County Executive to the Vice-Presidency was accompanied by an even quicker fall to ignominy.
Ironically after the 1972 Nixon landslide, Agnew started to consider himself Nixon’s eventual successor. Nixon was not happy with that prospect and started to cut back Agnew’s staff and responsibilities. Later, Agnew blamed Nixon for leaking accusations of bribes and tax evasion to divert attention from the growing Watergate scandal. After Agnew’s departure from public life he became a trade executive with homes in Rancho Mirage, Bowie, and Ocean City, Maryland. Who says “cheating doesn’t pay?” Ironically in 1976 he briefly re-entered the public eye with a series of anti-Israel statements and called for the withdrawal of United States’ backing for Israel, as well as “unsavory” remarks about Jews, which Gerald Ford publicly criticized. In 1980, Agnew, in a memoir, implied that Nixon and Alexander Haig had planned to assassinate him if he had refused to resign. He said that Haig told him “to go quietly…or else.”
That action of resigning, only the second time in American history (the first was the resignation of John C. Calhoun to become a United States Senator) caused a vacancy in the Vice-Presidency, and for the first time, under the 25th Amendment to the United States Constitution a new Vice-President was to be appointed. Gerald Ford was selected, because many said that he could survive the Congressional hearings and would be easily confirmed by his colleagues in the House and Senate, who had known him for decades. In those heady days, National Public Radio broadcast gavel-to-gavel coverage of those hearings. I was an avid and loyal listener to every word that was broadcast. I was never enamored with Ford and particularly thought him to be a fool when he tried to impeach Justice William O. Douglas. William O. Douglas (1898-1980) was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1939 to replace the retiring Justice Louis D. Brandeis. He was confirmed by a United States Senate vote of 62-4. Douglas who served 36 years and 7 months and longer than any other Justice was a confirmed liberal and believed in a ”literal” reading of the First Amendment. I read his biography Go East Young Man, and I remembered well his admonition that everyone should spend a year working on Wall Street. It was good advice.
Justice Douglas got in trouble with the Congress in 1953 when he granted a temporary stay of execution for the Rosenbergs. The basis of that stay was because of Judge Irving Kaufman’s decision to sentence them to death without the consent of the jury. It seems that because they were tried under the Atomic Secrets Act of 1946, which held that only a jury could pronounce the death penalty, Judge Kaufman had gone beyond his rights. Of course, the Asst. Attorney-General, who feared a six-month delay because the court had adjourned, rushed to Chief Justice Fred Vinson, who re-convened the court. The court ruled, in Douglas’s absence, he had already left for Oregon on a vacation, that the crime in question fell under the Espionage Act of 1917. The court put aside the stay, and the rest is history. Due to his opposition regarding their execution, Douglas briefly faced a Congressional call for his impeachment. But because his fellow Democrats still narrowly controlled the Senate, the attempt to remove him failed and was quickly forgotten.
During the 1960s, Douglas, who was not a rich man, had become impoverished as a result of the divorce actions of his first wife. He embarked on a very busy speaking and publishing schedule motivated by his financial problems. Further settlements with his divorced 2nd and 3rd wives essentially took all of his judicial earnings. Douglas as a spokesperson for liberal causes wrote a book titled Points of Rebellion and controversially authored a piece for a hippy publication Evergreen Magazine. He later became head of the Parvin Foundation and his ties to Albert Parvin, whose fortune had been financed by the sale of the Flamingo Hotel had become too much for Congressman Gerald Ford. Ford, who was long disgusted with Douglas’s lifestyle, and was offended when two of Nixon’s Supreme Court nominees; G. Harold Carswell and Clement Haynsworth were rejected by the Senate, took out his wrath on Douglas. In April of 1970 he moved to impeach Douglas. This was done despite careful maneuvering by the House Judiciary Chairman Emmanuel Celler, and the complete lack of any proof that Douglas had done anything wrong. Nixon used Attorney-General John N. Mitchell to gather evidence on Douglas. Later Mitchell would go to jail for his actions during Watergate, and his poor abused wife Martha, who suffered from an over-active mouth, succumbed to a mysterious illness.
