Ford is being remembered as the president who bound up the nation's wounds after the Watergate scandal and the forced resignation of Richard Nixon. He is also being remembered for his pardon of Nixon, which caused his job rating to plummet and seriously damaged his chances of winning a full term in his own right in 1976. But the Republican Party and its presidential nominee were going to be harmed in 1976 by Watergate one way or the other. A Nixon trial--a lively possibility absent the pardon--would have dominated the news in the runup to the election.
I want to focus here on another aspect of Ford's long career: his longstanding support of Cold War policy. In 1948--58 years ago!--the 35-year-old Ford challenged incumbent Rep. Bartel J. Jonkman in the Republican primary. Jonkman was an isolationist and an opponent of Harry Truman's Cold War policy. Ford, like Michigan Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, had been an isolationist before World War II but had switched and supported the internationalist policies of Truman. Vandenberg, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1947 and 1948, was the leading Republican providing bipartisan support for Truman; it was surely embarrassing to him that his hometown of Grand Rapids was represented in the House by an isolationist. Ford won that primary and had no difficulty winning the general election in the heavily Republican Fifth District.
In the House, Ford was a member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee and so was deeply involved in defense budgets for many years. In 1963 President Lyndon Johnson asked him to serve on the Warren Commission, investigating the assassination of John Kennedy; Ford was the last surviving member of the commission (although a key staffer, Arlen Specter, is still active and serving in the Senate). After the Republicans' big defeat in 1964, he was supported by several young Republicans--including future Defense Secretaries Melvin Laird and Donald Rumsfeld--for minority leader and defeated the incumbent, Charles Halleck. He supported both the Johnson and Nixon administrations' Vietnam policy. I can remember sitting in the House gallery in what I think must have been 1973 watching him urge continued funding of the South Vietnamese in impassioned tones and warning of the consequences of a Communist takeover. His side lost, and of course he was president in April 1975 when that last helicopter took off from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon and South Vietnam was abandoned to the Communists.
Almost alone among our presidents, Ford had no ambition at all to be president; in 1973 he was apparently on the verge of retiring from the House. Instead, after the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew, he became vice president. This was the first use of the 25th Amendment, the work of Democratic Sen. Birch Bayh, which provided that vacancies in the vice presidency could be filled by presidential nomination and majority approval of both houses of Congress. (Before the 25th Amendment, the vice presidency was vacant for many years: 1812-13, 1832-33, 1841-45, 1850-53, 1853-571865-69, 1881-85, 1899-1901, 1901-05, 1912-13, 1923-25, 1945-49, 1963-65.) Richard Nixon's first choice was John Connally, his treasury secretary during part of his first term and still nominally a Democrat; but Connally seemed unlikely to be confirmed and Ford, who seemed sure to win confirmation, was chosen. Then, when Nixon resigned in August 1974, Ford became president. Today commentators often talk of the Cold War as a time when Americans were united on foreign policy. But that's only really true of the first half of the Cold War, roughly from 1947 to 1967. For the second half, until the fall of the Berlin Wall, there were sharp differences over foreign policy. Ford, who provided steady support for our Cold War policy during the first half, continued to do so in the second half. He was criticized by some Republicans, including Ronald Reagan and Jesse Helms, for continuing Nixon's detente with the Soviet Union and for backing the Panama Canal Treaty. But the Helsinki Accords, which he was criticized for accepting, included a "Human Rights Basket" that helped to delegitimize Soviet rule in the 1980s. It turned out to be an important contribution to victory. And Ford's statement in his 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter--"I don't believe the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union"--which seemed like an unexplainable gaffe at the time, turned out to be prophetic in its own way.
I had one chance to have an extended conversation with President Ford, at a conference at Cantigny, the estate of Col. Robert McCormick, the longtime Chicago Tribune publisher, about 10 years ago. Ford noted that he had never been to Cantigny before, not surprisingly since McCormick was a strong isolationist and therefore a strong opponent of the stands that Ford took in the 1948 primary and afterward. Ford was not a smooth talker; like George W. Bush (and Edward Kennedy and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, to give two Democratic examples), he mangled syntax and sentence structure. But as I listened to him reflect on issues and events long in the past, it was apparent to me that, well into his 80s, he had a sure command of the facts and of the arguments on all sides of the issues. He gained a reputation as president for being clumsy and dumb. In fact, he was a graceful athlete (perhaps the best athlete of any president) and a smart man who worked hard and who was prepared for a challenge that he never sought.
By Michael Barone