Thursday, November 07, 2013

Presidential Character: Week Thirty-Eight, A Brief Summation of a Short-Term Guy

As far as accidental Presidencies go, you can't get much further than this guy's.

Due to the occasional pattern of a President dying in office, the issue of succession got to be a growing concern.  While the Vice President was accepted as promoting upward into the White House, it left a vacancy in the Veep spot and it left questions as to who would serve next (the Speaker, Senate leader, Cabinet Secretary).

With the United States becoming a superpower by the 1940s, and becoming a nuclear power by the 1960s in the midst of a Cold War with the Soviets, the need to establish an immediate chain of succession became a must.  The need to fill a VP vacancy to keep that chain unbroken became a must.  Congress got around to passing the 25th Amendment, one of the more dramatic elements of the Constitution we have (because with its advent we have political thrillers over succession crises all over the bookshelves and movie screens).

It codified that the Vice President becomes President in case of death, impeachment or detrimental impairment.  When Tyler started the practice, it was only accepted as tradition, not strictly legal.  The amendment fixed that.

It required Congress to fill any Vice Presidential vacancy by voting for/against someone nominated to the post by the President.

The amendment basically made sure government would function as best as possible in case of emergency.  And by 1974 there was an emergency... and it had nothing to do with the Cold War.

The second term of Richard Nixon had become engulfed with scandal over the Watergate break-ins.  As more elements of the cover-up were revealed, other crimes broke to national attention.  Including revelations that Nixon's then-Vice President Spiro Agnew was involved in some bribery when serving as Maryland governor.  Agnew was forced to resign in 1973, leaving the Veep spot open and becoming the first use of the 25th.

When Nixon asked Congress - as a matter of custom, the President asks around for nominees - about a replacement, both Republicans and Democrats said the same name: Gerald Ford.

Ford at the time was the House Minority Leader (head of the House Republicans), a long-standing member with a solid track record of getting bipartisan legislation passed.  The guy was almost universally liked, and above all had an unblemished personal history.  Considering the scandal-plagued Nixon administration, getting the cleanest pol in the government was the only move Nixon could take.

While getting Ford to come into his administration was a necessity, it did nothing to slow down the on-going cascade of failure that was the Watergate scandal.  By August 1974, Nixon was facing a genuine impeachment vote (not a partisan one that other impeached Presidents had faced) and rather than accept the ignominy of that, he resigned.

Putting into the White House the only (so far) man never to have been elected to the job as either President or Veep.  Gerald Ford, someone whose highest aspirations beforehand was to become the University of Michigan's best-known football fan.  How accidental can you get?

I kid about Ford's aspirations: he actually had hopes of becoming Speaker of the House considering his long career there and the hopes of the electoral cycle playing to his favor.  But I'm serious about Ford's love for his alma mater: he forced the bands at the White House to play U Michigan's fight song rather than Hail To the Chief.

Past that, there is a kind of sadness about writing Ford's brief tenure as President.  It came during one of the more trying decades - the 1970s - in our nation's history: shaking off the bad buzz of the 1960s; coping with the unsatisfying end of the Vietnam War with South Vietnam falling in '75; the economic turmoil of inflation during a recession as the bills of the War and LBJ's Great Society dreams came due; and of course Disco.  Thank GOD we had Star Wars in 1977 (pity it didn't happen during Ford's administration).

Because of the ongoing crises both economic and foreign, Ford entered into the Presidency with a lot on his plate.  It's a tribute to his Active-Positive nature that he even survived the first few months without going batsh-t insane.

Lemme refer to our Professor Barber on this:

Strands of the Ford style and world view were gaining clarity even as he assumed office.  He would exemplify "simplicity, directness"; had "been a person who's helped to arrange compromises and co-ordinate things"; was one who "may not push so easily"... He's going to try to make the policies he adopts work, but I don't think you're going to find him hanging on to something after it's proved that it's not useful... (p. 387, noted as stuff he wrote as Ford entered the office in 1974)

As mentioned earlier, Active-Positive types are Adaptive and compromising, willing to work with others (a trait Ford carried with him as a long-term Congressman and party leader), and flexible in a pragmatic fashion.  Barber notes elsewhere (p.389) about Ford's childhood as one of activity and meeting challenges, bringing to it a vitality and enjoyment of life.

The pity of Ford's administration was that even an Active would get overwhelmed by the cascade of troubles that afflicted the nation: a Positive President who accepted the challenges but like all other A-Ps never realized the consequences until too late.  One thing that was different this time around was the speed at which results became clearer: previous waves of damage left in the wake of earlier A-P Presidents wouldn't come along for years, but due to the enormity of problems facing the nation that decade the reactions to Ford decisions were responding within months or weeks.

Ford's economic policies to end inflation was to encourage less buying/purchasing of goods and services, which dropped inflation out of double-digits... but the result of that was a lot of industries cutting back on jobs and closing out entire factories, increasing unemployment.

Ford made strides in foreign policy dealings especially in improving relations with the Soviet Union and China, but had growing struggles with the Middle East erupting over the violent Israeli/Arab conflicts and with the Greece/Turkey dispute over Cyprus.

While habitually attuned to compromise, due to Watergate and voter dissatisfaction the 1974 midterms created a super-majority for Democrats in the House, which created a situation where Congress would demand spending budgets and side projects that Ford would be forced to veto to impose some compromise deal.  And because Congress could override those vetoes, Ford didn't have much of a bargaining position.

Throw into all of this the most damaging thing an Active-Positive President could do:  Ford issued a pardon to Nixon - who was facing criminal charges even after resigning in disgrace - covering all crimes related to Watergate investigations.  While Ford was doing so in an attempt to end "the long national nightmare", he failed to realize that Americans needed closure not in forgiveness but in courtroom resolution, forcing Nixon to face the consequences of the broken faith in honorable governance he created.

Ford accepted the challenge of running for the Presidency on his own terms in his own right by 1976, facing first a primary challenge within his own party (Ronald Reagan running as a Goldwater-esque Far Right candidate) and then facing the general election against a genuine Outsider candidate in Governor Jimmy Carter.  Despite the public perceptions, despite the economic woes of the day, Ford campaigned as solidly as he could, and narrowly lost in one of the closest elections that didn't involve disputed ballot boxes our nation had seen.  The general consensus was that his pardoning Nixon cost him the election.

Ford didn't leave much of a legacy, having served so short a tenure as President.  If history remembers him it will be for his more honest administration restoring faith in government after the disasters of the Johnson and Nixon years, and for the amicable post-Presidency he served as elder party leader of a moderate faction in a Republican Party shifting ever rightward.

Next up: HISTORY'S GREATEST MONST... Oh, for God's Sake, Simpsons Writers, LIGHTEN UP.

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