The hearing began in late April 1970, and Ford was the main witness, attacking Douglas’s “liberal opinions,” his defense of the “filthy” Swedish film I am Curious Yellow, and his ties to Albert Parvin. Additionally he was criticized for accepting $350 for an article that he wrote for the magazine Avante Garde, published by Ralph Ginzburg (1929-2006), who had served a prison sentence for the distribution of another magazine that had been deemed pornographic.
Ford stated, that the Douglas’ “article itself was not pornographic, although it praises the lusty, lurid and risqué along with the social protest of left-wing folk singers.” Ford also attacked Douglas for his article in Evergreen Magazine, which was infamous for its depiction of women in various poses with and without attire. The GOP Congressman refused to give the majority Democrats copies of the magazines, prompting Congressman Wayne Hays to remark, “Has anybody read the article—or is everybody over there who has a magazine just looking at the pictures?” When it became abundantly clear that the hearings were foolish and a waste of time, they were brought to a close and no public vote was ever taken or recorded. Douglas achieved some interesting milestones during his long service. Along with his longevity record, he also established ones for written opinions, dissents, speeches given, being married four times and having had three divorces. He also faced three impeachment attempts. So far no one else has approached those “achievements.”
After listening to Ford’s flummery and being a reader of both Evergreen and Avante Garde, I had “new” respect for William O. Douglas. Ford on the other hand, to coin a phrase, had “exposed” himself to public ridicule. Gerald Ford, who had been a very fierce partisan as Minority Leader, now had opened the door for more and more strident partisanship during the bickering that had ensued from the Fortas, Haynesworth, Carswell, and Douglas fights over the Supreme Court. His actions added to my already active dislike for him and his hypocritical colleagues. Generally speaking he was well liked by his colleagues, but President Lyndon Johnson was not happy with Ford and privately remarked, “He can’t fart and chew gum at the same time.” A few years later, even though he was athletically blessed, his clumsiness became a national joke, and comedian Chevy Chase made a fortune falling down stairs in the style of Gerald Ford. He also became quite dangerous on the golf course and the cry of “fore” became endemic when he played.
In the December 30, 2006, edition of the New York Times, in an article about Ford, by Mark Leibovich, entitled “Chevy Chase as Klutz in Chief” he quotes Landon Parvin, who has written humorous speeches for Presidents Bush and Reagan. Parvin talks about Ford’s supposed great sense of humor. Paradoxically, it was another Parvin, named Albert, who Ford attacked when he spearheaded the effort to remove William O. Douglas from the Supreme Court. I never got the impression that Ford had a sense of humor, but in later life, with all the trappings and wealth from being a former president, one could readily understand why he was laughing most of the time.
It seems that on October 10, 1973, Nixon called in a senior bipartisan group of Congressional leaders and asked their advice and counsel on a new Vice-President. “We gave Nixon no choice, but Ford,” said House Speaker Carl Albert. On October 12th the desperate Richard Nixon, who was being buffeted by the severe winds coming from the press and the halls of Congress, nominated Gerald Ford. Why Gerald Ford? Well he was a sort of genial soul whose nomination would not be readily fought over by his colleagues. Obviously many also thought that Nixon would not survive politically to finish his term. I am sure the Democrats also felt that Ford was too dull to be a threat to run in the next election if he succeeded Nixon or if Nixon was able to stay in office for his remaining 29 months. Many probably thought, why should we give the opposite party, who just gave us Richard Nixon and his baggage, the advantage of a strong incumbent for the next election? Therefore most democrats thought that Ford would be an interim President, who would fill out the remaining months of Nixon’s failed term and in 1976 there would be an open field for both parties to challenge for the Presidency.
