Sunday, December 31, 2006

Gerald R. Ford

Over half of our nation's population was either not born or living somewhere else when Gerald Ford took office. By popular demand, therefore, here's a review of the whole saga, with an explanation of how he became known as an "accidental president".
Ford was already a veteran of the House of Representatives when 1973 began. He was House Minority Leader, a sometimes high profile spot, but not one from which Ford was gaining much satisfaction. He didn't see a way that the GOP was going to become a majority party any time soon, and was beginning to think about retirement, perhaps after one or two more two-year terms.
President Richard Nixon had thought that his first year following the 1972 reelection romp would be a good one, though his thoughts were, as usual, centered on the Vietnam War and the subtle changes always playing out in the complicated relationship with the Soviet Union. The problem was - this little scandal thing that people were starting to call "Watergate" just refused to disappear. But the minutia bubbling up from Congress seldom concerned him. A large body like that simply could not think or plan with precision. It took a man with vision at the top to make any REAL changes. The trick was to MAKE the changes, THEN present it to Congress as both whole and done.
And there was another item that slowly worked its way onto the White House agenda. Federal investigators on the trail of possible corruption in Maryland had made a discovery. Maryland's former governor, Spiro "Ted" Agnew had benefited mightily from highway construction contracts awarded to certain construction companies. In short, the Governor was on the take for thousands of dollars, all paid in cash. The problem? Agnew's CURRENT job was as Nixon's vice president. Not only that, but evidence showed that Agnew's payments had CONTINUED, though at a lower level owing to Agnew's reduced ability to "fix" things, AFTER he had become vice president.
As fall came around, Agnew shared headlines with the annual baseball playoffs. He used the latin phrase meaning "no contest" in his plea to a judge, and was almost immediately the FORMER veep. Nixon was obliged to replace the disgraced Agnew, and he had to get ratification from the Democratic-majority Senate for whomever was nominated.
The Democratic bigshots of the day weren't anxious to see the President bleed, and they knew there had been no Nixon tie to Agnew's corruption. But Nixon had also endured a bad summer, one in which the Watergate revelations brought the nation nearer to considering the constitutional procedure of impeachment, unused in over 100 years. The identity, therefore, of the next vice president was more significant than it otherwise would have been.
Ford's name came up prominently as a candidate. He was well known to both Houses, but even better, he was trusted as someone who was honest and square-dealing, if not brilliant. Nixon had never used his vice president as a policy insider, in the same way that Eisenhower had shut him out of his inner circle, and so he probably did not care deeply about Ford one way or the other. The Democrats could name the next vice president, but that didn't mean that Nixon had to actually use him in any important way.
Ford's nomination process was rigorous but friendly in tone, unlike some of the rows that erupt these days, even over positions of marginal importance. Ford settled in to the vice president's usual role, seldom used or heard from, strictly second banana. Did he believe his new position would lead to the presidency? He could not have been ignorant of Nixon's troubles, but if he discussed the possibility, it was very privately.
The rest, as I've always wanted to write, is history. By early 1974 the nation had passed a certain tipping point, with every new allegation a bombshell and more and more evidence pointing to Nixon himself. His Senate supporters dwindled to around a dozen, with even GOP icon Barry Goldwater leaning towards removal from office. The indictments mounted in both their number and proximity to power. White House Chief of staff Alexander Haig, a recent general and shrewd operator, saw the direction events were taking and used subtle persuasion to get Nixon to finally choose resignation as preferable to impeachment, which was about to be passed by the House. Ford took the Oath of Office on August 9th, 1974 following Nixon's helicopter exit from the White House to his eventual exile home in southern California.
So now you, ah, younger folks know the story a little better than when it came up (if it did at all) in History class. The books on Watergate alone would fill many shelves. Ford comes through the whole thing as a rare man who actually earned the good things said about him at his funeral.
He won't get much ink in the final reports of the 20th century, but he deserves credit for helping preserve our constitutional system. Thank you, Mr. President.


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