YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Remembering President Ford

Tenure earns high marks from scholars

Ford reassured the nation and helped it move on after Watergate, they say.

December 28, 2006|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Gerald R. Ford left office a defeated incumbent vilified for his pardon of President Nixon. But in hindsight, his short, tough presidency has been viewed kindly by historians.

Long overlooked as a lightweight, Ford and his brand of moderate, consensus-oriented Republicanism -- out of vogue in today's GOP -- have earned high marks from presidential scholars in the three decades since he left office.

And the pardon is now seen by many as a wise decision that helped the nation move beyond Watergate.

"His early, sure touch on reassuring the nation in the aftermath of the Watergate meltdown ... was really a restorative, refreshing contribution that he made, giving people hope," said Bruce Buchanan, a presidential scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. "Then he took the step of pardoning Richard Nixon. Most people think in retrospect that it was the right thing to do, but at the time it smelled of politics as usual."

Ford decided to pardon Nixon just a month after he resigned in 1974. The former president had faced possible criminal prosecution for his role in covering up a 1972 break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate office complex.

The controversy cast a shadow over Ford's entire presidency.

He became the first president to testify under oath on Capitol Hill, trying to convince Congress that he had not made a secret deal with Nixon to exchange his resignation for a pardon.

In the end, historians say, the pardon helped the country recover from Watergate, but it cost Ford the presidency.

"Unlike many of us at the time, President Ford recognized that the nation had to move forward, and could not do so if there was a continuing effort to prosecute former President Nixon," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who opposed the pardon at the time, as he awarded Ford a 2001 Profile in Courage Award for leaders who make unpopular but correct decisions. "So President Ford made a courageous decision."

Melvin R. Laird, a former Republican congressman from Wisconsin, former secretary of Defense and a close friend of Ford's, said that was the former president's style. Through almost three decades of public service as a Michigan congressman, vice president and president, Laird said, Ford frequently put politics aside to do what he considered the right thing.

"He put his country first, even ahead of his church," Laird said. "He always felt that politics were very important, but not as important as doing the right thing for the country."

In a 1968 speech at Southern Methodist University, Ford explained his governing philosophy this way: "The higher ground of moderation with unselfish unity is not only common horse sense for a political party, it is also representative of the people and in keeping with the underlying genius of the American political system."

Ford was arguably the last of the "establishment" GOP presidents, drawing the curtain on that brand of Republicanism.

The next Republican president was the far more rigidly ideological Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980, who eschewed compromise and turned the party in a socially conservative direction.

"Republicanism has undergone a basic change," said Fred I. Greenstein, a retired presidential scholar from Princeton University. "The party was a coalition between Wall Street and Main Street -- conservative businessmen and posh, more enlightened politicians. Now Wall Street has been replaced by the religious right."

Ironically, Greenstein said, Ford was closer in style to the patriarch of the Bush political clan, Connecticut Sen. Prescott S. Bush, than either of the Bushes who became president: George H.W. Bush, who inherited Reagan's mantle and his social policies, and George W. Bush, who made religious conservatives the bedrock of his political base.

"The true shifting point is Ronald Reagan," said Buchanan. "Ford was more conservative than Eisenhower, than Nixon ... but not yet beginning to reflect the kind of strength of ideological commitment that would gradually harden behind Reagan."

Reagan challenged Ford in 1975 for the party's nomination. "Ford never really got over that," Laird said. "He didn't think he should have been challenged that way."

Ford defeated Reagan at the party convention in Kansas City, Mo., but it was a Pyrrhic victory, already containing the seeds of his defeat and the demise of his brand of Republicanism. He lost the election to Jimmy Carter, who was then ousted four years later by Reagan.

After his 2 1/2 years in the White House, Ford didn't spend much time trying to burnish his reputation and seal his legacy.

But when he was finally publicly commemorated for the Nixon pardon, his gratitude was evident.

"No doubt arguments over the Nixon pardon will continue for as long as historians relive those tumultuous days. But I would be less than candid -- indeed, less than human -- if I didn't tell you how profoundly grateful Betty and I are for this recognition," Ford said in 2001 as he accepted the Profile in Courage Award.

Los Angeles Times Articles