Jock of the Seventies: US President Gerald Ford, 1912-2006
As the rapacious and twisted Republican party shambles through the second Bush administration, its present leaders like John McCain are deformed by their support of the Iraq War. In the middle ages and Renaissance, disgraced politicians were often allowed to retire to monasteries, exchanging public life for one of contemplation and effective incarceration; one hopes that present Republicans will soon have the decency (or feel the heat of the American people's wrath) to do the same. This editorialist looks back to a simpler time, when in the words of New York writer Fran Lebowitz, Republicans were like everybody else "except always going on about capital gains taxes". One of those reasonably respectable Republicans was the thirty-eighth President of the United States, the late Gerald Ford.
Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Ford was chosen to become Vice President in 1973 upon Spiro Agnew's resignation. Soon after President Nixon's 1974 resignation and Ford's swearing-in, Ford pardoned Nixon, probably fulfilling a deal that got him the Presidency...though nobody had ever voted for a Presidential ticket with him on it.
US involvement in Vietnam—the war which was cancerous growth upon the progressive Lyndon Johnson administration—wound down in Nixon's second term, and was quietly ended in Ford’s, despite the grumbling of the Bo Gritz crowd. Affirmative action programs were enlarged and supported. Ford encouraged people to get flu shots, and a voluntary campaign to "Whip Inflation Now" passed out WIN buttons. The US spy ship Mayaguez was seized by Cambodia and quickly seized back.
About fifteen years ago I was surprised when Joe Lockard (a Bad Subject 1994-2005) showed me a subjective yet historically-infused poem he had written. In it, Gerald Ford had to answer for the sin of supporting the 9/11/73 overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende. Until that reminder of imperial policies in his administration, my own judgement of Ford's Presidency had been clouded by affectionate sentimentality.
Why feel affection for Jerry the Jock? The first vote I cast in a Presidential election was for Ford. In no small part this was because I distrusted the public discussion by Jimmy Carter of his southern Baptist faith. In those days, Republicans still kept their churchgoing to themselves, as was the norm, and almost every one of their sins could be found across the aisle among Democrats. True, they had dragged their heels on Civil Rights, but Nixon (despite a "southern strategy" to win votes away from segregationist George Wallace voters) had instituted Affirmative Action policies.
Very wisely, after the departure of the tense Nixon, Ford's photographer circulated several images of Gerald and Betty Ford hugging or kissing. There was a sense of comfort, that normal people were back in the White House (think: parents on "That Seventies Show"). Ford was like the fathers of the girls I went out with in high school. Ford was pro-choice, and his wife Betty said that if their daughter Susan was pregnant she would support her, whatever her decision. John Updike wrote a novel Memoirs of the Ford Administration, and perhaps, like the novelist, I conflate my own college amours of the time with national success.
Besides his lunches of cottage cheese with ketchup that kept his suit size an off-the-rack 42, Ford supposedly enjoyed three martinis before dinner—a fact tinged with sorrow once Betty Ford entered the clinic that soon bore her name. Ford tripped over his own feet and stumbled a couple times in public, on dias and tarmac, which became a staple of sketch comedy In his Ford impersonation on Saturday Night Live, Chevy Chase managed a befuddled look easily two dozen IQ points below Alfred E. Neuman—a look now scary when crossing Bush's face, for there it is combined with globally-threatening zealotry. A National Lampoon cover showed an open-mouthed Jerry hitting his own forehead with an ice cream cone, and some people swear it's true that he told a waiter who spilled food on him "Hey, don't worry. Nobody's human!".
Jimmy Carter won the 1976 election, and Ford's Republicanism—-secular and arguably further to the left of the Democratic Party today—was overturned by the radical Ronald Reagan and the forces (Christian evangeists, anti-tax zealots) he had assembled to win the Presidency in 1980. Yet Carter had begun his party's rightward shift, a process continued by Democratic Leadership Council Democrat Bill Clinton. Unlike Jimmy Carter's vaunted activism, Ford's retirement was largely uneventful, punctuated with lucrative speeches at trade shows and industry conferences. One writer called him a "high-priced greeter", as insignificant as boxer Joe Louis in his sunset years. Yet he told Detroit News columnist Deb Price this past October that gay couples “should be treated equally...that’s a proper goal”, and upon his death an interview has come out where he states the US should not have invaded Iraq.
One sunny September Saturday this fall, I drove by the crowds streaming into a home football game at the University of Michigan, where Ford had played over seventy years before. I passed herds and droves of students in blue and gold t-shirts, beer-carryng middle-aged alumni, aged professors gamely hiking from their homes to the big stadium. In their smiling faces I saw Jerry Ford's vision of America: steadfast, traditionally conformist, wholesome, fun-loving. Jerry, don't drop your beer!