Before the Congress was about to vote on elevating Congressman Ford to the Vice-Presidency and possibly the Presidency, there were the obligatory hearings. These Congressional hearings were broadcasted gavel-to-gavel on National Public Radio. Being the political “junkie” that I was, my ears were glued to the radio and all the testimony, and at night I was able to watch again the “give and take” and see what I may of missed. One of the questions that struck me at the time was the one about Gerald Ford’s paychecks. One of the Congressmen or the committee’s counsel asked Ford why he never “broke” his paycheck? In other words, how could he deposit his whole check in the bank, every pay period, and not have any spending money? Of course the meaning of this question was very simple, where did Gerald Ford get his money to live and function every day? If his check was fully deposited, how did he eat or have spending money in his pocket? Ford answered that he went to the House barbershop, and the House cafeteria and other places where he did not need money. Frankly, I was very unhappy that this line of questioning and his insipid answers were not followed up. Maybe the questions were too sensitive and too close to home for the other members. It is not a stretch to believe that many of his questioners did the same exact thing. Of course the meaning to me was obvious. No one can continue to deposit their whole checks and go without money in their pockets. It is impossible. Credit cards were not very popular in those days and one cannot charge for a newspaper or a cab ride. Someway Congressman Ford had access to “cash.” But of course the fact that he or other members of Congress could be on the “take” was not “on the agenda” during these hearings. Immediately I wrote a letter to the New York Times about his unsatisfactory answer. As I recall, I questioned the committee’s emphasis on Ford’s opinion on Justice Douglas and the fact that they virtually ignored how he handled his finances. To my surprise, a few days later, I noticed, by chance, a letter to the editor of the Times that had a title, “Gerald Ford’s Funds Questioned,” and I can recall my happiness, before reading the letter, that some one else had picked up on this part of his testimony. As I looked down at the newspaper I was sort of shocked and delighted, on the other hand, that the author was me! Basically no one else cared. Politics has always had payoffs, big and small. In that manner Agnew was a “pig” about taking bribes and kickbacks and possibly Ford wasn’t. Funny thing, over the last six years, the GOP controlled Congress seemed to forget its oversight responsibility. Not only was this past Congress in session less time than any other since the Republican-controlled do-nothing 80th that ended in 1949. As a result, of their inaction the Republicans lost nine Senate and seventy-five House seats and Truman won re-election. A similar situation was not lost on the 2006 electorate, and the leadership of the do-nothing 109th Congress was also removed. (Of course Gerald Ford was never accused of being on “take,” and my comments were not meant to accuse him of that action. But the subject was brought up in “open” session during a Congressional Hearing, and it was never fully explored!)
Without any further dramatics, Gerald Ford was approved by an overwhelming vote by both the House (387-35) and the Senate (92-3). He was quickly sworn in to the office of the Vice-Presidency. From Agnew’s resignation on October 10th, until the Senate’s confirmation on December 6, 1973, the whole process was completed in less than two months. During his 10-month tenure as Vice-President he was virtually ignored. The press was much more concerned about the ongoing Watergate scandal, and Ford said little about what was happening. On August 1, 1974, Nixon’s Chief of Staff, Alexander Haig contacted Ford and told him of the “smoking gun” evidence that had been uncovered. It wasn’t too long after the Haig conversation that Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974. When Ford ascended to the Presidency, he made some small gestures that included a new attitude of leniency to draft resisters, and opened up the White House to people that were on Nixon’s “enemies list.”
From my perspective Ford’s administration quickly went downhill starting with his pardon of Richard Nixon on September 8, 1974. Personally I believe that the Congress made a terrible mistake by not conditioning Ford’s appointment with a promise that he would not pardon Nixon. There were many claims that the pardon was a quid pro quo in exchange for Nixon’s resignation that elevated Ford to the Presidency. Haig actually did offer a deal to Ford, and in Bob Woodward’s book, Shadow, he recounts that Haig had offered Ford three pardon options.
They were as follows:
1) Nixon could pardon himself and resign
2) Nixon could pardon his aides involve in Watergate and then resign
3) Nixon could agree to leave in return for an agreement that the new president would pardon him.
Haig also gave Ford various papers which included the president’s legal authority to pardon and the other was a draft copy of a pardon that only needed Ford’s signature and Nixon’s name on it to be legal. The NY Times, said at the time that the Nixon pardon was “a profoundly unwise, divisive, and unjust act” that in a stroke had destroyed the new president’s “creditability as a man of judgment, candor and competence.” At the time and in retrospect I agree completely with those thoughts and sentiments. I never really liked Gerald Ford, and from that day on I never expected much from him. In truth, I believe that he fulfilled my early analysis. I believe that he was a failure, and that the pardon was a predictor of the future. Ironically Ford was responsible for elevating George H.W. Bush to prominence with his selection to be his liaison to the People’s Republic of China and then his appointment as the Director of the CIA. Besides Bush, he eventually made Donald Rumsfeld his Secretary of defense and Dick Cheney his Chief of Staff. In retrospect, he elevated these two individuals to high office and we are all suffering with their lack of judgment. So it was Ford, who gave us this troika of failures that helped begat the worst disaster of them all, George W. Bush.
The public wasn’t too happy with the so-called new environment that President Ford created. In the midterm elections of 1974, and in the wake of Watergate the Democrats picked up 49 more seats in the House, which increased their huge majority to 291 members. In the Senate their majority reached 60 in the 100-seat chamber. This Congress almost had reached the two-thirds mark required to override any presidential veto. During the 94th Congress, Ford vetoed 50 bills and the Congress subsequently overrode the highest percentage of his vetoes since the administration of Franklin Pierce. On the domestic front, inflation was gnawing away at our economy and Ford embarked on a mindless public relations gimmick to combat its destructiveness. He announced a program called “whip inflation now.” Along with this “toothless” effort he urged people to put a “WIN” button in their lapel. When NYC faced bankruptcy, he refused Mayor Abe Beame’s request for help with a federal bailout. When Ford refused, the New York Daily News published their famous headline “Ford to the City: Drop Dead.”
Recently we have become aware of the possibility of a “bird flu” epidemic, but ironically there was a “swine flu” scare in 1976. An Army recruit fell ill and died and four fellow soldiers were also taken ill. Ford’s administration urged that every person in the United States be vaccinated and even though the process was incredibly flawed by delays and foul-ups. Some 25% of the population was inoculated. Ironically the vaccine was blamed for 25 deaths and more people died from the injections than from the swine influenza.
No matter what Ford did, whether it was getting off a plane, or his frequent malapropisms, failure seemed to follow him like his own personal black cloud. When the Khmer Rouge-led Cambodians seized the American merchant ship, the Mayaquez, Ford dispatched the Marines to rescue the ship and crew. Unfortunately the Marines landed on the Kho Tang Island, which was not the correct location, met stiff resistance and while this was going on, the crew of the Mayaquez was being already released. In this worthless, miss-directed and failed operation 41 US servicemen were killed, 23 airmen died in a related crash and 50 were wounded. Ironically when Carter’s attempt at rescuing the Iran hostages failed in the desert, he was excoriated as “bumbling incompetent.”
Of course Ford’s second great legacy, besides his pardon of Nixon, was his presidential debate with his Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter of Georgia. The 1976 election saw the return of the presidential debates that were first held in 1960. During the second debate Ford stated, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there will never be under a Ford Administration.” Ford also said that he did not “believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union.” I have been an observer of politics and history for 45+ years and I have never heard a stupider, and more ill timed statement by a president of the United States. Even Ronald Reagan’s theories on trees and pollution and the current incumbent whose intellectual reputation is well know, have never made a more egregious and foolish remark. Even with a so-called 34-point lead, Jimmy Carter did all he could to throw away the election victory that was in his hands. Eventually Carter won the election with only 50.1% of the vote, and 297 electoral votes to Ford’s 48% and 240 electoral votes. The election was close enough that if there had been a shift of less than 25,000 votes in Wisconsin and Ohio, states that bordered Ford’s Michigan home, he would have won the electoral vote and the election.
One of the Seven Sages, quoted from Diogenes Laerius (650-550 BCE) said, “Do not speak ill of the dead! So now that we are in the official mourning period for the late Gerald Ford, I should heed that admonition. But I am amazed that there is all this hubbub and faux sense of loss for Mr. Ford. It is not like he was a sitting president. He left office 30 years ago, and his record during his, thankfully short, tenure was mediocre at best. He did not spend the rest of his life contributing to the commonweal and doing good deeds. He certainly did not have the excuse of bad health. Historically I felt that he missed a great opportunity to be a unifying force in a period of political turmoil and rancor. He had an opportunity, in the wake of the Vietnam War that basically ended his administration, to be up front and honest with the American people. I feel and felt that he was actually more divisive than his disgraced predecessor and that he quickly forgot the legacy of what had transpired in the past thirteen years since the death of Jack Kennedy. But, be that as it may, he will be remembered for few achievements, he lost to a rank an unknown outsider, and he will always have the image of a clumsy failure who pardoned Richard Nixon, whose presidency caused incalculable harm to the nation state.